Bernie: Cutting through the deep grass in center field

2014-02-20T01:30:00Z 2014-02-21T10:17:08Z Bernie: Cutting through the deep grass in center fieldBernie Miklasz bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Good morning …

I'm obviously dense, so perhaps that explains why I continue to be perplexed by the notion being put forth by the Cardinals of an intense, wide-open competition between Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos for the starting center field job.

Is this true, or just polite spin?

Let's try to cut through the … outfield grass.

Because it's getting tall out there. 

I view the open-competition narrative with considerable skepticism.

I realize that Jon Jay has been a starter on some very good Cardinals teams, and he's a respected teammate in the clubhouse. I can understand why manager Mike Matheny and GM John Mozeliak want to tread carefully here, and at least give the impression that the job is up for grabs, and must be earned by Bourjos.

Moreover, if Bourjos gets hurt again or hits about .062 in Florida, there may be no choice. Jay would win the job by default, and the Cardinals' bosses will have to put on a happy face. So why not put it on now, just in case? 

Since the Cardinals acquired Bourjos from the Angels, I've believed that the job was going to him. With Matt Holliday and Allen Craig flanking center, the Cardinals need more defensive range from their CF, and Bourjos can provide it.

Except for 2011, Bourjos hasn't hit much during his MLB career. But his defense is exceptional and represents a sensible tradeoff for a Cardinals team that should score plenty of runs again in 2014. And besides, it's not as if Jay is Jim Edmonds offensively.

Jay has put up some decent numbers against RH pitching in his career, posting a .360 onbase percentage and .417 slugging percentage. That OPS (.777) vs. RHP is above the three-year MLB average (.720) against them. But if the Cardinals believed that Jay's platoon split vs. RH pitching was such a big factor, then why would they trade for Bourjos? If the Cardinals were pleased with Jay's performance, they don't make this deal. And they don't continually rave about Bourjos' defense and speed. But that's the point: Mozeliak and Matheny obviously coveted that defense and speed. So why would they put it on the bench? 

For now, I'll be a good sport and pretend that this really is a legit competition. And if this really is an open competition — and Jay holds onto the job or the Cardinals go with a platoon — then here's what it means:

1. If Jay plays solid defense this spring and finishes the Grapefruit League with better offensive numbers than Bourjos, then he should be the starter — with Bourjos seated on the bench and getting a start when the other team throws a lefthanded pitcher. And Bourjos can be a late-inning defensive replacement. That would be the role in a loose time-share scenario. 

You see, this is the tricky part of declaring a wide-open competition. When you do that, then fail to reward the player who had the better spring, then it makes you look bad. Tony La Russa boxed himself in back in 1996, when he announced that Ozzie Smith and Royce Clayton would compete for the starting job at shortstop during spring camp. The Cardinals obviously acquired Clayton from the Giants with the plan to use him extensively, but didn't want to be insensitive to Ozzie before the players reported to Florida. The proud Ozzie had other ideas and outplayed Clayton during the spring games. That put La Russa in a real bind. 

So the starting job went to Ozzie, right? Uh, no. Clayton had 531 plate appearances in 1996; Ozzie had 261. I thought it worked out fine, because La Russa and the Cardinals received good play from both shortstops. Clayton ranked among the NL's best shortstops in zone rating. And in his final season Ozzie stayed fresh and vibrant as an occasional starter.

But TLR's allocation of playing time at SS became a prominent side issue that never went away in '96. It was a sore point for Smith and many fans.

When the promise of an open competition doesn't translate into the anticipated playing time for the player who “wins” the battle, the manager comes off as politician making campaign pledges that he won't keep.

Obviously, Jay and Bourjos don't have the cachet of Ozzie Smith, a beloved Hall of Famer. So whatever happens in center field won't approach the level of controversy of the Smith-Clayton discord in '96. But a manager needs to be careful in how he frames an open-competition narrative.

2. If Bourjos isn't the starter, then he isn't nearly as good as Mozeliak thought he was — or said he was. The post-trade Bourjos hype will come across as overstated to the point of being a con job.

3. If Bourjos doesn't start, Mozeliak will have traded a starting player, 3B David Freese, for a backup/platoon guy. No, it's not as simple as that. The Cardinals wanted to open a job for rookie 2B Kolten Wong, they saved money in the transaction, and the deal also brought them an apparent outfield prospect in Randal Grichuk.

Fine. But this bottom line — or at least the perception — would be unavoidable: the Cards traded a hometown player, a starting player, and the 2011 postseason MVP for a part-timer who couldn't beat out Jon Jay ... even though the organization clearly desired an upgrade in CF.

About the platoon … again, the LH-hitting Jay has done some good things against RH pitching. But Bourjos, who bats right, hasn't done a lot against lefty pitchers. His career line against LHP is .256 / .301 / .405. 

4. A Cardinals outfield rated among the worst defensively in the majors last season won't receive the maximum benefit of Bourjos' heralded coverage. Those left-center and right-center gaps at Busch Stadium will be awfully inviting to visiting hitters. The Cardinals' pitchers who work up in the zone better run up the strikeout totals again.

Just to review Bourjos' defensive credentials, here are the top five center fielders in UZR/150 among players with a minimum of 2,000 innings in CF, courtesy of FanGraphs: 

Bourjos, +20.2

Carlos Gomez, +18.2

Jacoby Ellsbury, +13.7

Michael Bourn, +9.9

Denard Span, +9.5

5. Rookie Oscar Taveras should, at some point, get a shot at taking over in center. Taveras would be raw in center, no doubt. But so what? If defense isn't a priority in center, then it makes sense to go with a big-time hitting prospect who is capable of dramatically boosting the offense at the CF spot.

If this job really is open, then we should realize what it really means. 

Thanks for reading …

— Bernie

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