LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. • First thing’s first for the Cardinals as they near spring training. Manager Mike Matheny plans to have a conversation with veteran leadoff hitters Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler about who will bat No. 1 entering the season.
Both, he agreed, have a claim to it.
“I want to hear what they like, what they want, too,” Matheny said Wednesday, the final full day of the winter meetings. “I think it’s crazy not to at least understand what it is that they would like to see, the kind of player that they view themselves as, and then try to and move in that direction. Sometimes you have to have those conversations that are just blunt.”
A year ago, the Cards committed more than $80 million to Fowler as their starting center fielder and ignition-switch leadoff hitter. After one season with the team he could be neither. The Cardinals have talked to Fowler about moving to a corner outfield position to make way for Tommy Pham in center field. And last summer, after Fowler had just 195 at-bats at leadoff, Carpenter slid back toward the top of the lineup and helped spur the offense. Before Fowler’s arrival, Carpenter had been a three-time All-Star as a leadoff hitter.
In 306 at-bats there this past season, Carpenter hit .268 with a .418 on-base percentage and a .914 OPS. Only two players in baseball had a higher OPS and one, Charlie Blackmon, had a .999 OPS as the leadoff hitter on his way to an MVP-caliber season.
“Once our offense really started hitting its stride, Matt was in the leadoff spot,” Matheny said. “You can talk about Dex bouncing around in the order. We brought him in here with the idea of being our leadoff hitter, and ended up needing him to hit in a different spot.”
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Fowler had a career-high 18 homers and 64 RBIs , and after a sluggish start atop the lineup he bulked up with a .990 OPS and .540 slugging in the cleanup spot.
“We just have to navigate that and decide what looks best,” said John Mozeliak, the team’s president of baseball operations. “I don’t think it’s a competition. We have two guys who have great on-base (abilities) and I’m OK with that.”
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While the Cardinals’ preference is to establish a consistent leadoff hitter — a compromise of the two — Mozeliak and Matheny underscored the team’s plan to be less rigid when it comes to the everyday position of some players. A year after suggesting that fixed positions might help the team improve defensively, the Cardinals have told Carpenter that he should focus on “athleticism” and “agility” this winter and be prepped to play multiple positions . Jedd Gyorko has the same assignment, and while Paul DeJong is expected to be the starter at shortstop an acquisition could shift him to third base.
“It’s a dramatic shift in how we’re thinking,” Mozeliak said. “We look at what we have and how they want to be used and how they like to play and they’re going to welcome that. So with someone like ‘Carp’ — he could get at-bats at second, he could get at-bats at third, he could get at-bats at first. Trying to get (Jose) Martinez at-bats. I feel good” about it.