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Does Mike Matheny really want improved defense and baserunning?

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The offseason narrative is unraveling a bit

St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

As the 2016 season ended in disappointment for the Cardinals, it was a time to figure out what went wrong. The 2015 team won 100 games on the strength of its pitching and defense, but the 2016 team chased offense and the run-prevention side of the game saw a considerable dip. The Cardinals have made it a stated goal to improve defense, but it isn’t clear the manager is fully on board. Mike Matheny’s past indicates he will choose offense over defense if given the opportunity, and he will have that opportunity.

Heading into last season Jason Heyward was gone, Kolten Wong was relegated to a bench role, Jhonny Peralta’s steady play at short made way for the raw Aledmys Diaz. Matt Carpenter moved around, but has never been a plus defender and Brandon Moss played a lot in the outfield. As John Mozeliak indicated, “defense took a back seat”

Right before the season ended, Mozeliak called the defense porous and when discussing the need to get better on defense, noted that it would require a sacrifice on offense.

A lot of times it’s at what cost. To get better defense, we may have to take a step back offensively.

John Mozeliak understands that better defense might require weaker offense. It will now be up to Mike Matheny to understand that as well. He doesn’t have a good track record in that regard and recent roster decisions, positional alignments as well as the comments about platooning Kolten Wong seem to indicate not much has changed.

When asked in early December about moving an infielder to the outfield to accommodate a move, Mozeliak could not have been more clear:

“That’s not where I want to see this club going,” he said. “It’s not improving that athleticism, that injection of that type of talent. Seems a little bit redundant. When you’re looking at what you have, I think kind of rolling out what we did last year and thinking we’re going to get a better outcome is harder for me to accept. … I think the timing of this and the additions we’re looking to do are going to make for a more exciting club, and one I hope our pitchers benefit from.”

So we know what Mozeliak wants. If we look at every one of Matheny’s moves individually when it comes to prioritizing offense over defense, most of them—Randal Grichuk in center field despite not being allowed to throw notwithstanding—have some sort of credible defense. The Peter Bourjos-Jon Jay thing has been debated endlessly, but the general argument that Bourjos didn’t play because he didn’t hit is actually the fundamental problem here.

It’s one thing—even if not mathematically sound as a run saved is as good as a run scored—to choose offense over defense when an offense is struggling. It’s another thing to have one of the best offenses in baseball and still try to double down on offense when the defense is struggling and pitchers are called on to get extra outs.

This post isn’t entirely about the news that Kolten Wong might be platooned this year, but it definitely plays a role. In 2014, Kolten Wong lost his starting job to Mark Ellis after 13 games and 52 plate appearances. It is not very smart to judge a player after 52 plate appearances, especially a rookie. He came back, hit well for a time and then went on the disabled list before getting the second base job for good because Mark Ellis couldn’t hit at all.

Over the next 600 plate appearances, Kolten Wong had a 112 wRC+ and 3.8 WAR. He struggled in the second half of 2015, and at the start of 2016, he was given just 56 plate appearances before he lost his job. Despite hitting pretty well over the course of the rest of the season, he couldn’t seem to get much playing time.

As for Wong’s defense, if you were to take the average of the two best defensive metrics out there, UZR and DRS, Wong rates as the fourth best second baseman in baseball over the last three years behind only Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, and D.J. Lemahieu, despite being at a significant disadvantage in playing time. These stats take into account errors—like the routine plays that Wong has a reputation for missing—as well as good plays made due to range and the ability to turn double plays where Wong is very adept. For reference, when taking all of those factors into account, Jedd Gyorko is in the bottom half, about seven runs worse than Wong per season.

But this isn’t all about Wong. Jose Martinez is now the fourth outfielder. Assuming the top-3 outfielders play 145 games each, that gives Martinez about one-third of the games out there with his less than stellar defense compared to the more athletic Tommy Pham, who will be in the minors.

There’s also this:

Manager Mike Matheny said the Cardinals would not be putting Adams through this crash course if they didn't see him as a "legitimate option" to play the outfield during the regular season. In other words, this work isn't to make him merely a just-in-case, emergency-type outfielder.

But defense is a priority. The Cardinals pursued a center fielder with the idea that Randal Grichuk would be a plus defensive outfielder in left field. Even if Grichuk starts a ton and plays center, we are talking about 40 games, maybe more if Adams is a legitimate option in left field, where the Cardinals are going to put a poor defender out in left field. How much better are Jose Martinez and Matt Adams than Tommy Pham. You might be able to argue they are a little better, but if they are only a little better and the team is trying to improve defense, shouldn’t you choose the player who is better on defense?

The three guys who seem in danger of losing the most time in Wong, Pham, and Grichuk, are also three of the top four baserunners on the Cardinals. The Cardinals talked a big game about getting more athletic, about improving defense, about improving baserunning, and they have set themselves up with the ability to be better. These early reports are less than encouraging.

Martinez over Pham. Adams in left field. Wong to platoon. Perhaps all defensible on their own, but together they bring out the possibility of ignoring what seemed to be the mandate at the beginning of the offseason. Mike Matheny has never really been able to disperse playing time well with quality bench options, preferring to play established starters every day. It doesn’t appear that has changed as that seems to be partly driving the Gyorko to second thoughts as Jhonny Peralta is the starter at third.

How many plate appearances will Wong get before losing his job? How many times will Martinez or Adams just miss a ball in the outfield that another might have caught and how will the bench be hamstrung late in games because there are no decent defensive reserve outfielders. It’s possible that Mike Matheny doesn’t hate Kolten Wong. He just might not care about defense and baserunning. An aggressive attitude alone doesn’t get you an extra base. Using players with the speed and skill to reach that base safely does most of the work. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t tell me defense and baserunning are important. Show me.