The arrival of baseball season is incredibly exciting for me, and as a Cardinals fan, having a realistic hope for October every season is not something I take for granted. The Cardinals have been the model of consistency over the past two decades, and they head into this season with realistic expectations for another playoff berth. The team is incredibly talented and I am really looking forward to seeing what this team can accomplish on the field.
Getting excited for baseball and the Cardinals does not mean we cannot take an objective look at the roster as it stands and point to a few concerns. These concerns are not likely to be a death knell for the team in 2016, but they are the things that I will be looking for, especially as the season begins when everyone is more prone to overexcitement over a few positive performances and doom over a few negative ones. I'm not going to say the health of the pitching or Yadier Molina. Those are major factors that might provide cause for concern, but the focus here will be on a few things to watch as the season begins.
1. Jedd Gyorko, starting shortstop
When the Cardinals acquired Gyorko, it was with the idea that he could play all of the infield positions, even getting occasional starts at shortstop for Jhonny Peralta. Gyorko has played the bulk of his career at second base. In nearly 2700 innings there, we have a pretty good idea of his talent level on defense from Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). By both metrics, Gyorko is a slightly below-average second baseman. He does not have stone hands as his error rate is low, but his range and ability to turn the double play at second base are both below average.
Gyorko has just 220 innings at shortstop in the majors so those metrics are worthless, but looking more closely at his time at second base, some problems emerge. He appears to be sure-handed, which is nice, but below-average range at second base is only going to be worse at shortstop, and the skills required to turn the double-play at second base--quick release and a strong arm--are magnified at the shortstop position. Gyorko might be a passable shortstop, but he is certainly below average, and that is rough mix with this pitching staff.
Over the last two seasons, 155 starters have thrown at least 150 MLB innings. In terms of ground ball percentage, Jaime Garcia is third at 60%, Carlos Martinez is 14th at 54%, and Mike Leake is 22nd at 53% over that time. Even Adam Wainwright is in the to half (60th at 47%). Matt Carpenter does not have great range at third, leaving the left side of the infield vulnerable. Positioning, especially without the assistance of Jose Oquendo, can only do so much to supplement a lack of range.
The team went out and got Ruben Tejada, who is not a great defender, but provided depth and major league experience at the position. Losing Tejada is not a major blow, even if he is out for a while, but running Gyorko out there everyday with a ground ball staff is a concern. We might not notice the one ball a week he does not get to, and that number might seem inconsequential, but it adds up, especially on a staff where injuries are a concern.
2. Will Tommy Pham get to play?
This one is more speculative and could be worrying over nothing, but Tommy Pham has earned to opportunity to get real playing time, and there are some signals he is getting pushed out a bit. Entering Spring Training, Randal Grichuk was named starting center fielder. This was not a surprise, but sometimes battles are manufactured for the sake of motivation, and Pham's presence did not even merit that.
Pham hit the cover off the ball in his time with St. Louis after doing the same in Memphis, including a great performance in September when he got an extended chance to start. However, one poor performance at the plate and Jon Jay' return meant Pham did not start in any more meaningful games as September came to a close and just one playoff game.
With Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty in the outfield, Pham seemed relegated to a fourth outfielder role that would hopefully get him at least a few starts a week. Holliday's transition to first base has changed that opportunity. Against left-handed starters, hopefully Pham gets the starts, but I'm not sure he also should not be starting against most righties as well.
Against righties, the prevailing presumption is that Matt Adams and Brandon Moss will see time given the platoon advantage and their power potential. At this point in the three players' careers, Pham might be the Cardinals best source of power. Between Triple-A and the majors last season, Pham's isolated slugging percentage was higher than Brandon Moss, and Pham's was actually higher in the majors than in the minors. It was higher than Matt Adams in his last full season in 2014. If Moss is not back to pre-2015 slugging, and if Adams is starting over Moss, that would seem to be a pretty good indication of that fact, starting Adams or Moss over Pham given their recent history does not make a lot of sense.
I understand the need pass around playing time and keep everybody fresh, but Pham's bat might be better than Moss and Adams right now. Add in plus defense, and the value to the Cardinals is not even a contest. Pham wins. Some of these concerns might have been heightened after Jeremy Hazelbaker's surprise Spring Training and inclusion on the 40-man roster. While I don't like to put stock in Spring Training stats, if you are the type of person who does, it should be noted that Pham outhit Hazelbaker in Spring Training against better competition. While Hazelbaker's ability to play center field is a positive, he has only played 20 minor league games in center field over the past four seasons.
These concerns might prove to be overblown. Gyorko might not get overexposed at shortstop. Pham might get plenty of playing time or as has been his luck thus far, get injured. However, when I look at the makeup of the team, these are the things I will be watching for in the coming weeks, especially when it comes to playing time.