On the outside looking in

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In the first game of a double header against the Blue Jays, the Cardinals played the field the way I want them to play it the rest of the year. The results were mixed.

The positions were as follows: Molina behind the plate, Carpenter at first, Wong at second, Gyorko at third, Diaz at short, Jose Martinez in left, Fowler in center and Piscotty in right.

Through two innings Diaz made a competent play in the hole and Gyorko made a barehanded play up the line. Wong also committed an error on a ball hit up the middle.

Thus far, the Cardinals have committed nearly an error per game. The Cardinals committed 107 errors in 2016, the sixth worst mark in the majors. Atlanta, Cincinnati and Oakland all played better defense.

I believe the reason the Cardinals were so bad last year, and have been even worse on defense this season, is that the team is not playing a regular defensive lineup. As an example, Diaz made a diving stop on two-foot hop about 7 feet from the second base bag in the game on Tuesday. He gets up, hesitates and then throws the ball past the outstretched glove of Martinez. The error goes to Diaz, but Rick Horton commented that Martinez should have gotten off the bag and played the ball, sacrificing an out for security.

Carpenter may have made that play. Matt Adams probably would have made that play. Martinez has never played first in his pro career and he is under the added pressure of trying to prove himself in the big leagues. Diaz is still a young player and he should be throwing to the same guy in nearly every game.

With a set lineup, certain position players will be on the outside looking in. Well, I have an opinion about who those players should be.

Jhonny Peralta

 Jhonny is on the disabled list with a torn ligament in his thumb. I think he should be the next victim of the curse of Wally Pipp. Jedd Gyorko is a better player than Peralta in every way.

Last year in 289 at bats, Peralta hit .260 with 8 homers, 29 RBI and 37 runs. His on base was .307 and his slugging was .408.

Gyorko in 400 at bats hit .243 with 30 homers, 59 RBI and 58 runs. His on base was .306 and his slugging was .495. Jedd is off to a hot start this season, hitting .340 with 3 home runs.

You would think that Peralta being a converted short stop he would be a better fielder, but Gyorko has just as much range and more consistent hands.

Randal Grichuk

 There’s a scene in “The Natural” where Pop Fisher is talking to Bump Bailey, trying to convince Bailey that he better shape up because Roy Hobbs is going to take his job. I hope Mike Matheny has already had this conversation with Randal Grichuk.

There is no indication that Jose Martinez is going to stop hitting. He’s currently batting .375, more than 100 points better than Grichuk. Martinez deserves Grichuk’s job in left field.

Unlike Gyorko and Peralta, Grichuk is a much better defensive player than Martinez. While a good athlete at 6-foot-5, Martinez has looked very stiff in the outfield. Grichuk could play major league center field.

But, Martinez is much better in left than at first. The Cardinals were willing to put up with an occasional brain fart from Matt Holliday. I am willing to bet that Martinez defensive play will smooth out with regular playing time.

Matt Adams

 I feel bad for Matt Adams because the guy has worked really hard. He lost a ton of weight in the offseason and he looked sharp in spring training. However, Matt Carpenter has to play somewhere and the best option is at first base.

Adams, 28, has had plenty of opportunities over the past three seasons to win the first base job and he has failed to hit consistently. Teams need their first baseman to hit and hit both lefties and righties.

On the other hand …

 In the first game of the double header on Thursday, Kolten Wong committed an error and made a bonehead, base-running mistake by the sixth inning. Wong hit a double and then got picked off by Russell Martin at second.

Kolten Wong is the guy I want to step up. It was my feeling that the constant platooning over the past couple of seasons hurt him more than any other player. His talent at the plate and in the field is undeniable.

Of any of the Cardinals that can play second base, he has the most range. The team can’t wait forever and there may be a point where playing Greg Garcia every day may be the better options. Garcia’s ceiling is much, much lower, but he does not make these types of mistakes.

Who Do You Hate?

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Orioles vs. Royals is a win-win for baseball fans. Both teams feature long-suffering fan bases, cool uniforms, great stadiums and likable rosters. So far game 1 lives up to that belief, producing a 10-inning classic.

The NLCS on the other hand, I’m guessing it’s producing groans from anyone not from the Bay area or eastern Missouri. The Cardinals and Giants have represented the National League five consecutive years in the World Series. This is the Cardinals fourth NLCS in a row and if not for Marco Scutaro in 2012, the Redbirds would be vying for a fourth-consecutive World Series birth.

The Giants are working on their winning the World Series every even-numbered year streak; 2014 would make it three even-numbered years in a row. The Giants and Cardinals are remarkably similar. Despite roster turnover since 2010, both franchises have continued great success. For the Cardinals, gone are Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, David Freese, Allen Craig, Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran and replaced with Matt Adams, Lance Lynn, Matt Carpenter (kind of), Randal Grichuk, Jhonny Peralta and Oscar Taveras.

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I know it’s partially because of injury but the Giants are playing without Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum in the starting rotation — I would argue the foundation of their sustained success — and they still have a great pitching staff anchored by underrated Madison Bumgarner. While Buster Posey continues to impress with his sustained brilliance both behind the plate and swinging over it and Kung Fu Panda is still his streaky, free-swinging self, the Giants lineup has been remade as well. Brandons Belt and Crawford have more prominent roles now. Scutaro is out and Joe Panik is in.

Yadier Molina

The backstops for both teams are sources of consistency off which to build. Yadier Molina is Posey’s counterpart and equally strong on defense and offense. Both teams generally play strong defense. Both teams have been frustrating on offense this season. The Cardinals struggles kept the Birds with a negative run differential most of the year. Both teams seem to get breaks to go their way all the time, like it’s predestined.

All that said, if I polled 100 baseball fans, all 100 would be rooting against the Cardinals. It’s gotten to that point.

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When I first figured out the Cardinals were becoming universally loathed, I was in straight denial. It took me long enough anyway not coming to the realization until the beginning of the 2013. I thought it might be a fad, something that would go away. The backlash has only intensified since then with “the Cardinal Way” being shoveled down fans throats and the Cardinals faithful being unwavering in their pitch as the greatest fans in all sport.

Realizing what was happening I tried to downplay my association. I became wary of announcing I was a Cardinals fan and avoided talking about the team in front of my friends, or at least that was after my former college roommate (and Rangers fan) pointed out that he hated the Cardinals. I was part of something I hated in other franchises — who thought they were better because they rooted for a perpetual winner. The Cardinals have made the NLCS 9 out of the past 14 seasons. I don’t know what it’s like to root for a losing baseball team.

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Now though, I’m embracing the hate. Bring it on. I think it makes an I-70 series (even though I’m sure the MLB front office is rooting for an all black and orange World Series) rematch more interesting. The Cardinals will play Darth Vader, Freddy Krueger and baseball fans better hope this is act 3 of that movie.

The Lackey, Craig and Kelly deal

That's Joe Kelly pranking STL rapper Nelly. Kelly and Allen Craig were locker room favorites.

That’s Joe Kelly pranking STL rapper Nelly. Kelly and Allen Craig were locker room favorites.

I hate the trade the Cardinals made acquiring John Lackey and single A pitcher Corey Littrell from the Boston Red Sox. The Redbirds gave up Allen Craig and Joe Kelly.

I have an emotional reaction to this deal, so I’ll get that out of the way first. Are we trying to get rid of all the guys from the 2011 World Series team that I love? Albert, Craig, Freese, Furcal, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter, Skip Schumacker, Lance Berkman and Ryan Theriot are all gone. I know a lot of those couldn’t be helped but I thought Craig and Freese were part of the young core going forward, those were building blocks.

All that being said, I understand getting rid of Craig. Matt Adams is five years younger and having a great season at first base, hitting .315. Oscar Taveras is eight years younger and a mega prospect we have to play in right field.

And Craig has been horrible this season, hitting .237. In fairness, I think the move to right field has messed with Allen Craig. Second, you’re telling me he couldn’t be valuable as a pinch hitter in the playoffs? Third, we’re losing a veteran position player and replacing him with one of the guys famous for eating chicken and drinking beer with the Red Sox.

Yadi is coming back at some point and he’s an amazing leader. After Yadi though, you have Matt Holliday (who has never struck me as a great leader), Jhonny Peralta (ditto), Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter (neither of whom I’m sure are ready for that role) for veteran leaders. The chemistry of this team has been off this season and I don’t think this move helps.

However, the Joe Kelly decision is the real puzzler here. I’ve never liked John Lackey much but I’ll be fair. Lackey is an older version of Lance Lynn. He does not have great stuff but he is durable and consistent. He’s never had an ERA under 3.00, coming close in 2007 at 3.01, but most of the time he has an ERA around 3.50. This season his field independent pitching is better than his ERA, which is a good sign. We also get him for two years.

But he’s 35 years old; Joe Kelly is 26. Kelly is a valuable player right now, either in the rotation or in the pen. Kelly has great stuff, a fastball that moves and dirty breaking pitches. Joe Kelly’s problem is that he didn’t throw enough strikes and that’s fixable. I wasn’t ready to give up on Kelly as a starter. I would not be surprised at all if he’s like Ervin Santana: starts throwing strikes consistently and becomes a beast.

I think Kelly is going to haunt us. This trade reminds me of the Mark Mulder and Dan Haren swap. Haren was languishing in the back end of our rotation before becoming an ace in multiple stops hence.

Then again, I guess Mulder has a ring from 2006 and Haren does not.

Second Half Keys for the Cardinals

Mike Matheny has managed his way to consecutive postseason appearances, once to the NLCS and last year getting all the way to the World Series. However, those teams were loaded. This year’s team is too, but injuries and offensive struggles have increased the degree of difficulty.

How the Birds finish this season will go a long way to determining my confidence in the young Cardinal Skipper.

1. Figure out what to do with the outfield
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The Dodgers are getting all the attention right now for their bonkers outfield situation and rightly so because it is ridiculous. One current all-star (Yasiel Puig), three former all-stars (Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp), a lanky legacy kid with speed and pop (Scott Van Slyke) and a hot prospect with a great name (Joc Pederson) are vying for three spots.

But the Cardinals situation is almost as crazy. Holliday is entrenched in left, no one is usurping him, especially when he’s the only one on the team hitting with runners in scoring position this season (although his average is only .265 and he’s hit just 8 home runs, his average jumps up to .359 with runners in scoring position).

The other two positions are up for grabs. The plan at the beginning of the season was for Allen Craig to succeed Carlos Beltran in right. That plot was spoiled when Craig started the season hitting sub-Mendoza. His average is only .242 now and his on base is below .300.

The backup plan was for super prospect Oscar Taveras to to take that spot. The dude hits like a monster at Memphis but in 27 games is hitting .205 with a single (while majestic) homer.

The idea in center field back in April was that Peter Bourjos was in line for that gig after being acquired in the David Freese trade. In 73 games, Bourjos is hitting .228 with an on base below .300.

Jon Jay has been one of the best stories of the year. He gets crapped on by everyone during the playoffs (including me) for his shoddy defense and his minimalist hitting. He’s hitting .289 with an on base of .347.

I support what Matheny has done so far, which is exactly what La Russa would do, and that is play everyone. Bourjos is the fastest and best defender of the three, Jay’s a lefty, so a lefty starter and Bourjos plays. Taveras has been playing more lately but he’s left handed and Craig is right handed, setting up another platoon situation.

I want to see it go even further. Let’s play both center fielders together a little. I wouldn’t mind seeing Taveras playing a little bit of center. I would work Holliday in and out a little bit.

2. Got to get something out of the back end of the rotation.
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You know what you’re getting out of both Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn at this point. Waino is going to be great. Even after a shaky start on Tuesday against Tampa, he has 12 wins, an ERA of 2.02, FIP of 2.59, 119 Ks and he leads the league in home runs per nine innings at .3.

Lynn is just solid: 11 wins, 3:05 ERA and 117 Ks. He’s walked too many guys this year but that’s my only complaint.

After that is a little bit of a crap shoot. Joe Kelly has only pitched in five games but has been good with two Ws and a 2.82 ERA. Carlos Martinez has only started seven games and has been shakier with an ERA of 4.57 and 30 walks. Shelby Miller has pitched 19 games is 7-8 with a 4.25 ERA and he’s given up 12 homers. Jaime Garcia is out for the season to the surprise of no one.

Michael Wacha is coming back soon and he’s shown no indication he’s not going to be good — ERA of 2.59, WHIP of 1.12 and works entertainingly fast. The question is which one of those three guys — Martinez, Kelly and Miller — do you drop down? Yesterday, Matheny decided to move Miller back into the rotation and Martinez back to the pen.

Martinez is the best reliever of the three, a definite weapon there, but I worry about his long term maturation if he’s in the pen too long. The league is littered with setup guys — Joel Zumaya is one that jumps into my head — that never became anything else. He’s too talented to waste as anything other than a starter or closer.

But there might be a confidence crisis brewing with Shelby Miller. After starting last season like a house on fire, Miller collapsed down the stretch and openly pouted about losing his starting role in the playoffs. So I support this decision. If Miller collapses again, I have no problem with Martinez permanently taking his spot in the rotation. I hope he figures it out and becomes the beast he was early in 2013.

3. Do some creative things to help the team on defense
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The picture above is second baseman Kolten Wong committing an error, which I feel like happens every time I watch the team. He’s only committed seven errors this season, but it feels like more.

At least Wong makes up his sometimes shaky glove work with good range. His infield mate Jhonny Peralta has eight errors and is down grade in range to Pete Kozma. He makes up for this with by hitting 14 home runs.

Yadi is out until September (Wah, wah. That’s me crying) so there is a massive down grade defensively at catcher. Matt Carpenter, who I would be the best infielder of the group, has nine errors at third. Matt Adams, while improving, is not a good defensive first baseman. Matt Holliday is historically shaky in left; Craig has struggled in right.

My doomsday view of the defense is a little exaggerated. The Birds have committed the fifth fewest errors in the majors.

However, the way to make up for defenders who aren’t that good is to both shift and platoon. Every left handed hitter, we should be shifting the infield (especially because Carpenter has good range at third). I also want to see Carpenter play some second base. We’ve still got Daniel Descalso and Mark Ellis.

4. We have to beat up on bad teams.
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We start out with the Cubs and Padres in the next two series. I want sweeps of both.

5. trade_stanton

I like Giancarlo Stanton but even if he were available, the Cardinals should not trade anyone. We shouldn’t go after David Price; we shouldn’t go after Cliff Lee. No one.

Historically, when you give prospects at the deadline, you will regret it. The Cardinals built the best farm system in the baseball while consistently contending. Let’s not do anything drastic.

Boo the Cardinals’ Offseason Movies

I hate the moves the St. Louis Cardinals have made this offseason and I might be the only one in the entire state of Missouri who feels this way.

Let me back up, it was obvious that the Cardinals had two glaring weaknesses during the playoffs: Pete Kozma at shortstop and Jon Jay in center field. Neither player can consistently hit at a Major League level. Until the 2013 post season, Jay had always been at least a solid defender, but he was not the Gold Glove-caliber outfielder fashioned by Cardinal fans and pundits. Kozma is not a major league short stop.

I bashed both players on twitter during the NLCS and World Series. The Cardinals addressed these positions by signing short stop Jhonny Peralta from the Tigers and trading third baseman David Freese and Fernando Salas to Angels in exchange for Peter Bourjos Randal Grichuk. On paper, these moves make sense. Peralta can hit, although his 11-year career average of .268 with an on base of .330 does not mesh with his reputation as a consistent ball punisher. Peter Bourjos is one of the best defensive center fielders playing right now, no doubt about it. Bourjos has actually shown flashes at the plate, hitting over .270 in two of his four seasons.

My problem with these moves is that Cardinals didn’t need to make them at all.

Peralta brings a bevy of question marks – can he play shortstop at the Cardinals’ high expectation, how long does that PED stink linger, and does he hit .300 or .240. He’s worth that four-year $52 million contract if he hits .300 and protects everybody in the order.

I like Bourjos but we have too many outfielders already. The whole point of allowing Carlos Beltran to walk was to allow the free space for either Allen Craig or Oscar Taveras to take over in right field. Assuming Jay isn’t up to snuff, I was looking forward to Taveras playing center (the position the star outfielder has played in the minors) and having Craig in right, of course moving Matt Adams into a more permanent slot at first base. The Cardinals can’t sit on Taveras for forever; he’s too good not to play soon.

I was reluctantly on board and then the Cardinals made the perplexing decision to sign 36-year-old second baseman Mark Ellis. The whole point of getting rid of Freese, something the front office had been floating out there even before the playoffs started, was to make room for Kolten Wong to take over at second thus moving Matt Carpenter to his natural position at third base. Wait, if Wong isn’t ready, why get rid of Freese? Carpenter played second base at an all-star level last season. Freese is not a great third baseman, in fact he’s prone to gaffes, but he shows flashes of solid fielding talent.

Now Freese is older than I thought, 30 just one year younger than Peralta. I get confused by his baby-faced Imos commercials and forget that he had that whole baseball sabbatical after high school when he went to Mizzou. The main rationale the Cardinals used for the move was Freese’s poor 2013 where he hit .262 with only nine homers and 60 RBIs. 

Why is that season not the outlier? Freese hit .290 or better every other season, including .293, 79 RBI, and 147 hits in 2012. Freese’s problem earlier in his career was injuries. He played in 144 games in 2012 and just under that, 138, in 2013.

Let’s be honest, I’m not judging David Freese on statistics. My love for Freese is based on performing the greatest baseball feat I have ever seen. His homer to win game six of the World Series in 2011 trumps even the great mad dash by Enos Slaughter, the go “crazy folks” homer by Ozzie, Albert’s three homer game in 2011, Albert’s home run to beat the Astros in game six in 2005, Jim Edmonds homer to beat the Astros in 2004, Yadi’s homerun to beat the Mets in 2006, or Wainwright’s strikeout of Beltran to end the 2006 NLCS. Simply, it’s the greatest singular moment in franchise history, a franchise that has a wealth of great moments.

On top of that, Freese is hometown boy. He grew up just 15 miles from me just down Manchester Road in West County. On top of that, he always seemed to be a good teammate, a humble guy. He deserved a chance to stick with the Redbirds at least one more season.

If the Cardinals try to sell me on defense as the primary motivation behind these moves, I would scuff angrily. Peralta is an average defender at best, much closer to the bottom of the heap than the top. The Cardinals have been living in a myth that they are still the stalwart franchise, the shining example of defensive excellence of years past. Yadi, Wainwright, and Matt Carpenter were the only above average fielders the Cardinals deployed last season. Adams and Matt Holliday were well below average.

You want to tell me it’s about money? We just gave Peralta a huge sum. Yadi and Waino have nice fat contracts. Holliday makes a substantial amount of money. Freese is not a free agent until 2016.

Really, I’m mostly onboard with signing Peralta, but there was no reason the Cardinals had to do that and trade Freese. Even if the Cardinals would have stood pat, I think Matt Carpenter can play major league shortstop, at least as well as Peralta.