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No DH Challenges the Cardinals “Platoon Plan”

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MLB told the NL clubs not to assume a DH in 2021. That’s good news for NL purists but bad news for the Cardinals offseason plans.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

This week’s virtual Winter Meetings have brought some needed clarity to National League teams. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that MLB has instructed National League teams to operate on the assumption that there will be no DH in 2021.

That’s good news for many of you! As a good National League baseball disciple, we should all believe the DH is homoousios with Satan. (Bet that word is a first for VEB!) That said, I can’t recall a time in 2020 when I thought to myself, “boy wouldn’t it be great if Kwang-Hyun Kim was batting right now!”

There’s a downside to the lack of DH. It changes the player pool that the club can draw from in free agency and trade. It also challenges the viability of what I think is the Cardinals’ preferred plan for the offseason: a player acquisition strategy I am christening the “platoon plan”.

What is the “Platoon Plan”?

Reports on the Cardinals’ offseason strategy have been sketchy. The team still claims it doesn’t have a firm operating budget and won’t until they gain clarity on the viability of ticket sales in 2021. The club’s attention is also focused heavily on Molina and Wainwright.

Citing this lack of clarity, local reporters have pointed fans away from the upper crust of the free agent and trade pools and toward the deep middle group of relatively productive but somewhat flawed players.

The front office seems to be targeting players who provide power, even if that power comes with a heavy platoon split.

The Cardinals entered last season hoping to “see what they had” in players like Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Dylan Carlson, and Tommy Edman. This year, they’re not satisfied with what they saw from several of those and desire to inject competition and consistency into their outfield and infield, at as low a cost as possible, while also retaining space for their young talent to continue to develop.

There is a surprisingly large number of available players who could fit outfield platoon and infield utility roles. The increased supply provided by the non-tender deadline will cut into demand and the budget-conscious Cardinals could add some production for blue-light-special prices.

However, when considering plate appearances, team depth, and playing-time tendencies, this “platoon plan” depends heavily on the presence of the DH. Without it, the Cardinals are going to have to stretch fewer available plate appearances among more players; a sales pitch that won’t necessarily go over well with many of the names in the mix.

Let’s consider available playing time for both the infield and outfield both with and without the DH.

Outfield Platoon – With and Without the DH

At least a dozen times this week I’ve heard respected baseball writers and bloggers reference the possibility that the Cardinals could target a left-handed power-hitting outfielder to platoon with Tyler O’Neill. Joc Pederson, Kyle Schwarber, and David Dahl are among the names frequently referenced.

This sounds great in theory.

Unfortunately, it’s built on a false premise: that Tyler O’Neill has a starting spot to share with a platoon outfielder.

He doesn’t. Right now, the NL’s reigning left-field Gold Glover is likely fourth in line for outfield playing time behind (in order) Dylan Carlson, Dexter Fowler, and Harrison Bader.

The switch-hitting Carlson should be locked into a starting spot, likely in a corner. The Cardinals are still paying Dexter Fowler starter money and have shown no indication they desire to move him to a bench role. As a switch-hitter whose production comes primarily from the left side, he’s not a candidate for platoon regardless.

Just yesterday Mozeliak referred to Harrison Bader as a “defensive anchor”. He’s made some improvements in his game that should buy him a long leash in the starting lineup. Yes, he should sit against righties with tough breaking balls, but based on usage, the Cardinals’ own words, and his performance, it seems unlikely that the club plans to relegate him to a strict platoon role.

Where does Joc Pederson or even David Dahl fit in that arrangement?

The answer, of course, is the DH. With the 650-700 extra PAs that the DH makes available, the Cardinals could mix and match and still guarantee someone like Joc Pederson a full season’s worth of appearances.

Without those extra PAs, the Cardinals sales pitch becomes “we really can’t guarantee you a starting spot, but we would love to have you compete with our Gold Glove-winning 4th outfielder!”

That’s not going to be a very attractive sales pitch to guys like Eddie Rosario, Pederson, or Schwarber. Maybe it would be enough for someone like David Dahl, but even he might get offers from clubs willing to give him a clearer path to start. Yes, dollars matter in free agency. So does guaranteed playing time.

Infield Depth – With and Without the DH

The Cardinals declined Kolten Wong’s option with the obvious intention of plugging Tommy Edman in at 2b. It was an easy way to gain early-offseason financial flexibility without sacrificing too much production at the position. It also creates opportunity at 3b, where Matt Carpenter is the obvious on-roster candidate to fill the gap.

In 2020, Edman served as the ultimate super sub. He filled in nicely at SS when DeJong was out with COVID. He then pushed Carpenter to the DH role for much of the rest of the season. He ended up earning the second-most plate appearances on the team.

There’s been some chatter that the Cardinals might target a player to slide into Edman’s former role. Jurickson Profar would be a good choice as a switch hitter who can handle 2b and 3b adequately. Tommy LaStella – a lefty hitter – also has his supporters. (Derrick Goold shot down any possibility of Jedd Gyorko returning.)

It seems like a simple solution. Edman goes to 2b. The club can likely sign Profar for about half of Wong’s option. He can cover third and spot Edman. Carpenter’s salary demands playing time but he can earn that as the club’s primary DH again.

Here we hit the same issue. The club immediately runs into a playing time pickle and a problem with their sales pitch. Someone like Profar would have to be willing to compete for their position on the field and perhaps settle for the short-side of a platoon with the high-priced Carpenter. Other they can go somewhere that can guarantee them a starting spot.

What Should the Cardinals do?

The infield is an easier puzzle to solve. Carpenter has been a part-time player for a season and a half. The Cards should just commit to keeping him in a bench role as primarily a pinch hitter and target a player who can be the primary third baseman for a season or two while the club waits out Nolan Gorman. Profar would still be a decent fit here.

Or the club could go after a starting second baseman and push Edman back to third and his super-sub role. With a defense-reliant pitching staff, the front office could target a second baseman with superior defensive skill, who can also get on-base. (Wait a second…)

The outfield has been the focus of more attention but I also think it’s more of a mess. The problem seems centered around Dexter Fowler and the club seems to know this. Early in the offseason, Goold reported at the club was exploring the possibility of trading Fowler to create budget and playing-time space. That’s just not going to happen. Still, the Cardinals’ best outfield alignment is Carlson, Bader, and a free agent add, with O’Neill and Thomas providing offensive and defensive depth with upside.

As long as Fowler remains on the team, he will have to play his way out of a starting spot.

In the end, the DH might still return in 2021. The owners seem likely to use it as a negotiating piece to encourage the Player’s Association to accept expanded playoffs for the coming season. If that happens, it won’t be until the eve of the season, long after these roster decisions need to be finalized. Both MLB and the PA have a long history of refusing to engage in good-faith negotiations until the last possible minute. If that does happen, the Cardinals will just have to adjust on the fly. That’s where the depth provided by the “platoon plan” could serve the team well. They just have to convince free agents that there is enough playing time for everyone.