The St. Louis Cardinals have taken some heat recently for alleged poor roster construction. The context is the lack of first base options behind Matt Adams. As the big man sinks deeper into his slump, the organization has taken action, promoting Xavier Scruggs from Triple-A Memphis on Thursday.
I get the motivation for the move, as Adams is one for his last 22 and is 4-for-41 since his most recent home run on August 22. An astute poster noted that his elbow sleeve, discarded earlier this season, has apparently re-appeared.
However, if Scruggs receives more than a few passing starts at first and does not produce (perhaps an unfair expectation for any first-time major leaguer) and Adams continues to struggle, I would have to join those critical of the Cardinals – though not for the same reason.
The reality is that for most of 2014, the Cardinals had excellent first base depth at the major league level. Adams was starting with Allen Craig ready to come in from right field when needed, one hitting from each side of the plate.
No one anticipated Craig’s prolonged slump that ultimately led to his trade to Boston. That changed the Cardinals roster as he was replaced by a full-time outfielder. That also should have been a call to action to prepare other first-base options.
After all, what if Adams was to be injured again?
In fact, the planning should have begun long ago. We all know, and have known for more than a year, that the Cardinals have a glut of good outfielders close to the majors. Why haven’t any of them been diversified defensively by getting some experience at first?
I am specifically talking about Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, but maybe even Oscar Taveras or Tommy Pham, or even Mike O’Neill or James Ramsey before the latter was traded away. All six outfielders have been considered to be better big-league prospects than Scruggs. Reality is that not all would take to the position, but odds are that one or more could become a credible reserve first sacker. Why haven’t they been tried?
During the regular season, of the 61 games Memphis used a designated hitter, Scruggs started there only one time. In some of those 60 other games, his bat could have been kept in the lineup while someone else received defensive experience at first.
That did not happen, even once. Memphis exclusively used journeyman Scott Moore as the reserve first baseman in 2014.
I am not anti-Scruggs in any way. He has worked hard to cut down on his strikeouts, the biggest concern about his game. It is great to see him receive the call. The right-handed hitter clearly has power that rivals Grichuk and could be a good pinch-hitter. Scruggs may even have a hot month. It could happen to anyone, as we saw with Pete Kozma in September 2012.
On the other hand, I believe the Cardinals have better options for their starting lineup stuck on their bench, outfielders unavailable to backfill Adams simply because they are not first-base ready.
In my book, it is an organizational fail if a player has to play a position for the very first time in his career as a major leaguer. It indicates a lack of prior preparation that could easily have been avoided with better planning.
For that reason, I am not suggesting Matt Holliday (or any other outfielder) be tried at first base now, even though it would allow one more major league hitter to get into the lineup when Adams sits. Yet if not now for Holliday, what about for 2015 and beyond?
Holliday began his professional career as a third baseman but was moved to the outfield in A-ball. As he moves into his mid-30’s, playing part-time at first could be a career-extender while being more versatile defensively could clearly help his team. Holliday could essentially become that right-handed reliever at first that Craig played prior to the trade.
For those who hope the Cardinals could keep both Adams and Scruggs next season, a 25-man roster precludes keeping two first base-only players. Adams was once unsuccessfully tried in the outfield briefly and Scruggs has a grand total of two professional games chasing flies, one of them last weekend. If Scruggs would be on the 2015 roster, he could block Grichuk or Piscotty.
Other immediate first base options include Matt Carpenter, who is pretty well bolted to third with no viable backfill (see Scott Moore above). Then there is Yadier Molina. I recently asked Mike Matheny if part of easing the catcher back into action after his injury might include some time at first. The manager shot back that he likes his current first baseman before acknowledging that it would not be out of the realm of possibility.
It appears that Adams’ continued slump, punctuated by light-hitting Daniel Descalso making a start at first this past week, has driven more immediate action.