The St. Louis Cardinals entered this season with a “problem” that other teams envied. The Cardinals had arguably the deepest Major League roster, while simultaneously boasting one of the best farm systems in baseball. The Cardinals brass and announcers happily discussed the overflow of talent in the organization during Spring Training. However, after yesterday's 0-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs the Cardinals are now one game under .500 for the season at 15-16. It is now all too obvious that the “problem” has become a problem. Here is how it evolved.
The Cardinals troubles started when GM John Mozeliak felt pressure to get more depth on the bench and improve team speed. To accomplish these goals, Mozeliak signed second baseman Mark Ellis to a two-year $8.75 million contract. Mozeliak then traded away David Freese to obtain centerfielders Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk from the Los Angeles Angels.
There was nothing wrong with these moves by themselves. By all accounts Ellis was a superb defensive second baseman and there was some need to have a backup for rookie Kolten Wong. It made sense to move Freese and his larger contract demands so that Matt Carpenter could be moved to third base to make room for Kolten Wong. It also made sense to add Bourjos and his excellent defense to center field given the defensive liabilities of Matt Holliday in leftfield and Allen Craig in right field.
The problem was not what Mozeliak did, it is what Manger Mike Matheny has done with the roster since then.
Matheny, like many managers, clearly has a bias towards players who have played for him in the past and for veterans. Therefore, when Kolten Wong struggled a bit over 76 plate appearances (.225 AVG, .276 OBP, .268) he was quickly benched, even against right-handed pitchers. In his place, the veteran Ellis and Matheny favorite Daniel Descalso were given more playing time. Eventually Wong would be demoted to Memphis and Ellis and Descalso have started at second base ever since.
As documented by Bernie Miklasz via Twitter, while Wong has struggled his numbers are actually vastly better than all other players who have started at second base. Wong was 16 for 69 at second base (.232 average), while every other second baseman has gone 5 for 59 (.084).
Instead of allowing Wong to simply work through his struggles, which every Major League baseball player must do at some point anyway, the Cardinals organization curiously abandoned what they previously called the long-term solution at second base. Who knows what effect the demotion had on Wong’s confidence. What is known is that the effect on the Cardinals offense has been negative.
Then there is the curious case of Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos. By all indications Bourjos was acquired mostly for his defense in centerfield, one of the few positions where elite defense can make up for sub-par offense.
Like Wong, Bourjos struggled a bit out of the gate with a .208 AVG, .291 OBP, and .417 SLUG. Bourjos was given even less of an opportunity to work out of his slump as he has only 55 plate appearances this year. Bourjos defense, as advertised, has been outstanding with a 33.9 UZR.
Because Bourjos committed the Cardinals sin (pun intended) of struggling over 55 plate appearances, he has been largely relegated to the bench while Jon Jay is given starts in center. Jay, over 84 plate appearances, has .243 AVG, .317 OBP, and .365 SLUG.
So the Cardinals benched Bourjos with a .708 OPS (On-base plus SLUG percentage) because they desperately needed the offense of Jon Jay, who is currently sporting a .682 OPS. Oh, and by the way Jay is playing sub-par defense in centerfield with a -0.8 UZR.
Bourjos and Wong are the two primary examples, but there are many more that could be expounded upon if there was time. Carlos Martinez has been relegated to a relief role even though he is clearly a starter in the long-term and outperformed Joe Kelly this spring. Oscar Taveras is mashing away with a .852 OPS in Memphis while the big league club gets blanked by Jake Arrieta. The Cardinals are a team built for the future by their general manager, but the team's manager is still playing in the past.
The Cardinals do have an influx of young talent, but it is currently being stowed away due to the favoritism toward older, more established players on the roster. There is not only a Ferrari in the garage (Carlos Martinez), but also a Lamborghini (Bourjos), and a Porsche (Wong), and a Bentley (Taveras). Some ask what harm can exist with this excess. Well the Cardinals are currently 15-16 while the drive around used Escorts, and anyone familiar with nice cars knows that one of the worst things you can do is let them sit dormant for too long. That, in summary, is the problem with the St. Louis Cardinals of 2014.