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How predictive are Opening Day lineups of future playing time?

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What do Cardinals lineups on the first day of the season say about their lineups going forward into the season?

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, Mike Matheny will submit his most analyzed and most scrutinized lineup card of the 2016 season. Everything is amplified for the first game of the season; even when, say, Daniel Descalso starts three games at first base, like he did in 2014, these sorts of lineup quirks can be easily attributed to the rigmarole of a long season. But on Opening Day, a message is expected to be sent about the direction of that year's St. Louis Cardinals.

Take last year's opening day lineup. The Cardinals faced tough Chicago Cubs lefty Jon Lester, but this did not stop the Cardinals from fielding a lineup with five lefties. Matt Carpenter and Jason Heyward were (wisely) mainstays of the lineup regardless of opposing pitcher handedness; however, Kolten Wong, Jon Jay, and especially Matt Adams were logical platoon candidates.

Here are the Opening Day lineups of the Mike Matheny era side-by-side with the most commonly used personnel on the season.

2015 Opening Day 2015 Primary 2014 Opening Day 2014 Primary 2013 Opening Day 2013 Primary 2012 Opening Day 2012 Primary
C Yadier Molina Molina Yadier Molina Molina Yadier Molina Molina Yadier Molina Molina
1B Matt Adams Mark Reynolds Matt Adams Adams Allen Craig Craig Lance Berkman Allen Craig
2B Kolten Wong Wong Kolten Wong Wong Daniel Descalso Matt Carpenter Daniel Descalso Descalso
SS Jhonny Peralta Peralta Jhonny Peralta Peralta Pete Kozma Kozma Rafael Furcal Furcal
3B Matt Carpenter Carpenter Matt Carpenter Carpenter Matt Carpenter David Freese David Freese Freese
LF Matt Holliday Holliday Matt Holliday Holliday Matt Holliday Holliday Matt Holliday Holliday
CF Jon Jay Peter Bourjos Peter Bourjos Jon Jay Jon Jay Jay Jon Jay Jay
RF Jason Heyward Heyward Allen Craig Craig Carlos Beltran Beltran Carlos Beltran Beltran

In 2015, two players from the Opening Day lineup were not among the most commonly used players at that position throughout the season, both as a result of injuries (followed by largely being supplanted for the starting job after enduring their own on-field struggles). With Matt Adams, it went so far as him being left off the NLDS roster in favor of mid-season acquisition Brandon Moss.

Center field probably shocks some people, as the relative lack of playing time Peter Bourjos received in 2015 was the source of much consternation among VEB faithful. But because of Jon Jay's injury, Tommy Pham's injury, and a combination of Randal Grichuk being injured and needing to play other outfield positions, Bourjos was the team's most commonly utilized center fielder in 2015.

In 2014, only center field did not remain patrolled predominantly by the Opening Day starter, as the slick-fielding Bourjos's relative lack of offensive production fell out of favor with Mike Matheny and he was replaced by Jay, who had been the primary starter the previous two seasons. 2014 Allen Craig probably deserves an asterisk, though, as he was dealt in July to the Boston Red Sox in order to acquire John Lackey and to create playing time for Oscar Taveras.

2013 is a bit misleading, as David Freese began the season on the Disabled List, and the Matt Carpenter-to-second experiment had been much discussed throughout Spring Training. With a healthy Freese, it is probable that the starting lineup reflects the most common personnel of that year's 97-win team.

In 2012, the lone difference between the two lineups is that Lance Berkman, hobbled by injuries throughout the season, was replaced (admirably) as the everyday first baseman by Allen Craig. With the exception of Furcal, whose injury led to The Great Pete Kozma Aberration Of Fall 2012, this lineup was largely the one which carried the 2012 club within a game of the World Series.

But in the interest of large(r) sample sizes, here's how the last four years of the Tony LaRussa era shook out with regards to Opening Day predictiveness.

2011 Opening Day 2011 Primary 2010 Opening Day 2010 Primary 2009 Opening Day 2009 Primary 2008 Opening Day 2008 Primary
C Yadier Molina Molina Yadier Molina Molina Yadier Molina Molina Yadier Molina Molina
1B Albert Pujols Pujols Albert Pujols Pujols Albert Pujols Pujols Albert Pujols Pujols
2B Skip Schumaker Schumaker Skip Schumaker Schumaker Brendan Ryan Skip Schumaker Adam Kennedy Kennedy
SS Ryan Theriot Theriot Brendan Ryan Ryan Khalil Greene Brendan Ryan Cesar Izturis Izturis
3B David Freese Freese David Freese Freese Brian Barden Mark DeRosa Troy Glaus Glaus
LF Matt Holliday Holliday Matt Holliday Holliday Chris Duncan Matt Holliday Chris Duncan Skip Schumaker
CF Colby Rasmus Rasmus Colby Rasmus Rasmus Rick Ankiel Colby Rasmus Rick Ankiel Ankiel
RF Lance Berkman Berkman Ryan Ludwick Ludwick Ryan Ludwick Ludwick Skip Schumaker Ryan Ludwick

First, can we reminisce about how good Albert Pujols was in his MVP seasons of 2008 and 2009? A team that started Brian Barden at third base on Opening Day, and was so lacking at the position that Mark DeRosa led the team in appearances on the season while not even becoming a Cardinal until June 27, won 91 games.

Okay, has everyone taken a moment out of their day for quiet and solemn reflection about Albert Pujols? Good.

In 2011, the most common lineup was the Opening Day lineup, though anybody who remembers that year's postseason run know that this is deceptive: Ryan Theriot was replaced by Rafael Furcal at the deadline, and Colby Rasmus was traded to the Blue Jays in a three-team deal that garnered Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, and the ghost of Corey Patterson. 2010 also had deceptive symmetry, as Ryan Ludwick was traded for Jake Westbrook, in the first of two consecutive late July trades which opened a spot in the everyday lineup for Jon Jay.

The 2009 team changed quite a bit from Day One. Khalil Greene was expected to be the answer at shortstop, but after dealing with social anxiety disorder, he was replaced in the lineup by Opening Day second baseman Brendan Ryan, who himself was replaced by former outfielder Skip Schumaker. Rasmus joined the everyday lineup in his rookie season and deadline acquisition Matt Holliday became a permanent fixture in the middle of the order as soon as he arrived. 2008 was a bit less chaotic of a change from Day One throughout the season: Only the unexpected career renaissance of Ryan Ludwick, which in turn pushed Skip Schumaker from right to left field, led to a difference between the two lineups.

So, will this year's Cardinals team maintain Sunday's lineup throughout the season?

As I don't know this year's Opening Day lineup, I couldn't make a prediction even if I wanted to make one. But the depth of this year's Cardinals certain leaves open the possibility that the lineup the Cardinals field on Sunday will not necessarily be the lineup we grow accustomed to watching throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall of 2016.

One obvious player who could jump into the most common Cardinals lineup for 2016 who will not start on Opening Day is Jhonny Peralta. If he returns in early June, as was initially speculated, and plays with the frequency he played in his first two seasons in St. Louis, he should sail to the team lead in games played at shortstop.

While Matt Adams started against a tough lefty last season, it certainly appears very realistic that Matt Holliday could start at first base on Sunday. But the Holliday-to-first experiment seems largely built around keeping Matt Adams or Brandon Moss off the field against lefties, not to keep them off the field altogether. Holliday will likely still log significant innings in his familiar position of left field. By extension, the Opening Day left fielder (Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, or whomever) would play elsewhere most of the time.

The mix-and-match outfield and uncertainty about how the Cardinals will handle first base, in addition to uncertainty at shortstop, leads to only a few positions that seem like locks to be handled by the same man on April 3 onward.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It might be a little of each. It's a good thing in the sense that the Cardinals are a deep team which is less likely to completely crater in 2016, but it's a bad thing in the sense that the Cardinals, on the surface, do not appear to be loaded with Albert Pujols type players of yesteryear. Though with young players who have performed well in relatively small MLB samples such as the aforementioned Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, it is also entirely possible that the next generation of Cardinals lineup mainstays are just around the corner.