Even the most casual observers would likely agree that the 2009 St. Louis Cardinals may be among the most defensively diverse group of players that Tony La Russa has ever managed.
That will surely be confirmed if a number of high-profile spring training camp tryouts take hold like outfielders Joe Mather and Skip Schumaker attempting to master the infield, outfielder Nick Stavinoha picking up catching again and 2008 reliever Kyle McClellan trying to make a go of it as a starter once more.
The manager of this club has to be in his own personal comfort zone. After all, La Russa survived 15 years as a professional player despite just receiving just 176 at-bats as a major leaguer.
One big reason why? Versatility.
Just in the majors, second baseman La Russa also saw time at shortstop and third base. His 2009 camp includes a number of players cast in that image joining Mather and Schumaker, including Brendan Ryan, Brian Barden, Tyler Greene and Joe Thurston.
Yet no matter how the 25 men on the initial version of 2009 Cardinals come together over the next six weeks, it will be nearly impossible for La Russa to assemble more roster combinations this season than last.
Of course I probably said the same thing 12 months ago, yet La Russa actually repeated his high-water level of lineup manipulation from 2007. In each of the most recent two seasons, the Cardinals sported 153 lineup combinations in their 162 games.
In other words, to suggest the 2008 Cardinals lacked a set lineup would be making a supreme understatement.
At various times, especially late in the season, La Russa was at his roster-spinning best as he deployed veteran infielders in the outfield for the first times in their careers as well as having an infielder take the mound four different times in the last two seasons.
La Russa had 14 different players start a game in the number two spot, the most of any position in the lineup, with the leader, Aaron Miles, receiving the call just 34 times. The number six spot also tied with 14 unique players positioned there to start at least one game during the 2008 season.
Now I want to make it clear that I don’t believe that La Russa is doing this to be cute, but instead because he honestly believes the lineup du jour will give his club the best chance to win that day.
Looking back, the lineup tinkering employed by La Russa has steadily increased since 2001. In both 2001 and 2002, the Cardinals manager had 41 fewer unique lineups each season compared to the last two seasons.
The numbers were up in the 140s during the latter part of the 1990s before dropping again, but most interestingly, the year in which La Russa deployed the fewest lineup gyrations was in his very first season with the Cardinals, in 1996 (110 different lineups).
Taking all of those 13 years into account, the La Russa clubs averaged 136 different combinations per season.
One can only imagine what 2009 will bring. Hopefully, injuries, often a cause for lineup changes, will not strike the club hard.
Here is the most common lineup used last season by position in the order. Note that Yadier Molina was actually the leader at two different spots, numbers six and seven. As noted above, not counting starting pitchers, the number two spot starts were the most spread out.
Next is the most common lineup deployed in 2008 by position in the field.