John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny talked about improving the defense and athleticism so much this offseason, you almost thought it was part of the Cardinals’ 2017 marketing slogan.
Two weeks into the season, though, the Cardinals appear eerily similar to the 2016 edition, only without the offensive pop. With 10 errors in 11 games, the defense has been lacking throughout the entire diamond. Even worse, the Matt Adams experiment in left field betrays any semblance of a commitment to improved defense or athleticism.
As the 3-8 Cardinals try to establish an identity, Matheny must decide if he’s 100-percent committed to what he and Mozeliak preached all offseason. If he is committed, then why is he experimenting in left field?
Mozeliak, the general manager, and Bill DeWitt Jr., the managing partner, lived up to their part of the bargain by giving free agent center fielder Dexter Fowler a five-year, $82.5 million contract. With Fowler in center and Randal Grichuk moving from center to left, the outfield defense would clearly be better and more athletic.
Matheny seemed committed to improved defense all spring. Yet, he completely undermined that commitment to defense by starting Adams instead of Grichuk in left field Wednesday against the Nationals’ Max Scherzer.
Chicks may dig the long ball, but pitching puts a ring on it. Ignoring the fact that Adams is hitting .167, there is no justification for using him in left field ahead of Grichuk or Jose Martinez except in an emergency.
The fielding stats would say he has a perfect fielding percentage with no errors on six chances in 27 1/3 innings in left field this season, but that doesn’t account for his lack of range or the advance defensive metrics that show he would be minus 44 runs below the average left fielder over 1,200 innings.
That’s not to say Adams is the only problem. The Cardinals are averaging almost an error a game. One unearned run has been the difference in each of the first two games against the Yankees this weekend. Now they must try to avoid a three-game sweep Sunday night at Yankee Stadium.
The Cardinals wasted no time acknowledging their deficiencies during their first press conference after last season. That theme continued through the general managers’ meetings in Arizona in November, the winter meetings near Washington D.C. in December, the Winter Warm-Up here in January and through spring training in February and March.
The best thing we can say about the Cardinals at this point is that the first two weeks of a season don’t have to define their identity. All-star shortstop Aledmys Diaz, catcher Yadier Molina, righthanded starter Mike Leake (1-1, 0.60 ERA), relievers Matt Bowman and Miguel Socolovich, and backup outfielder/first baseman Jose Martinez are the only Cardinals who have stood out so far.
Although it’s way too early to be overly concerned about righthander Adam Wainwright, the 35-year-old veteran’s 0-2 record and 7.00 ERA raises some doubts heading into his third start of the season Sunday.
The bullpen is off to a disappointing start to put it mildly. The offense should be better than what the early numbers indicate. Fowler’s .136/.224/.159 slash line will surely rise closer to his career norm of .267/.362/.419.
The optimists will tell you that it’s tremendously early. The Cardinals haven’t even played a 10th of the season.
There are still 151 games remaining, so it’s beyond ridiculous to panic before the Easter baskets have even been put away.
Nonetheless, local fans surely must wonder if the Cardinals are really committed to the goals they preached all offseason. With that in mind, I called Mozeliak to ask about his team’s defense and athleticsm.
“I would say that our entire spring training was focused on doing the little things right, trying to take the extra base,” Mozeliak said. “Defense was driving our decision making. It’s early in the season but from a pure performance (standpoint) we have not lived up to how we were performing in camp.”
Every baseball person will remind you that you should never put too much weight on spring training numbers, whether they are good or bad. Those exhibitions don’t count.
You have to commend Adams’ willingness to play left field after never playing the position until late this spring. Former Cardinals great Willie McGee will even work with Adams on outfield defense when the team returns to Busch Stadium on Monday to start a brief three-game homestand.
If Matheny’s committed to improved defense, though, he would be better off starting the 58-year-old McGee in left. Better yet, how about starting Grichuk in left or Jose Martinez? Teams committed to more athleticism and better defense would explore those options before going with Adams.
I didn’t promise the Cardinals would play better defense and display more athleticism. We didn’t make up those quotes all winter. Mozeliak and Matheny made those vows, but Mozeliak can do only so much.
Matheny makes out the lineup. Only he can deliver on the promises the Cardinals made. Is he committed to better defense and more athleticism? Only he knows, but the first two weeks don’t support his offseason promises.