How much of the problem with the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals’ inconsistent play is structural?
General manager John Mozeliak seems to be asking himself that very question. In a radio interview with host Tim McKernan, Mozeliak said the following, tweeted by McKernan.
“I’m wondering if we created too much roster flexibility as opposed to stability,” said the GM.
On game telecasts in recent days, much attention has been drawn to the fact that the Cardinals have already tried nine different leadoff men this season. That has actually been surpassed by the seventh and eighth spots in the order, with 12 different players each.
Putting it all together, through the first 107 games, manager Mike Matheny has written 99 unique lineup cards.
At the same point in 2015, the club had used seven different leadoff men and 86 unique lineups.
This season, of the eight non-pitching positions in the field, only half have had one player start more than 60 games of the 107. Yadier Molina made 92 starts behind the plate, injured shortstop Aledmys Diaz started 90 games, Matt Holliday has been the left fielder 74 times and Stephen Piscotty has been the right fielder in 88 contests.
The year before, five of the eight positions were filled by 95-or-more game starters through 107 contests. Had he not been injured, Holliday would very likely have been the sixth. That is a huge difference.
Those are the facts.
I have been thinking a lot about Mozeliak’s remark and despite what the numbers say, I don’t think I fully agree.
Yes, the 2015 Cardinals had a much more set lineup, but that club also had a weak bench. That not only forced the starters to play more, it also led to a group of starters and a rotation that were out of gas come October.
Those same players are now a year older, mostly still making up the core of the Cardinals, but backed up by a better reserve corps. That has helped contribute to a less clear group of regulars in 2016.
But is this costing the current club wins?
There is no way to know for sure, but here is my theory.
I do not think roster flexibility is the problem. I sense the issue is that the Cardinals have a roster full of interchangeably good players, but no great ones. 30-year-old Matt Carpenter is the team’s best hitter, but is apparently uncomfortable outside of the leadoff spot.
Locked in with the current core players and a group of home-grown youngsters not yet fully tested or proven, the Cardinals did not have any clear openings until Lance Lynn was injured. Other than an unsuccessful run at David Price, the club was content with adding players for this season who fit the good-but-not-great mold – the Mike Leakes, Jedd Gyorkos and Seung-hwan Ohs.
Think about it. Other than Diaz, who came from nowhere to become a surprise contender for Rookie of the Year, which Cardinals are serious contenders for MVP and Cy Young Awards?
The answer is there aren’t any.
Consider the main difference between the 2006 and 2011 Cardinals and the roster today. Those World Championship clubs had a clear leader, the straw that stirred the drink, a man who not only contended for MVP awards, he won them multiple times.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting the Cardinals should have kept Albert Pujols. That would have been a crippling decision based on the kind of contract he expected. But I do believe Pujols has left a leadership through results void that has yet to be refilled.
This is not a need that can be filled easily. These kinds of players are rarely developed and even more rarely acquired via trade. In fact, Jason Heyward commented that he felt he would be more comfortable in Chicago being part of an ensemble, rather than being expected to be the man. Perhaps the late Oscar Taveras could have grown into the role, but he and Heyward are gone. There seems no position player stars on the way – but a number of more good, not great ones.
My sense is that for 2017 and beyond, the Cardinals need to find a way to get more quality, not more quantity. It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but I have come around to thinking the Cardinals need a true franchise player to anchor their daily lineup and lead them back to the very top.
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