The recent free-agent signing of outfielder Dexter Fowler gives the Cardinals not one, but two, of the top leadoff men in baseball, what with Matt Carpenter already having shown his proficiency in that department. So, what could next year’s lineup look like?
It is widely assumed that Fowler, who had a .393 on-base percentage for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs last year and .366 for his career, will bat first and Carpenter somewhere else, perhaps third, but Carpenter really has only been productive as a leadoff man, where he has a career .295 average and .387 OBP. He hit .222 as a No. 3 batter last year and was nothing for three in one start hitting second.
Carpenter’s power — he’s had 49 homers in the last two seasons — suggests he could hit third, or even fourth. And this brings up another issue. The Cardinals don’t have that prototypical cleanup batter although Stephen Piscotty did well enough in that spot last year with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 61 starts to merit the first crack at it this year.
First things first. Fowler will hit first.
“I would suggest it’s a really good fit for Fowler at the top of the lineup and try to figure out how it works for Carpenter,” said manager Mike Matheny, who was doing the suggesting.
Amplifying on Carpenter’s potentials, Matheny said, “Second, third, maybe fourth eventually. But second and third make the most sense. Especially with a guy like Fowler getting on base as well as he does, as well as Dexter runs, and as many doubles as Carpenter hits, that gives the next two hitters opportunities to drive in runs.”
Of course, Carpenter could lead off, too, but Matheny said, “I see Carpenter as a more versatile player. We’ve talked for a long time about how to maximize him where he can get on base and create havoc and he’s still got the knack for driving in runs.”
Since Carpenter has had two straight 20-homer seasons and had a career high of 84 RBIs in 2015, he would seem the most likely candidate to hit third. But here’s another entrant, Aledmys Diaz.
“He’s potentially a No. 3,” said Matheny. “At No. 2, he fit in well last year, but you could see a guy who keeps driving the ball like he does anywhere in the lineup.”
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The righthanded-hitting Diaz, who batted .300 and had 17 homers and 65 runs batted in as a rookie, actually batted much better against righthanded pitching at .317 than lefthanders (.256) last year while Carpenter hit almost exactly the same against each (.271, .270), so Matheny might choose to alternate the two in the lineup, depending on the opposing pitcher.
Piscotty gradually developed his power, hitting 22 homers last season, somewhat at the expense of his average, which dipped 32 points to .273. But he still hit .363 with men in scoring position.
“Stephen could hit in any of those other spots (second and third) but I thought he did a nice job at four,” said Matheny. “He seemed to be getting big hits in key situations, but I would never rule out Grich (Randal Grichuk) because of the power factor (24 homers) and the improvement he was able to make. (Jhonny) Peralta has been a good hitter there before and Yadi (Yadier Molina) hit fourth some last year, too, and that doesn’t even mention the guy on the bench who led us in homers last year in (Jedd) Gyorko.”
Molina, who had his fifth .300 season in 2016, was sort of the Swiss Army knife in the lineup. “He hit mostly sixth when everybody was clicking,” said Matheny, “but when we needed help offensively, he was the guy we wanted to see up there in those big situations.”
Molina actually was most effective batting fifth last season, hitting .332 in 66 starts while he averaged .291 in 46 starts while hitting sixth.
Given that Matheny might prefer Molina sixth, Grichuk, if advanced enough, could be the No. 5 hitter. Or that hitter could be the new and improved Peralta, who suffered a torn ligament in his left thumb early in the exhibition season, hurt it again in July but hit .284 when healthier in the final two months of ths season. Matheny still is bullish on the 34-year-old, who will be in the final year of a four-year contract.
“We’re going to give Jhonny a really good look at third base,” said Matheny. “We’re going to tell Jedd to come ready and be whatever we need, just like last year.
“A healthy Jhonny is going to be a big product from what we had last year when he was coming off surgery. That really took away a lot of his strength and you could see it. The same thing happened with Yadi the year before. You can see how radically different it is because you just don’t have the strength to finish the swing.”
That leaves Kolten Wong, who could be a terrific asset as a defender and still an unknown as a hitter. He is likely to hit eighth until he shows otherwise but Matheny will leave him at second base because of the increasing surety in Wong’s fielding and the chance of a surge in his offense.
“He flashes some brilliance and he’s one of those guys who definitely could win us some games with what he can defensively,” Matheny said. “After that last stint he had in the minors last year, he was electric in the way he was covering ground. I hate to have him off the field defensively. There are people like me who know what that is. But he’s different than I was when I played. This kid can hit.”
Matheny said Wong’s biggest element is maintaining consistency. There are times when he uses the whole field. There are times when he uses virtually none of it as he swings at too may bad balls.
With Gyorko and Matt Adams (16 homers) on the bench, for now, at least, the Cardinals could have a strong reserve corps, which also could include infielder Greg Garcia, outfielder Tommy Pham and perhaps Eric Fryer as backup catcher.
So, the Cardinals have at least a couple of potential batting orders, but Matheny isn’t envisioning hundreds.
“I’d rather not have 140 different lineups,” chuckled Matheny, who juggled furiously last season.
“I don’t enjoy doing that, contrary to popular belief.”