On Monday, my Viva El Birdos colleague Joe Schwarz expressed support for the latest experiment (or “experiment”, as Joe was careful to stress) to draw attention in Jupiter during St. Louis Cardinals Spring Training—the decision to have Matt Adams, he of 329 career starts at first base and zero career starts at any other defensive position, practice (not even in a game, mind you) fielding some balls in left field.
Like Joe, I support the Adams experiment on a “sure, why not, what’s the worst that could happen?” level. While the Kolten Wong left field experiment failed miserably, as evidenced by his recent shoulder soreness which traces back to his time patrolling the position at Wrigley Field, the experiment never made sense in the first place, independent of the mostly unlucky result—Wong was easily the best defensive second baseman at the Cardinals’ disposal, and while he has an adequate bat for second base, his relative offensive ability is greatly diminished at a premium offensive position such as a corner outfield spot.
Matt Adams to left field, at least as a stopgap, makes sense on some level, though I understand the arguments for why it would fail. While Adams has been an average to slightly above average defensive first baseman in his career, he is not exactly a player known for his mobility. And while some players dabble in moving back up the defensive spectrum at positions which they played in the minor leagues, Matt Adams has only played first base in his professional baseball career.
But Adams doesn’t have a role on the 2017 Cardinals if all he can do in the field is play first base. Matt Carpenter, widely accepted as the most complete offensive threat on the Cardinals, has been penciled in to the first base position in 2017. And while Matt Adams has shown himself to be a solidly above-average hitter against right-handed pitching, it would take a larger sample size exposing Carpenter as a historically abysmal defensive first baseman to fathom giving Matt Adams starts more than sporadically while Matt Carpenter is healthy.
I could fathom a world in which Matt Adams is basically Cardinals-stage Lance Berkman defensively in a corner outfield spot—while Berkman was clearly a good enough hitter to justify his defensive shortcomings, he was also not so atrocious in the field that an above-average hitting Adams could not at least survive as a more versatile backup.
But which is more likely: that Adams is truly a revelation in a corner outfield spot, or that Matt Carpenter, who played 40 games at second base and 54 games at third base in 2016, is capable of playing a position other than first base?
The decision to commit Matt Carpenter to first base was born primarily of fit—the Cardinals already have two players to whom they felt comfortable assigning playing time at third base in Jedd Gyorko and Jhonny Peralta. While Adams’s 96 wRC+ is itself cause for concern, the primary benefit of Carpenter taking his place comes defensively. Carpenter’s defense has declined consistently throughout his career, Peralta has arguably lost a step but could benefit from moving down the defensive spectrum from shortstop to third base, and playing Gyorko at third almost certainly means that Wong is playing at second base.
But all of the talk about defensive upgrades run in direct contrast with Matt Adams even being considered in left field. If there were any chance of Adams being even as good of a fielder as Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty, not exactly Alex Gordon or Jason Heyward themselves, this experiment would have unfolded nearly a decade ago in the minor leagues.
Matt Adams is currently listed second on the Cardinals’ depth chart at first base, followed by Jose Martinez (who is listed as the backup in the corner outfield spots, where Adams is not listed). It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Adams would ever play in the outfield in which Carpenter wouldn’t be playing first base. Whether or not this is a good idea can be argued, but the motivation—improving the offense—is sound. If the defensive downgrade is smaller than the offensive upgrade, any team behaving rationally should do it.
But the Cardinals could avoid this risk altogether by keeping Matt Adams at first base exclusively. And they can do this, assuming that their other first base options are capable of playing other positions.
And as I previously referenced, Matt Carpenter played second and third base last year. He was a poor defensive second baseman and a mediocre defensive third baseman, granted, but do the Cardinals realistically expect Matt Adams, at less valuable defensive positions, to be better than capable of being hidden in a corner spot? Again, I endorse the Adams in the corners experiment during Spring Training, mostly under the principle of “Sure, why not?”, but shifting Matt Carpenter to third base, or even to a corner outfield spot (where he played sporadically from 2012 through 2014), for occasional games is the much safer option.
While Matt Carpenter’s career defensive stats at first base are below average, I’m willing to accept that he could be pretty good there given more appearances. And because of the personnel on the team, Carpenter as the regular first baseman does make sense. And there may be some psychological advantage to letting the nomadic infielder settle into one spot.
But the idea that a player who has spent his MLB career transitioning to new roles constantly cannot occasionally move off of the position in order to spare the world a potentially ugly Matt Adams experiment seems to dramatically underestimate how amenable Carpenter has been throughout his career.