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The imperfect excellence of Matt Adams

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Although Matt Adams may never be a franchise player, his skill at hitting right-handed pitching makes him a potentially important piece of the 2016 Cardinals.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Since Albert Pujols departed for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim after the 2011 season, the St. Louis Cardinals have tried a few different options at first base. And whether it was Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, or the three potential first base options on the 2016 roster of Matt Adams, Brandon Moss, and Stephen Piscotty, results have never reached what Pujols accomplished in St. Louis.

And it's likely they never will. In the free agency era, since 1976, only Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Mike Schmidt, and Chipper Jones accumulated more Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement with one club than Albert Pujols accumulated with the Cardinals. Pujols was a generational talent unlikely to be observed again anytime soon. But this does not mean that first base is destined to be a barren wasteland of insufficient production just because the team lacks a first-ballot Hall of Famer ninety feet from home plate.

PA HR RBI BB K OBP SLG OPS wRC+
Player A 620 26 81 68 159 .336 .454 .790 120
Player B 592 17 76 28 109 .331 .477 .808 123

The two players listed in the above table have similar offensive production. Player A exhibited more home run power and drew more walks, but Player B made up for it with a higher overall slugging percentage. There is some subjectivity involved here, though I would say the two hitters are comparably productive.

Player A is Justin Upton last season. Ten days ago, Upton inked a six-year, $132.75 million free agent contract with the Detroit Tigers. Player B is Matt Adams against right-handed pitching since the start of the 2014 season. Adams currently is listed beneath Brandon Moss on the Cardinals' depth chart.

To be clear, Matt Adams is an incomplete package. Adams has never hit very well against lefties, occasional notable exceptions against the best lefty in baseball aside. His career wRC+ against southpaws of 50 equals the career wRC+ of Bob Forsch. Granted, Forsch was considered a decent batter for a pitcher, but he was far from the type of player a team would want in the middle of its lineup as a first baseman.

But the Cardinals do not need Matt Adams to be a superstar. In 2016, Adams will earn $1.65 million, considerably below his market rate. Matt Adams will remain under club control until after the 2018 season. And that the Cardinals have a weapon as potentially dangerous against righties as Matt Adams should not be taken for granted. He should serve as a valuable component of the Cardinals, if utilized properly.

If utilized properly is a key phrase here. While Stephen Piscotty is a candidate for the first base job, the Cardinals themselves currently list him as the club's starting right fielder. So for simplicity's sake, here's a comparison of Matt Adams and Brandon Moss against right-handed pitching in their careers. Since Moss is quite a bit more experienced than Adams, non-rate statistics have been adjusted to totals per 600 plate appearances.

HR RBI BB K OBP SLG OPS wRC+
Matt Adams 21 84 36 121 .337 .485 .822 128
Brandon Moss 27 82 57 155 .322 .463 .785 114

As you can see, Adams and Moss have different batting styles: the former is more effective overall, while the latter demonstrated a more "three true outcomes"-based plate approach. And here are their statistics for their careers against lefties.

HR RBI BB K OBP SLG OPS wRC+
Matt Adams 16 68 23 185 .230 .317 .547 50
Brandon Moss 17 76 56 169 .322 .399 .721 100

Both Adams and Moss are worse batters against lefties, though while Moss historically has gone from an above-average hitter against righties to being exactly average against lefties, Matt Adams goes from the career wRC+ of Dave Winfield to the career wRC+, as mentioned earlier, of Bob Forsch. Over their careers, Adams and Moss are comparable as hitters (Adams sports a 112 wRC+, while Moss sports a 111 wRC+), but the club has the advantage of knowing whom they will face on the mound and can deploy one or the other based on pitcher handedness.

In 168 plate appearances against lefties in 2015, Brandon Moss had a wRC+ of 98, placing him as slightly below average hitter and slightly worse than he has been throughout his career against southpaws. However, it is possible that, if younger members of the Cardinals are able to duplicate their 2015 production against lefties, Moss won't be necessary as a member of the lineup at all. The team could conceivably play Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk in the outfield with Stephen Piscotty at first base, players who in 2015 had wRC+ totals against lefties of 130, 122, and 141, respectively.

On the surface, this appears to be a waste of Brandon Moss, whom the Cardinals signed to a one-year deal for $8.25 million. But with Matt Holliday coming off an injury-plagued 2015 and the aforementioned trio of 2015 Cardinals rookie outfielders flashing great promise but lacking a sufficient enough track record to have absolute certainty about their future MLB efficacy, Moss can act as an insurance policy for Holliday, Grichuk, Pham, and Piscotty.

And, of course, he can act as an insurance policy for Matt Adams. But purely as a first base option against right-handed pitching, no member of the current Cardinals roster has the upside of Adams.

While some fans have suggested that the club trade Matt Adams, it should require a reasonable return to justify such a move. If Adams can help the Cardinals procure a star-level player, or at the very least a solid contributor to the present and future of the club, this could be a discussion worth having.

But the Cardinals should not trade Matt Adams for scrap parts just for the sake of taking some sort of action. And if Mike Matheny has the foresight to keep Matt Adams away from left-handed pitching as much as humanly possible, the Cardinals could be handsomely rewarded in 2016.