While you wouldn't know it based on the reaction of some fans, the Cardinals have a good problem on their hands. With Jon Jay and Randal Grichuk back on the active roster, the Cardinals have five outfielders for three spots. In addition to Jay and Grichuk, the Cardinals have Holliday as a fixture in left field, Peter Bourjos as the team's best defensive center fielder, and Jason Heyward as the primary option in right field. As a result, Mike Matheny has been juggling his lineup around to give adequate playing time to each outfielder.
Since Jay's return from the DL, starts have been divided up as follows: Holliday 6, Grichuk 6, Heyward 6, Jay 4, Bourjos 2.
Here is a brief look at the pros and cons for starting each of the five Cardinals outfielders.
Pros: Holliday is a fixture in left field because of his superior offense. He is a career .308/.387/.520 hitter, and his performance has not fallen off much with age. This season, he is hitting a robust .317/.429/.431 with a 140 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR. Holliday has a habit of heating up and finding his power as the season goes along, and even with his low power output this season, he has been a big contributor on offense.
Cons: Holliday's defense in left field is not very good. By Fangraphs' defensive metric, Holliday is on pace for the worst season of his career in left field. He has -3 defensive runs saved and a -2.0 UZR. He is also the oldest of the Cardinals outfielders (35 years old), well beyond the normal peak on the aging curve.
Pros: Grichuk has a lot of offensive potential. His hits tend to do a lot of damage, as 13 of his 21 hits this year have gone for extra bases. In 191 major league plate appearances, he has hit .264/.295/.462 with a 108 wRC+. He also appears to be an above average defender at all three outfield positions. Defensive metrics take longer to stabilize, so it may be too early to say this definitely, but he has made a lot of flashy plays, and he has a good defensive reputation from the minor leagues.
Cons: Grichuk's plate approach can be atrocious at times. In his brief major league career, he has a walk rate of 4.2% and a strikeout rate of 25.7%. He has improved these numbers slightly from 2014 to 2015, but it is still too early to tell whether these changes will be lasting. He only has 191 major league plate appearances, so he could become more exposed as pitchers figure out his tendencies.
Pros: Heyward might have the highest true talent level of all the Cardinals outfielders, as he has already accumulated 22.1 fWAR during his five plus seasons at the major league level by blending above average offense with gold glove caliber defense. In his career he has hit .261/.348/.426 with a 115 wRC+. In 2014, he had a ridiculous 32 DRS in right field for the Braves, which made up for him having one of his weaker (though still above league average) offensive seasons.
Cons: Heyward has gotten off to a slow start in 2015, as he is hitting .251/.298/.388 with an 89 wRC+. His defense also hasn't been as spectacular as in the past. He is starting to turn things around, though, as his May batting line basically mirrored his career numbers.
Pros: Jay has always shown a good ability to hit and get on base, evidenced by his career .357 OBP and 110 wRC+. According to defensive metrics, Jay has improved his defense in center field each of the last two seasons.
Cons: Jay's batting line is empty (.097 career ISO) and BABIP fueled (.342 career BABIP). He has also dealt with a wrist injury which has limited his offense so far in 2015 (.239/.318/.256 slash line).
Pros: Bourjos has great speed and is the best defender of all the Cardinals outfielders. He has also looked better at the plate this season, after recovering from an offseason hip operation. His .258/.330/.393 slash line is slightly above his career norms.
Cons: Bourjos is still a below average hitter, as his career wRC+ is 94. He isn't a great base stealer despite his excellent speed (4 SB in 9 attempts so far in 2015). Also, his 2015 defensive metrics are uncharacteristically bad, as he has -3 defensive runs saved and a -4.2 UZR. It's probably still too early to look at defensive metrics like these, but this is something to keep an eye on as we get later into the season.
So how should the Cardinals distribute playing time between these five deserving outfielders?
On Thursday, Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that he thinks the best Cardinals outfield would be Holliday in left, Grichuk in center, and Heyward in right. For right now, I have no issues with this outfield arrangement. Holliday in left field is a given; he is being paid to produce offensively in left field, and so far, he has done just that. If anything, I would be okay with giving him an extra day off here or there, since he is the oldest of the Cardinals outfielders and isn't quite as valuable as he was in his first few years with the team.
In my opinion, Heyward in right field should also be a given, barring injury of course. As stated previously, he has hit close to his career norms since the beginning of May, and he is starting to look more like himself on defense. The Cardinals gave up Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for Heyward because they knew that he had the ability to be a 4-6 win player in right field. Even with his slow start, Heyward's rest of season ZiPS projection has him at 2.6 wins, the highest of all the Cardinals outfielders. He should be as much (if not more) of a given in right field as Holliday is in left field. The only issue, though, is that the Cardinals manager has shown a tendency to read too much into small sample sizes, especially with new players.
As for center field, I honesty don't have too much of a preference at this point. It's impossible to deny that Randal Grichuk has been playing well so far this season, and for the time being, I think that he may be the team's best option in center field. Peter Bourjos still hasn't shown quite enough offensively to justify being a regular outfielder, and Jon Jay has gotten off to a slow start, in part due to a wrist injury. With Jay, I think that it's possible that we are beginning to see what kind of hitter he is without a ridiculously high BABIP. He is not as bad of a hitter as he has shown thus far, but at the same time, his BABIP this year is .280, which isn't too far from league average. If Jay continues to have a more sane BABIP, it will be hard to justify playing him over Grichuk or even Bourjos.
The one thing that I don't want to see, though, is Grichuk taking playing time away from Heyward. In fact, earlier this week, Grichuk started twice in right field against right-handed pitchers, despite each player's career platoon splits (Grichuk's platoon split is more apparent in his minor league numbers, which are probably more telling than his handful of plate appearances at the major league level.)
Bernie Miklasz succinctly summed up his thoughts on the matter via twitter.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr"><a href="https://twitter.com/NickLampe1">@NickLampe1</a> That was ... weird.</p>— Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz) <a href="https://twitter.com/miklasz/status/606221948964601856">June 3, 2015</a></blockquote>
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Frankly, there is no reason for Grichuk to be taking playing time away from Heyward. If Grichuk earns more playing time, it should come at the expense of Jay and Bourjos, who don't have the same track record as Heyward and cannot match Grichuk's offensive potential in center field.
In addition, I am still not sold on Randal Grichuk. He was a below league average hitter in 2014 (116 PA) before his hot start in 2015 (75 PA). All told, he has less than half a season's worth of plate appearances under his belt. His 2015 "breakout" (if a breakout is possible in 75 plate appearances) is largely driven by his .365 BABIP. We have yet to see what kind of hitter Grichuk is in an extended amount of time, where flukiness can be taken out of the equation.
For right now, though, I have no issues starting Grichuk in center field. His combination of excellent defense and extra base hit potential is something the Cardinals haven't seen much of in center field over the last few years. Grichuk currently leads all Cardinals outfielders in fWAR this season, and even if it seems unlikely that he will continue what he is doing, I think he needs to cool off sufficiently before we can say that Jay and Bourjos should start instead of him in center field.
I know that many people (myself included) have at times been disappointed with Mike Matheny's outfield management, but we should also keep in mind how lucky the Cardinals are to be in the situation that they are in. Many teams can't run out three good outfielders on an everyday basis, let alone five, and the Cardinals should be happy to have the outfield options that they do. Good problems like these tend to sort themselves out, but for now, we can enjoy the fact that the Cardinals have to make a tough decision every night by choosing which two outfielders to sit.