Last year, the St. Louis Cardinals scored nearly five runs per game and bashed their way to the World Series. Okay, the pitching helped too, but the 2013 Cardinals were far better at scoring runs than any other NL team — the Rockies were #2 in the NL in runs scored, but were still 77 runs back — and that was their competitive advantage. And then, over the off-season, they replaced Pete Kozma with Jhonny Peralta, which is about as large of an offensive upgrade at a position as any team made over the winter. Sure, they lost Carlos Beltran, but he was replaced by Matt Adams, and swapping out David Freese for Kolten Wong didn’t appear to be a significant offensive downgrade.
The 2014 Cardinals aren’t exactly the same team as the 2013 Cardinals, but this is more of a tweaked line-up than an overhauled one, and the general core remains the same. And yet, after finishing third in the majors in run scoring last year, St. Louis currently finds themselves 28th in the majors this year, and has hit so poorly that the team has already made a few adjustments to their roster. So, what’s going on in the Gateway City?
First, we have to acknowledge that the Cardinals offense was bound for a good amount of regression. A good part of last year’s offensive success was built around their crazy .330/.402/.463 performance with runners in scoring position; by bunching their hits together, they scored far more runs than could have been expected based on their raw offensive numbers. While clutch hitting is a fun story to tell, it’s not actually a thing that persists over time, and the Cardinals had to expect some natural regression in this area. And they have. Here are their wOBAs for the last two years by baserunner state.
The Cardinals have regressed well past the mean, and for the first month of 2014, have posted the fifth worst wOBA with runners in scoring position of any team in baseball. Just as there was no reason to expect them to keep hitting at their 2013 rate, this too should regress, and the Cardinals should be more efficient driving in runs than they have been for the first month of the season. But, even with a wOBA closer to their bases empty/men on base splits, it’s not like runs are going to just start falling from the skies again; the Cardinals aren’t hitting particularly well in any baserunner state.
A team going from 3rd to 28th in run scoring can’t have just one person to blame, but Allen Craig is at least the primary culprit in the team’s run scoring troubles this year. Through the first 26 games of the season, he has been baseball’s very worst player, and a .212 wOBA from a bat-only player like Craig is a huge problem. Even over just 103 plate appearances, the difference between Craig’s .363 wOBA last year and his .212 wOBA this year equates out to a 12 run difference, or about .46 runs per game. If you simply replace Craig’s 2014 line with his 2013 line — just the raw numbers, not even the silly RISP performance — the team would be scoring at basically the same rate as the Dodgers.
It’s too early to give up on a guy with a strong track record of offensive performance, but Craig is single-handedly responsible for a huge chunk of the team’s offensive woes thus far. As Tony noted last week, Craig’s extreme ground ball rates thus far are a bit of a worrying sign, and if playing the outfield is part of the reason why he hasn’t been able to get the ball in the air, the Cardinals might have to consider re-aligning their roster to allow Craig to go back to first base on a regular basis. Matt Adams is a nice enough player, but he’s not so good that having him and Craig split the first base duties, as they did a year ago, is a waste of a guy who must play everyday.
Of course, benching a guy with a .365 wOBA to try and jump start a guy with a .212 wOBA isn’t exactly how you improve a struggling offense. So, the Cardinals instead are switching things up at second base, as they shipped Kolten Wong back to Triple-A and have recalled Greg Garcia to take his place, though Mark Ellis‘ presence probably means he’s not up to play everyday. While not as heralded as a prospect, Garcia is interesting in his own right, and was driving the ball in Triple-A; something Wong hasn’t done as a big leaguer. Garcia is worth a look but probably isn’t a long term solution at the position, but it will be interesting to see if the Cardinals consider shifting Matt Carpenter back to second base in the second half of the year if neither Wong nor Garcia can provide enough offense to justify a line-up spot.
After all, it should be easier to find a rent-a-third-baseman who can hit than to find a middle infielder who can swing the stick, and Carpenter did show that he could handle the position well enough last year that there wouldn’t be a huge defensive decline. Perhaps if the Padres get serious about moving Chase Headley this summer, the Cardinals should consider whether their best alignment still includes Carpenter at second base.
And none of that even addresses the team’s mish-mash of outfielders. While they acquired Peter Bourjos in the Freese trade to give them outfield depth, he’s been relegated to the bench while Jay has reclaimed his starting CF job, and now the team has recalled Randal Grichuk — the other guy acquired from Anaheim — to replace the punchless Shane Robinson. It seems unlikely that the Cardinals would call up a legitimate prospect to sit on the bench, so Grichuk is probably in line for more playing time than Robinson received, which means that Bourjos may very well now be the team’s fifth outfielder. And Oscar Taveras still hanging out in Memphis, the Cardinals second half outfield might very well look a lot different than the one they are running out there now, especially if it is determined that Craig might not be physically capable of playing right field on a regular basis.
Bourjos is still useful a player to be relegated to pinch-running, and the Cardinals high-level outfield depth could give them the option of shopping him around to a team looking for a defensive wizard in cetner field, perhaps one with a third baseman to spare. It might be a little odd for St. Louis to try and trade Bourjos for a third baseman not long after they traded a third baseman to get him, but with Mike Matheny showing some preference for Jay as their regular center fielder, perhaps Bourjos is a better fit for a team that doesn’t have the Cardinals depth of outfielders.
Perhaps some of this will just fix itself. Maybe Craig goes back to hitting the way he did previously, and either Garcia or Wong show that they can hit enough to earn a job share with Mark Ellis, leaving the original pieces in tact until the team decides that Taveras is big league ready. The Cardinals pitching has given them enough of a cushion that there’s no need to rush into any kind of panicked decision making, and patience is probably a virtue here.
But there are signs that perhaps the original plan isn’t going to work out as well as the team had hoped. Moving Craig back to first base would open up a spot for the team’s young corner outfielders, and Adams would probably be a pretty highly coveted piece in trade. Depending on how the middle infield situation shakes out, the team could potentially look for a second or third baseman in return.
Or maybe Craig just fits better with an AL team, where he could ignore his glove entirely and just focus on hitting the crap out of the baseball again. Trying to figure out how to piece too many talented players together isn’t a terrible problem to have, but the Cardinals do have some problems, and it may very well take another trade or two to get this line-up straightened out. The organization has done a great job of collecting assets; in looking at how all the pieces fit together, however, there might be some more arranging to be done.
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