Back in April, I wondered if Mike Matheny could manage this St. Louis Cardinals roster. The talent and positional flexibility of players like Brandon Moss and Jedd Gyorko suggested this was not a team well-suited to Matheny's preference to roll the same lineup out day-after-day.
While there have still been incidents of guys either playing every day or being buried completely, as with the most recent episode of The Kolten Wong situation, the lineup has been more flexible than in any previous year of The Matheny Administration. Coming into this season, Matheny on average had used just 83 different lineups per season. As I write this on Sept. 6, he's already used 105.
Gyorko has played all four (non-catcher) infield positions, Matt Carpenter and Greg Garcia have played three each. Brandon Moss and Kolten Wong have each played two outfield positions in addition to their role on the infield. Some of this was the product of injuries, but much of it was done in an effort to keep as many of the Cardinals sudden surplus of power bats in the lineup as possible.
The trade-off, at times, has been defense. Bravo to these guys for showing they "can" play all of these positions, but that doesn't always mean that they "should" play them.
While Matheny should continue to take advantage of some of this flexibility, particularly for the purpose of keeping guys fresh down the stretch, I would argue that a pretty clear optimal infield alignment has emerged - one that gets the best bats in the lineup AND puts a plus defender (if only marginally) at each position.
1B: Matt Carpenter
Like Young Albert Pujols, Carpenter has shown a tremendous amount of positional flexibility for a guy who also happens to be the best hitter on the team. In his career, he has played both corner outfield spots, third, second and first base. By UZR, for his career, he has been below average at every one.
This season, if we go by UZR/150, which puts a player's UZR on a 150 game scale, Carpenter would be 7.5 runs below average at third, and a whopping 20.7 below at second. But at first base, Carpenter would be 0.8 runs above average. (Small sample size caveat here, and throughout.) In fact, if you eliminate 2012, when he played 281 rough innings at first, Carpenter has been a league-average-ish and maybe slightly plus defender at first.
Brandon Moss should be in the lineup (most) every day. But Brandon Moss is also a better outfielder than first baseman for his career, and Matt Holliday is no longer in LF. Moss should see most of his time in left, with Carpenter as the primary first baseman.
2B: Kolten Wong
It's been a strange trip for Wong this season: The dearth of power to start the season, the eventual demotion to the minors, recall as an outfielder, and then long-term benching.
But since Wong was recalled in July, and especially in the last week when he's actually been put in the lineup again, Kolten Wong is hitting like Good Kolten Wong again. He is a solidly above average defender by UZR, with his excellent range and ability to turn a double-play only being kept from elite UZR status by the frequency with which he makes errors.
Coming into the season, it was expected that Wong would be the primary starter at 2B, possibly platooning with Gyorko. If you had to choose between them at this point, you would have to go with Gyorko, but luckily you don't, because...
3B: Jedd Gyorko
The Great Gyorko Power Surge of 2016 continues, unabated. He has clearly graduated from super-utility guy to "guy you want in the lineup every day." So the only question is, where do you play him?
Like all other things Gyorko, his defense has been better across the board this season (again, SSS caveat). He's been a significantly plus defender at 2B and 3B, and also very good at 1B in much fewer innings. The one spot where he has not been at-all-good, nor has he been previously in his career, is shortstop.
So do you play Gyorko at second or third? The question really becomes, do you want Kolten Wong or Johnny Peralta in the lineup? You want Wong in the lineup. Gyorko should make the majority of his appearances going forward at third.
SS: Greg Garcia / Aledmys Diaz
Obviously, if and when Diaz returns from injury, penciling him in at shortstop becomes the easiest decision on this infield. That's assuming of course that when he returns, he returns healthy. (Thumb injuries don't ever linger, do they?)
Until Diaz can return, and perhaps to some extent after if Diaz is not 100%, Greg Garcia is your man. To some extent, that's by default. Jhonny Peralta simply does not play short anymore, and while I'm not exactly sure why, I have to assume he is physically unable. That leaves just Garcia or Gyorko, and Garcia is plainly the better defender at short.
Once Diaz is back, Garcia should still see ample playing time as the 2B/SS/3B super-sub. His offensive breakout this season has been impressive, and as other's have pointed-out, impressively Matt-Carpenterian. That said, I still worry that this season is too big of an outlier from his track record, and while he pulled out of the nose-dive he was in for much of the 2nd half, I still expect a True Talent Greg Garcia to be a bit less that what we've seen this year.
So, that leaves us with...
Big Mayo still has more starts at 1B this year, 60, than any other Cardinal. (Moss is 2nd with 39, Carpenter with 19). He's recently returned from injury, and while his bat has never quite developed to the degree many of us hoped, he is still an above average hitter... but that's about it. He's been worth just 0.4 WAR on the season. Compare that even to Wong, who has had a similarly disappointing season, yet has been worth 1.0 WAR in a comparable number of PAs.
Adams should do a lot of pinch-hitting, and give Carpenter days off, but I don't see a regular spot for him in this lineup.
Let's just rip the band-aid off: Jhonny Peralta has been terrible this year. He's on-pace for the worst offensive season of his career, seemingly cannot play SS anymore, by UZR has been very poor at both 3B and SS, and continues to be an absolute liability on the bases. That said, I'm sure he's a very nice person.
It's a little silly to project a month away into an uncertain postseason already, but in a world where Diaz returns healthy, does this current iteration of Jhonny Peralta even make your playoff roster?
Again, my hope would be that Matheny continues to use some flexibility with his lineups to keep all of these guys fresh. But with Moss-Grichuk-Piscotty looking like your starting outfield, and Yadi ever the rock behind home plate, perhaps now more than ever, this team looks to me to be lining up with a clear, optimal lineup.