In 13 days, the defending National League Central champion St. Louis Cardinals will open the 2016 regular season against the second-place finishing Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On the hill for the Pirates will be veteran lefty Francisco Liriano (as there is no pressing need to rush Gerrit Cole and his balky right rib back solely for the fanfare that is opening day), and as confirmed by many reports back in February, crafty ace Adam Wainwright will unsurprisingly make his fourth consecutive opening day start for the Cardinals. After what feels like an unusually long offseason, we will once again have real life baseball to watch (sorry, spring training), and the Cardinals will begin the marathon of a journey to defend their crown, despite being widely considered an underdog in the division this season.
Liriano's Career Splits
|Split||Total Batters Faced||AVG||OBP||SLG||wOBA|
Liriano's performance splits are consistent with what you'd expect from a left-handed pitcher who does much of his damage with a heavy-breaking slider (he throws it 31.76% of the time, per BrooksBaseball.net). Now, Liriano, a very good pitcher overall, is not necessarily "bad" against right-handed hitters, but with 10+ years of MLB statistics to work with, it is clear that he enjoys more success against lefties. Thus, if afforded the opportunity, it would be wise for a Liriano opponent to stack the lineup with right-handed hitters. Fortunately, with the way the roster is currently constructed, the Cardinals can do just that.
Projected Starting Lineup
|1.||Matt Carpenter (L)||Third Base|
|2.||Stephen Piscotty (R)||Right Field|
|3.||Matt Holliday (R)||First Base|
|4.||Randal Grichuk (R)||Center Field|
|5.||Kolten Wong (L)||Second Base|
|6.||Tommy Pham (R)||Left Field|
|7.||Ruben Tejada (R)||Shortstop|
|8.||Yadier Molina (R)||Catcher|
|9.||Adam Wainwright (R)||Pitcher|
While I personally have explored the idea of Holliday leading off and Matheny has given other players (namely Wong) opportunities to lead off during spring training games, it makes sense to start the 2016 season with Carpenter at the top of the lineup. Carpenter may be left-handed, with less-than-stellar, but recognizably small-sample-sized numbers against Liriano (34 plate appearances), but he is the Cardinals' best shot at a long, drawn-out at bat against the lefty with a repertoire that dances all over the zone. Liriano undoubtedly has terrific stuff, but with as much movement as he experiences, locating it consistently can be a problem. Thus, Carpenter is the one hitter in the lineup you can trust to not chase a pitch out of the zone, especially early in a plate appearance.
With Jhonny Peralta injured and unavailable until at least June, the second and fourth spots are perfect destinations for Piscotty (high OBP) and Grichuk (high ISO), respectively. And if the Cardinals are convinced Holliday is a "viable option" at first base, there is really no reason to even consider Brandon Moss or Matt Adams for the opening day start at first with Liriano on the mound. Sure, Moss (career 100 wRC+ versus LHPs) has a significantly better chance at success against Liriano than Adams (career 50 wRC+ versus LHPs), but the 32-year-old former Indian does not even fall on the same page of the leaderboard as Holliday (career 140 wRC+ versus LHPs). Slot Holliday, despite his yearly decline in slugging, into his usual three spot.
Moving down the lineup, I was seriously tempted to start the right-handed hitting Jedd Gyorko (career slash line versus LHPs: .260/.335/.441) at second base, but at the same time, I recognize that Kolten Wong signed a relatively team-friendly long-term extension roughly three weeks ago. One of the beliefs behind manager Mike Matheny's success as manager is his ever-present loyalty to his players, and given Wong's dedication to the club (through signing an extension), it just feels like a scenario where Matheny would feel obligated to reward Wong with the honor of an opening day start.
As I wrote earlier this month, I do not want the Cardinals rushing Molina back. However, as 101 ESPN's Bernie Miklasz so eloquently pointed out, Molina will play when Molina decides it is time for him to play. Given how much he has played thus far in spring training, it seems like an almost certainty that Molina will be in the starting lineup come April 3rd. Given what we saw for the majority of last season and what we can reasonably expect after undergoing two significant thumb surgeries (on the bottom hand) over the offseason, it makes sense to bat the newly-signed Tejada ahead of Molina, despite the fact that he is a below-average hitter overall (career 86 wRC+). Of note, Tejada is considerably better against left-handed pitchers, though (105 wRC+).
With regular-season baseball less than two weeks away, it is officially time to start talking about opening day. While The Clydesdales and red Hall of Fame jackets will have to wait until April 11th, Cardinals baseball is Cardinals baseball, and I am ready for it regardless of where the games are being played. What are your comments or critiques on my projected opening day starting lineup?