Top-hitting prospect Stephen Piscotty was supposed to make his Busch Stadium debut on Thursday at first base before a stiff neck made the rookie a late lineup scratch. The St. Louis Cardinals promoted Piscotty to the majors in the hopes that the Stanford graduate could provide their lineup with a boost. With an outfield chock full of viable big-leaguers and no designated hitter available to them outside of road games at American League parks, the Cardinals have decided to try Piscotty at their weakest position: first base. Going back to the offseason, the Cardinals' Piscotty-to-first experiment has been a strange, unnecessarily circuitous one.
2012-13: Piscotty to the Outfield
The Cardinals drafted Piscotty out of Stanford with the 36th overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. As Derrick Goold wrote on his stltoday.com Birdland blog, that selection was a compensation pick the Cards received when free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols opted to sign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim rather than the Cardinals. At the time, Piscotty was primarily a third baseman, though he had played other positions with the Cardinal, including first base and pitcher. At Draft time, there were questions about his ability to stick at the hot corner. During his short pro-ball debut in Low-A, Piscotty showed why. He played in just 36 Midwest League games—all at third base—and committed 22 errors. St. Louis moved Piscotty off third base during the offseason and he hasn't played a pro game there since. Piscotty became an outfielder, which allowed him to leverage his strong throwing arm. Since his move to the outfield, Piscotty has logged time in all three spots.
Winter 2014: Piscotty to First Base (Not)
Let's go back to the dead, baseball-less winter. The Cardinals had incumbent first baseman Matt Adams returning. After the Cardinals traded Allen Craig to Boston in a deal that included Joe Kelly to get John Lackey from the Red Sox, Daniel Descalso and Xavier Scruggs were the Cardinals who received the most plate appearances at first base. Descalso notched 12 and Scruggs 13. The Cardinals non-tendered Descalso, which made him a free agent. In December, the club's Plan B at first base behind Adams was Scruggs. That was apparently unpalatable. After Goold tweeted St. Louis brass discussed trying Piscotty out at first base and manager Mike Matheny endorsed the idea, Joe analyzed the potential position change.
Then the Cardinals signed veteran Mark Reynolds to fill out the St. Louis bench.
Reynolds was coming off an ugly batting season while playing his home games in the hitter-friendly confines of Miller Park. His .196/.287/.394 line worked out to a .302 wOBA. Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is a stat that gives each hitting outcome a run value, then adjusts for park effects and places a player's offensive production on a scale where 100 is exactly league average and each point over 100 represents a percent better than average with each point below 100 being a percent worse than average. Reynolds put up a wRC+ of 87 in 2014. Descalso posted an 88 wRC+. This even though Reynolds had clubbed 22 home runs.
Despite evidence that the aging slugger was in decline, the Cardinals' signing of Reynolds nipped the Piscotty-to-first experience in the bud during the offseason. Stan McNeal wrote for Fox Sports Midwest at the time of the club's annual Winter Warm-Up:
Signing Mark Reynolds means prospect Stephen Piscotty will not need to bring a first baseman's mitt to spring training. Matheny indicated that Piscotty could have seen some action at first base in spring training if the club had not found a first baseman on the free-agent market.
In late May, after the Cardinals lost Adams for the season with a torn quad muscle, Matheny was asked about the Cards' plan at first base moving forward. His answer may provide some illumination to the organization's mindset with respect to the Reynolds signing and whether to have Piscotty try his hand (and glove) at first base. Luke Schnake of 101 ESPN wrote at the time:
Many are questioning how Cardinals manager Mike Matheny should handle the minimum four month loss of Matt Adams to a torn right quadriceps.
Names like St. Louis native Ryan Howard, Ben Zobrist, and Aramis Ramirez are floating around as potential Cardinal trade targets.
But Matheny believes he’s had the solution in his clubhouse the whole time.
"For now the message that I want to continue to give is we brought Mark Reynolds here for a reason." Matheny said Friday. "Just in case something happened and we needed someone to step in. And something happened, so we need someone to step in and this is Mark Reynold’s opportunity."
The truthfulness behind a manager's public vote of confidence for a player is of course debatable. At the time Matheny gave this statement, the Cardinals had one healthy first base on their roster: Reynolds. Behind him on the organizational depth chart sat Scruggs. Behind Scruggs? I couldn't even tell you. Of course, Matheny is going to say that Reynolds is their first baseman. Nonetheless, the Cardinals opting to not have Piscotty even try first base during the offseason, spring training, and early part of the Triple-A season indicates that perhaps they did view Reynolds as their Plan B everyday first baseman for whatever reason.
The signing of Reynolds was also another indication of how the organization viewed Adams entering the season. After an excellent 2013 campaign in part-time duty, Adams fell off in 2014. He was not bad as a first baseman, but his production dropped. Adams struggled against lefties in particular, which led many to assume the Cards would sign a southpaw masher to complement him. While Reynolds hits for power, he does not have a pronounced platoon split. All of this appeared to indicate that the Cardinals viewed Adams as a primary first base option, just like Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak stated during the post-NLCS press conference.
Of course, you know what happened. Adams struggled early and then tore his quad in May, which likely ended his 2015 season. The Cardinals were left with Reynolds as their first baseman. After a decent start to the season in part-time duty and hitting well during the time immediately following the Adams injury, Reynolds has seen his batting production crater. Predictably, Reynolds is batting below average for a big-leaguer and far worse than what MLB first basemen have hit for collectively.
Realizing that they were stuck with Reynolds at first base, the Cardinals have scrambled a bit. They signed minor-league free agent Dan Johnson. Later, they promoted Scruggs. After Scruggs did about what one would expect in a handful of plate appearances, the Cards gave up on that experiment and demoted him back to Triple-A. Then they called on Johnson. Nothing has worked.
Then, earlier this month, the front office decided to have Piscotty try first base. At the time, Piscotty did not even have a broken in first baseman's mitt. Seriously. From Goold's article on the transition (which you should read in its entirety if you have not yet done so):
A new position means a brand new Mizuno first baseman’s glove for Stephen Piscotty, and so this past week the Cardinals’ top hitting prospect at Class AAA Memphis did what anyone trying to break in a glove — and swiftly — would.
He went to the batting cage.
To tenderize the largest glove he’s owned in years so that he could use it in a game, Piscotty caught pitch after pitch after pitch from a machine used to firing fastballs at bats. He said the Mizuno should be supple enough for competition in a week or two, and that means the race is on. What will be ready first for first, Piscotty or his glove?
If they did not view Reynolds as a viable primary first baseman, why wouldn't they hedge their bets a bit by having Piscotty train for first base and log some Triple-A innings there?
Goold frames the experiment with a question that should probably never have been asked in mid-July 2015. The front office should have known in the winter that they did not have a palatable Plan B at first base in the form of Reynolds or C with Scruggs. (I've never been much of an Adams believers, so I would have been hedging against him not working out as well, but we'll set that concern aside.) Moreoever, the outfield picture was jam packed entering the 2015 season with Matt Holliday, Jason Heyward, Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, and Randal Grichuk. Even if we assume that the organization was not as high on Grichuk as they are after his first couple hundred plate appearances this season, the outfield is still chock full of viable big-league talent.
So why not have Piscotty work out at first base over the winter? Why not get him game experience at first base during spring training? Why not start Piscotty at first a game or two per week in Memphis? Such a plan would have allowed Piscotty to increase his positional flexibility. After all, playing first base in a game with Memphis doesn't preclude him from playing the outfield in the next. He could have honed his outfield skill while learning first.
Further and perhaps most importantly, such an experiment would have allowed the club to answer the questions that still loom over Piscotty playing first base. Can he handle the footwork? What about scooping throws in the dirt? Will his arm, which is a strength in right field, be a liability in the infield? We don't know. Neither do the Cardinals. Now we're all going to find out the answers to these questions at the major-league level in the middle of the pennant race. Had they looked ahead, the experiment may have already succeeded or failed, but in Triple-A where it has little-to-no impact on the Cards' World Series hopes.
Goold shared the following quote in his article on the Piscotty-to-first experience:
"I think he has a comfort level but, candidly, he’s a pretty good outfielder, so I have thought of this as more of a project," said general manager John Mozeliak. "He has to be 100 percent comfortable with that. I think he’d rather play first base in the big leagues than outfield in Memphis, right? Like anybody. If we felt this was his best way to the big leagues, we have to consider it."
That logic was as true in December as it is in July. Unfortunately, the Cardinals brass did not recognize this. Now we're going to witness the Piscotty-to-first experiment in HD during the home stretch of the pennant race. At least he'll have Jose Oquendo to help make the transition easier.
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