After leading the National League in batting average (.269), runs scored (783), and shattering the record for the highest RISP mark of all time* during the 2013 regular season, then finally upgrading from offensive black hole Pete Kozma to Jhonny Peralta at shortstop while simultaneously shuffling their defense to fit in even more bats over the winter, perhaps we expected too much of the St. Louis offense headed into the 2014 season. But my goodness have the Cards been woeful on that side of the ball thus far; in scoring just 3.41 runs per game, the team ranks 14th among Senior Circuit clubs, propped up only by the anemic San Diego Padres. After collectively hitting like prime-Miguel Cabrera with RISP last year too, the Redbirds are batting just .221/.290/.299 with a 69 OPS+ in such situations this year, and have left 196 men on base – tied with Arizona for the 2nd worst mark among NL teams. Presumed to be the division’s powerhouse squad, Mike Matheny‘s men already trail the upstart Milwaukee Brewers by 5.5 games in the NL Central.
All of which contributed to the Cardinals’ recent roster moves; after Sunday’s win it was announced that second baseman (and my preseason focus) Kolten Wong and outfielder Shane Robinson would be optioned back to Triple-A Memphis, the pair to be replaced on the 25-man roster by rookie infielder Greg Garcia and outfield prospect Randal Grichuk. Primarily done in order to spark their offense, such a roster shakeup may well effect the St. Louis lineup far beyond the standard promotion/demotion.
The decision to send down Wong seems slightly puzzling in spite of his slow start. After struggling during his first big-league stint – he hit .153/.194/.169 in a very sparsely-distributed 59 at-bats – and infamously being picked off at first base in the World Series, the 23-year- old was again scuffling, batting just .225/.276/.268 and losing playing time to Mark Ellis and Daniel Descalso before his demotion. But neither Ellis (.160/.267/.160) nor Descalso (.097/.152/.161) have hit a lick so far, which in addition to Wong being not the only everyday starter currently struggling, makes the move a little more fishy. Team GM John Mozeliak has cited the need to restore the former first round pick’s confidence with everyday at-bats in a less-pressured environment as the main factor in his decision to send down the rookie, but this marks the second time in which Matheny has pulled the plug on Wong playing daily at the keystone because of a slow start. His infield replacement Garcia meanwhile, though off to a thumping start at Memphis (he carries a .277/.366/.554 line to the majors), has troublingly never hit with as much power as he’s demonstrated so far this season, meaning that barring his aberration somehow continuing, he’ll likely see little meaningful time before being returned to Triple-A duty. Perhaps then, it will be third time lucky for Wong.
Where things get more interesting however, is the demotion of Robinson. There’s little actually to say in regards to Robinson himself – he was carried on the club as a fifth outfielder and had two hits in 20 at-bats, but with Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos also vying for time in center field and one option year remaining, he was likely an easy choice to become the odd man out. Grichuk on the other hand, is an intriguing figure. Acquired in the deal which sent David Freese to Los Angeles this past winter, the 22-year-old responded well to a change in organization, and was hitting .310/.359/.529 so far at Triple-A Memphis, with six walks and 17 strikeouts in 87 at-bats. Selected one pick ahead of Mike Trout in the 2009 amateur draft, the 6-1, 195 pound right-hander should bring a much-needed power injection to Busch Stadium, along with the capability to play all three outfield positions well on defense.
Most significantly was how was Grichuk was selected ahead of bigger-name peers for promotion, skipping ahead of higher-touted outfield prospects Stephen Piscotty and Oscar Taveras to be first in making it to the majors**. That he leapfrogged both despite being a lesser prospect suggests that this is merely a short-term solution; the Cards don’t want to burn the service time of either Piscotty or Taveras (who is still battling ankle injuries too), when they would only likely find themselves in a positional timeshare. While I’m sure the organization like Grichuk, his likely future as a fourth outfielder/impact bench bat makes risking his development a more palatable option that wasting studs like Taveras on the bench – an opinion seconded by Craig Edwards on the Viva el Birdos blog: ” Grichuk is a solid prospect, but not expected to be an impact player at the major league level absent more development… promoting Grichuk for limited at bats makes the most sense when trying to balance the short and long term needs of the St. Louis Cardinals.”
His addition might bring a further wrinkle to the St. Louis lineup. If Matheny and Mozeliak believe tat Allen Craig‘s slow start (he’s hitting .190/.248/.280, with just 5 extra base hits) is intrinsically tied to his move to the more physically demanding right field, with Grichuk available to fill that position occasionally, Matt Adams‘ job security at first just took a hit. Adams has been solid in hitting for average this ear, but his power – his best tool – has gone walkabout (I propose that it’s tied to his looking to hit against the shift so often). If the Cardinals want to invigorate Craig back at first, Adams might well find himself limited to pinch-hitting duty, much like last year. The promotion of Grichuk is not just insurance for the struggling Bourjos and Jay in center field then, but may indeed factor into who’s playing first base too.
As put by St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, “We’ve been thinking about or contemplating this for some time in the sense of when you look at how we were playing and what we were doing, there’s just no silver bullet to make a quick fix because frankly, our everyday lineup has to produce.” The Cardinals are still in a strong position. That they are able to make such aggressive changes and tinker with their lineup so much is a testament to their incredible organizational depth – this isn’t like a Houston club that throw everything against the wall hoping someone surprises them by sticking. But these are moves of concern; things haven’t gone as planned in St. Louis so far. Perhaps Mozeliak and co. expected too much too.
* The Cardinals’ average of .330 (part of a crazy .330/.402/.463, 139 OPS+ RISP line), eviscerated the previous record of .311 set by Detroit in 2007. No other team hit above .282.
** Joey Butler actually had the best line in Triple-A this season of the outfielders, currently hitting .403/.519/.597 in Memphis, but can’t play center field.