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Cardinals’ Sin: Defensive Indifference

Last season the St. Louis Cardinals scored the fourth-most runs in the majors, but were a mere 13th in runs allowed. Yes, the rotation had its issues, including but not limited to Lance Lynn’s season-long absence, but the pitching staff managed to finish seventh in FIP. The large disconnect between the Cardinals’ runs allowed and FIP has the aroma of a defensive rat.

The Cards ranked 17th in the FanGraphs Def rating, and five of their top eight players by plate appearances had negative ratings. The team’s roster had a severe internal contradiction last year, putting weak defenders behind a merely average strikeout staff; the Cards were 15th in K% last year. Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak recognizes the problem, and recently took one step to address it by signing Dexter Fowler to play center. Craig Edwards recently covered the signing in detail, calling attention to the continuing controversy regarding Fowler’s defense. The Cards will play him in center, but he might not really be a center fielder.

Randal Grichuk patrolled center last year in a manner that will make no one forget Jim Edmonds. His advanced defensive metrics, though, were not terrible; his UZR in center was a hair below average. The Fowler signing pushes Grichuk to left, but it isn’t at all clear Fowler is actually an improvement.

It is clear, however, that even Fredbird would be a defensive improvement over Matt Holliday in left. UZR liked Holliday as a defender early in his career, but hasn’t thought much of him since 2012. Holliday’s offense made up for his increasingly offensive glove, until last year. Mozeliak’s first move to right the wrongs of the Cardinals’ 2016 roster was his eminently wise decision to let Holliday walk. Fowler may or may not be better than Grichuk in center, but Grichuk will almost certainly be far better than Holliday in left. (And, heck, maybe Fowler’s defensive improvement will stick.)

This will still, in all likelihood, be a below-average defensive outfield, but 2017’s edition should be slightly more agile than the 2016 product. The good news is that St. Louis has a heavy groundball staff; they led the league in GB/FB ratio last year. The bad news is that infield defense is even worse than the outfield.

Mozeliak is moving to fix this, too. Matt Carpenter has played five different positions in his career, none especially well. Next year he will man the cold corner, his bat having developed to the point that it can carry him at that position. Giving most of the second-base starts to Kolten Wong will improve defense at the keystone. He’s not a stellar defender, but is far better than any of the other available options.

The left side of the infield, as currently constructed, will remain scary bad. Defense is the province of the young, something that Jhonny Peralta isn’t. Heading into his age-35 season, Peralta will surrender runs in quantity whether he plays short or third. The current odd man out in the infield, Jedd Gyorko, could be a solution at the hot corner. He’s not a great defender either, but he’s better than Peralta, six years younger, and probably at least equivalent offensively.

Aledmys Diaz is young, but not as young as you think, and played old at short last year, finishing 22nd out of 28 shortstops with at least 450 plate appearances in Def. It’s hard to know whether the offense he displayed last year is real; Steamer sees some regression but is still optimistic. As long he hits he’ll play, and St. Louis will have to hope the glove develops, at least a little. The farm lacks much of a shortstop crop, and the free-agent cupboard is also bare.

The pitching staff can help hide the defense’s weaknesses by striking batters out more often. The return of Lance Lynn and his career strikeout rate of 22% in April or May should help in that regard, although Tommy John survivors sometimes struggle initially upon their return. The flame-throwing Alex Reyes, with a combined career K/9 of 11.7 at all levels, could help even more if he wins a rotation spot.

But that’s a big if. Assuming Lynn and Reyes both win spots, that leaves one of last year’s starters spitting seeds in the bullpen. Lynn in effect replaces the now-departed Jaime Garcia. But who would Reyes replace? “Mike Leake” roars (or chirps) the Cardinal faithful, and on pure performance they’re not wrong. Leake projects to have the worst ERA, FIP, and K/9 of any Cardinals starter next year. He will also be entering the second year of his questionable five-year, $80-million contract, making Leake simultaneously a Cardinal and an albatross. He is a less-extreme version of Jason Heyward, a player whose contract significantly impedes benching.

Lynn may not be back on opening day, and teams frequently can avoid using a fifth starter for the first couple of weeks of the season thanks to frequent off days. It’s likely that manager Mike Matheny won’t make a decision until he has to, and he may not have to until well into May. Leake may get off to an awful start, perhaps making it easier to banish him to the pen. Michael Wacha may suffer a similar fate, or get injured again. Both the Mikes were disappointing last season, but Reyes doesn’t offer sure improvement, given his eye-watering walk rates.

So this may be a roster bug, but it’s also a feature. The Cardinals have no sure-fire No. 1-caliber starter, but they have considerable depth, including the guys mentioned above as well as Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Luke Weaver, and perhaps Trevor Rosenthal. The last two are nearly and entirely untested (respectively) in the major-league rotation, but both cook with gas and could help alleviate the team’s defensive problems if they can command their stuff.

Another way to get more Ks would be for manager Mike Matheny to get a bit more out of his bullpen at the expense of his lower-stuff starters. The Cardinals were 20th in reliever innings last year, despite having a bullpen that finished 12th in FIP and 13th in ERA — not Rivera-esque, but usable. The addition of Brett Cecil will help if he performs as his contract suggests the Cardinals are projecting. Some of the losers in the rotation sweepstakes could also be effective relievers. Rosenthal used to be one, and Reyes showed a flash of brilliance in 17 innings at season’s end last year. Few Cardinals fans will put a big stack on Matheny’s decision-making capacity, but there is at least the possibility that he might make better use of the resources at his disposal.

The Cardinals had a poorly-configured team by the end of last season, but Mozeliak is taking steps to correct it. Cardinals fans are surely hoping that whatever roster sins remain will not be mortal ones.