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The Cardinals As a Potential Platoon Club

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The Cardinals, over the past few seasons, have been hesitant to deploy platoons as heavily as some other teams. Might that change this year?

Noted thing-doer, Tommy Pham.
Noted thing-doer, Tommy Pham.
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last several years, there has been a gradual degradation in the Cardinal offense. Now, saying there has been a gradual degradation probably feels about right; after all, we've watched this club go from the Albert Pujols/Lance Berkman/Matt Holliday bash-o-matic of 2011 to the Carlos Beltran/Matt Holliday/Yadier Molina (at his very best)/Allen Craig wide-based attack of 2013 to the Matt Carpenter/Jhonny Peralta/Jason Heyward occasional anemia of 2015. In practice, though, it hasn't been a gradual decline; it's been a steep drop down a sheer face of power hitting.

That 2013 club was particularly interesting; I'm sure we all remember the absolutely absurd average with runners in scoring position thing that iteration of the Redbirds was justifiably famous for, as well as the consternation amongst various corners of baseball cognoscenti as debates were held over what kind of deviltry it was. That the debates seemed oddly full of animus, and somehow concerned with the very soul of the game, served as a revealing window into both the latter-day sabrmetric back and forth that somehow still rages a decade and a half after Billy Beane's brand of nerd ruined the game, and also the particular brand of venom the Cardinals seem to elicit from many.

Still, that club's ridiculous (and admittedly unreproducible), RISP magic has acted to obscure the fact it was a remarkably good club offensively even without the weirdness. To wit, that club featured five, count 'em, five regulars who posted an OPS+ of 127 or better. Add in David Freese and Jon Jay giving the club almost exactly average production (OPS+ or 99 and 100, respectively), and you had a club with Pete Kozma the only real liability in the lineup, and the majority putting up well-above average numbers. Sure, those numbers included the crazy RISP production, skewing them upward a bit, but overall that's a small part of the puzzle. It was an outstanding offense, period.

Compare that to last season's attack, when the Cardinals fielded just four starters (though starters is misleading in this case; Peter Bourjos is technically the 'starting' center fielder for the 2015 Cardinals), with better than league average OPS figures. Only Matts Holliday and Carpenter broke 120 OPS+, and we know that the Matt Holliday Experience of 2015 was a weird one that didn't actually offer the kind of production we were all hoping for. Of course, the fact the Cardinals lost one of their four above-average hitters this offseason in Jason Heyward is really just further fuel for the fire.

Considering all that, but in particular the rather shocking power outage we've seen from this club, going from that 2011 edition to just four seasons later, when four runs felt occasionally unattainable in just nine innings. Only a similarly devil-magicky sort of fluke stat, this time pitching-side RISP luck, pushed the Rebirds to the first 100-win season in MLB in four years. And, just like the hitting of 2013, while it was a remarkable pitching staff in general last year, it's probably a bad idea to count on freakish things happening again.

Luckily, there are some reasons to hope the offense could be better in 2016. The starters in 2015 were, on the whole, not very good with the bat in their collective hands, but in the non-starter portion of the B-Ref roster are three players who posted OPS+ numbers of 133, 129, and 122. Their names are Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and Tommy Pham, respectively, and all three should have expanded roles to play on this year's club. Brandon Moss and his above-average production should help, too, not to mention (hopefully), better health and further development on some other fronts.

There's also, interestingly, another reason to perhaps be optimistic about the Cards' offensive situation this season, and it has to do with the overall construction of the roster this season. Specifically, the fact that this Cardinal offensive array has the potential to be one of the more platoon-rich rosters we've seen in a very, very long time.

Now, of course, it's worth specifying that I don't mean we should see straight platoons at every position, necessarily, even in cases where it's possible to platoon a given position there are times a certain should be starting there every day simply because he happens to be awesome. Or, in other words, because he happens to be Matt Carpenter, who is essentially exempt from these considerations.

However, excepting Carpenter's too-good-to-sit excellence, looking at the shape of this roster, it's possible to make the case this team could see more flexible playing time assignments than we've become used to in the Mike Matheny era, and by quite a lot.

If we accept the premise that the Cardinals will, in fact, carry seven relievers this season, we are left with thirteen total positional player spots. Personally, I can't see the club carrying anything less than seven, particularly if Jordan Walden is healthy enough to contribute. Partially because this coaching staff seems near-addicted to the safety net of a large bullpen (even is said large bullpen is not deployed in a way to take advantage of its largeness nearly so often as one might like), but also partially because this 'pen is likely to be slightly less flexible than many, due to a lack of player options in many cases, and too-significant roles in others.

So with twelve pitchers making the team, we have thirteen spots for hitters. It's not a fait accompli who will make the club just yet, of course, but we can make some pretty good guesses. Especially when we consider the loss of Jhonny Peralta to begin the season, and the crisitunity it creates.

As I see it, the roster probably shakes out something like this:

Locks

  • Yadi (R)
  • Brayan Pena (B)
They're catchers. No question here.
  • Matt Holliday (R)
  • Stephen Piscotty (R)
  • Randal Grichuk (R)
  • Tommy Pham (R)
  • Brandon Moss (L)
Not a ton of doubt here, either, I don't believe. Barring injury of some sort, this looks like the alignment of outfield roster spots to me.
  • Matt Carpenter (L)
  • Kolten Wong (L)
  • Brandon Moss (L)
  • Matt Adams (L)
  • Jedd Gyorko (R)
These seem like locks for the roster to me. Adams may not end the year in a Cardinal uni, I feel like, but he's almost certain to begin the year in one. Two of these guys are locks to start, and Gyorko has both a contract and the fact the Cardinals traded for him this offseason to recommend him. And now here's where it gets interesting.
  • Aledmys Diaz (R)
  • Greg Garcia (L)

Neither of these players feel like sure things to make the roster. Then again, one much ask the question: if not them, then who? As it stands now, with Peralta being out, Diaz seems the most likely candidate to make the roster in his place. Gyorko and Garcia are a great complement to one another, but of those two, I know I don't want to see Gyorko playing much short, and I have doubts about Garcia, though I'm keeping an open mind. And honestly, beyond Diaz, there isn't another middle infield/utility option I feel is absolutely kicking down the door demanding playing time. Jacob Wilson is intriguing, but he offers less flexibility and not a huge offensive upgrade.

So if we go with this arrangement, we have six left-handed hitters and eight right-handed hitters. Which, yes, adds up to fourteen, but that's because Brayan Pena counts as both.

Speaking of counting as both, Brandon Moss is really one of the more intriguing opportunities on this roster. Because he's capable of playing both first base and the two outfield corners, he potentially allows the Cardinals to carry only four full-time outfielders. That bit of flexibility is also intriguing in that it could allow the club to completely stack their lineup one way or the other, if they wanted to try and push the platoon advantage in a way they haven't in recent years.

For instance, if the Cardinals were facing a left-handed pitcher on a given day, and wanted to try and take advantage, they could stack their lineup like so:

  1. Matt Carpenter, L -- 5
  2. Tommy Pham, R -- 8
  3. Matt Holliday, R -- 3
  4. Stephen Piscotty, R -- 9
  5. Yadier Molina, R -- 2
  6. Randal Grichuk, R -- 7
  7. Jedd Gyorko, R -- 4
  8. Aledmys Diaz, R -- 6
  9. pitcher's spot

Here we see one of the other fairly important points of this scenario, which is the fact the Cardinals must be willing to play Matt Holliday at first base. Of course, it's still far from a settled matter they will be comfortable doing so, but the fact they've apparently told Stephen Piscotty to not worry about first anymore is a potentially very interesting, and possibly very telling, development. If they are, in fact, willing to utilise Holliday as a first baseman at least occasionally, this club could stack seven right-handed hitters -- and potentially eight, depending on who the starter is that day -- against just one lefty in the lineup. And that one lefty is Matt Carpenter, whom we have already established is really outside these sorts of considerations. You can swap Grichuk and Pham in terms of position, also, if you like; I tend to think Pham is a bit better in center, but both appear more than competent.

On the other hand, with a righthander on the mound, the Cardinals could, potentially, run their lineup so:

  1. Matt Carpenter, L -- 5
  2. Kolten Wong, L -- 4
  3. Matt Holliday, R -- 7
  4. Brandon Moss, L -- 9
  5. Matt Adams, L -- 3
  6. Grichuk/Pham, R -- 8
  7. Brayan Pena, L -- 2
  8. Greg Garcia, L -- 6
  9. pitcher's spot

Now, I'm much, much less confident the Cardinals would consider going with this lineup to kill righties, and in fact, I'm not even particularly certain they should. After all, while I would like to see Yadi get more days off this year, certainly, he is not going to be the short side of a platoon, even if I do think we should see his days off come with a righthander on the opposing starting line. And I can't see Jhonny Peralta sitting very often once he's back and healthy, regardless of the opposing pitcher. I also expect Stephen Piscotty to see the most playing time of any outfielder, so long as he's healthy, and Brandon Moss to play first base most of the time. In other words, this particular piece of the platoon puzzle seems like a long shot.

However, I do think there is potential for an important edge to be gained if the Cardinals were, in fact, willing to place an emphasis on matchups this year in a way they haven't in the Mike Matheny era. For instance, here are the wRC+ numbers against LHP for the lefty-mashing lineup (just using the 2015 numbers, for reference):

  1. Marp -- 107
  2. Pham -- 130
  3. Holliday -- 121
  4. Piscotty -- 141
  5. Yadi -- 61
  6. Grichuk -- 122
  7. Gyorko -- 126
  8. Diaz -- ??? (Jhonny Peralta -- 100, vs 107 against RHP, so no real split)

Two things: one, unfortunately, getting minor league split data is much tougher since minorleaguecentral stopped updating, so I'll just leave Diaz blank, and two, Yadier Molina was atrocious at hitting lefthanders last year. That's an anomaly, though, as his career mark is 105 wRC+ against portsiders. So I think he should be okay.

Meanwhile, the righty-combating version of the lineup lines up like this:

  1. Marp -- 154(!)
  2. Wong -- 114 (just 52 against lefties, ugh)
  3. Holliday -- 125
  4. Moss -- 93 (but 114 for his career)
  5. Adams -- 85 (compared to 40 vs LHP, and it's 128 for his career)
  6. Grichuk/Pham -- 145/123
  7. Pena -- 92
  8. Garcia -- 90

Admittedly, the super-lefty-heavy lineup is not nearly as dramatic in terms of its potential success as the super-righty-heavy version. Still, there seems to be some potential here, though I freely admit the best way to play against right-handed pitching would likely be to just put in the best hitters period, regardless.

At the very least, I find this to be a very intriguing development, that the way the Cardinals have assembled this roster would seem to point to an ability to play matchups much, much more heavily than they have in recent seasons. Particularly with a lefty on the mound. Looking at those numbers, I would tend to think if the club is willing to go to such an extreme lineup as that one above they should absolutely demolish left-handed pitching this season, in a way I don't know if I can ever remember.

Of course, the final piece of this puzzle is one I've sort of been dancing around the whole time: the willingness of the manager to do something like this. Or, perhaps, the imagination of the manager allowing him to want to try something like this might be a better way to think of it. Mike Matheny seems almost uniquely unsuited for a roster built for maximum flexibility; in much the same way it's only half-jokingly put forth that Mozeliak was attempting to 'Matheny-proof' the bullpen last year and this offseason, I think it's mostly fair to question whether Mike Matheny is the correct man to manage a roster full of movable parts. Tony La Russa, for all the things I couldn't stand about his handling of a roster, of young players, of the media, and plenty of other things, most definitely possessed the creativity, the imagination, to make something like this work.

I have my doubts that Mike Matheny possesses that same level of imagination.

However, considering the offensive slide we've seen from the Cardinals the past few seasons, and the constant questions that seem to be floating around the ether regarding where, exactly, the power output for this team is going to come from, there is perhaps an easy solution right here in house, with a way to potentially dominate one whole side of the pitching spectrum, and the mix and match more liberally when facing right-handers. I find the question of whether this particular arrangement of roster pieces was deliberate, or whether it is simply a happy accident the Cardinals have arrived at by random chance of acquisition to be a really fascinating one.

Game today at noon central. Pac-Man vs my 2014 free agent pitching crush, Max Scherzer. Who broke my heart, right up until this year's model broke it, stomped on it, and had his dog relieve itself on it.