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BenFred: Cardinals hinge hopes for 2020 on hitting coach Jeff Albert's success

BenFred: Cardinals hinge hopes for 2020 on hitting coach Jeff Albert's success

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Those who tuned in to the Cardinals’ end-of-season address Tuesday heard another staunch defense of publicly questioned hitting coach Jeff Albert.

No big news there.

The Cardinals nixed any notion of moving away from their first-year hitting coach before the Nationals finished sweeping them out of the NLCS.

What was new and interesting was just how much faith Albert’s bosses seem poised to put on display.

The Cardinals believe they have hired a hitting guru who will take their lineup into the future and beyond.

They sound prepared to wager their 2020 season on their double-down.

Tuesday’s comments from chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and general manager Michael Girsch told fans to curb expectations of a significant bump in player payroll and to expect a 2020 roster that more or less resembles the one from 2019.

There is no specific position or lineup spot the front office feels comfortable saying it will seek to improve through free agency or trade.

The Cardinals believe Matt Carpenter will bounce back. They believe the organization’s bountiful crop of young, unproven outfielders present the best chance to provide a fresh offensive boost. They believe runs are coming from within.

Every single one of these hopes has one thing in common: Albert.

He will be the compass relied upon to guide Carpenter back from the land of broken hitters.

He will be the video guru helping those young outfielders as they attempt to get a foothold above their peers in what could become an open tryout in the majors.

He will be the architect of an offseason and spring training that will prioritize rejuvenating bats that looked lost at times last season.

Ironically, this would probably be an easier sell to fans if Albert were brand-new.

Instead, his first year on the job coincided with every starting position player but two (Kolten Wong and Marcell Ozuna) dropping below his career average in on-base plus slugging percentage. Only one of those two is expected to return at this moment. (It’s not the one who hit cleanup.)

The Cardinals were one of baseball’s final four teams despite an offense that ranked in the bottom third in hits (1,336, 23rd), extra-base hits (480, 27th), home runs (210, 24th), average (.245, 23rd) and slugging percentage (.415, 23rd).

We will forever wonder what the 2019 Cardinals might have accomplished if their offense had been just a bit more accomplished. The team’s biggest flaw did not stop accomplishments from piling up.

DeWitt just awarded extensions to Mozeliak, Girsch and manager Mike Shildt. “Continuity” was the phrase this week. Coaches and assistants who have been processed in the churn of the organization’s pursuit of sustained success know security varies, and that it can end abruptly.

The same season that led to extensions elsewhere meant ejections for assistant hitting coach Mark Budaska and hitting coordinator George Greer. The firings and subsequent hires on the hitting side were made with a unification of voices in mind. Albert is The Voice now. All chairs have turned toward him.

If his message was questioned before, there should be zero interference now.

If the lineup looks lost again, there’s no other place to point.

“A lot has been made out of, you hire a coach and expect, like, the pixie dust to be spread across, and everything just works,” Mozeliak said. “The one thing I’ll tell you about Jeff is that he’s very strategic. He had a plan. I think, as you lay out your plan, sometimes you have to have that evolve.”

There are really three places to land when it comes to analyzing Albert’s debut. One pins the lineup’s mostly lost season on him. The other says the presence of the friction that has since been streamlined spoiled his launch. Perhaps it’s something in between.

That’s where the truth most often resides.

“He understands modern analytics, and he understands how to bake that into his teaching strategy,” Mozeliak said when asked what he saw from Albert that has increased his confidence in the hire. “I’m not saying that everybody will hear what he has to say. And I think part of what he has to learn to do is adjust in his messaging.

“But I think the way he looks at the world is, in a lot of ways, what we wanted to see happen as we move forward. And, again, I think he puts a lot of tools in the toolbox for young hitters. Ultimately, he’s got to find out which ones to pull.”

Fans fret because Albert’s hitting approach cannot be boiled down to one sentence. The best I can do is that he eschews a team-wide philosophy and instead wants to match each individual hitter’s strengths with an approach that works best for that player. It’s complicated.

Albert’s situation is not.

He’s being asked to prove the 2020 lineup is better than what we saw in 2019, no matter how many familiar faces it features.

2019 Report Card: Coaches, front office

2019 Report Card: Position players

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