If all goes according to plan, Matt Adams will be stuck in no man’s land this season. Matt Carpenter is set to play first base, ideally giving the Cardinals the most stability at the position since Albert Pujols left. To wit, Adams is the only Cardinal to eclipse 400 plate appearances in a season while playing first base (553 in 2014) since 2011. It hasn’t been an easy spot to fill, which has made a lot of us miss Pujols even more, his diminished stats in Anaheim be damned.
The problem herein is that Adams has never played a position at this level other than first base, and when Matt Carpenter isn’t hurt, he plays a lot - between 2013 and 2015, Carpenter played at least 154 games each season. Adams batting from the same side of the plate as Carpenter isn’t helping matters either.
Adams doesn’t need to be an every day player. There’s no definitive proof that he’s figured out how to hit lefties (.595 career OPS in 280 plate appearances) or that he ever will. But, as Craig Edwards noted on Tuesday, he provides a big bat off the bench from the left side and is capable of being a very dangerous hitter in spurts. Such a spurt happened last season when from April 29 to June 10 he hit .376/.423/.663, good for a 189 wRC+ in 111 plate appearances. Again, Adams is stuck in purgatory. He probably doesn’t need to see 500 plate appearances, but 100 or so doesn’t seem like enough either.
So assuming Adams is a Cardinal this season (in his most recent chat, Derrick Goold didn’t shut the door on the possibility of him still being traded but noted that he’s not being actively shopped around), how many plate appearances will he get and how will he get them?
Let’s get the easy ones out of the way first. The Cardinals play eight inter-league games on the road this season (New York, Baltimore, Kansas City). If the team is healthy and a lefty is on the mound, it would make sense that both Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko would be in the field (with Gyorko platooning with Wong). Tommy Pham might be the logical choice to DH, or even Randal Grichuk if Mike Matheny prefers Pham’s glove in the field, but for the sake of argument let’s say Adams gets the primary DH duties even if the platoon advantage isn’t on his side. He’s probably looking at around 32 plate appearances in these games.
Now, Adams is the obvious choice to back up Carpenter at first, as he should be, but as detailed above, Carpenter doesn’t take many days off. What we also know is that Carpenter had to be sidelined for a series in 2015 with exhaustion. So taking a more conservative approach with Carpenter in 2017, his projected game total if you average the projections from FanGraphs, Steamer, and ZiPS is 144. If Adams fills in the other 18 games (it likely won’t work out that way, but there’s nothing wrong with pretending it will on March 16), that’s another 72 plate appearances, give or take.
Lastly, most probably see Adams as a good pinch hitting option and they should. Since 2012, MLB pinch hitters have averaged a wRC+ just shy of 75 (27,294 plate appearances). There’s a reason why pinch hitters start the game on the bench. Even so, for pinch hitters during this span with at least 100 plate appearances, Adams has probably been the best. In this role, he’s hit .330/.352/.600 in 105 plate appearances. His league-leading 156 wRC+ as a pinch hitter is 20 points higher than John Jaso, the next player on the list.
And how many plate appearances can one accumulate from pinch hitting? Going back the last ten seasons, the league-leader in pinch-hit plate appearances averaged approximately 80 per season (Mark Sweeney of the Dodgers had the highest with 92 in 2008). Let’s say that’s Adams this season, and that he makes around 80 pinch hit plate appearances. Adding up the total from the inter-league games, filling in for Carpenter, and pinch hitting, Adams is looking at around 184 plate appearances in 2017, which would be his fewest since 2012, his first season in the majors.
Whether you think that’s enough probably depends on how much you value Adams. Personally, for the type of hitter he’s been during his career, I’d like him to somehow get about twice as many, but unless Carpenter gets hurt that seems unlikely. Even with Adams slimming down over the offseason, there’s been no talk of him playing anywhere else in the field - probably for good reason - and we know Carpenter is too good of a hitter to share too much time with Adams.
That’s a shame for Adams, but it’s good for the Cardinals at least from an insurance standpoint. The above-exercise assumes that Adams won’t be traded, that Carpenter will indeed be the primary first baseman, and also assumes a healthy roster, never a wise thing to do over 162 games and when Carpenter has already dropped out of the World Baseball Classic due to back stiffness. If Carpenter, arguably the Cardinals’ most indispensable player, spends time on the disabled list, having a hitter like Adams available will help.
Credit to FanGraphs Leaderboards for most of the stats in this post.