By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
After Matt Carpenter‘s return to leadoff and the Cardinals’ clubhouse shakeup, offense hasn’t been a significant problem for the Busch Stadium boys. St. Louis is averaging over five runs a game since kicking off a dramatic homestand against the Phillies last Friday night. In fact, aside from the opening contest – which they won 3-to-2 – they’ve managed to score at least five runs in each of their last five games. That’s a feat they managed just once, in a 6-to-7 loss to the Cubs on June 4th, in the previous two weeks.
But they’ve done this before.
In early May, the Cardinals put together an 8-and-1 stretch against the Braves, Marlins, and Cubs by scoring five runs or more eight times, six runs or more five times, and nine runs twice – or 6.1 runs per game. They followed that offensive binge with a 23-game, 6-and-17 tumble by averaging just 3 runs per game. And in April, after that infamous 3-and-9 start to the season that included Jhonny Peralta in an anemic, 3.5 runs-per-game lineup, Mozeliak stepped in and helped Matheny patch the bus long enough to score 4.75 runs per game for the rest of the month.
Again, they regressed.
Such an up-and-down season has likely left Mozeliak and Co. scratching their heads and asking, “Which offense is the real offense?” In other words, can this team score, or are the brief stretches of consistent run-scoring merely a mirage?
The answer: Yes.
This team has pieces that can score. Carpenter, Diaz, Molina, and Fowler are All-Stars for a reason. Their career numbers are for real and should be trusted over a long season. Yes, the lineup lacks a thumper – that middle-of-the-order bat that can power a roster – but that’s a different discussion, one that seeks to answer the question, can this lineup score enough? Mozeliak will have to answer that eventually, but it’s not the one to be answered immediately.
For now, he needs to know, can this lineup score consistently? And that question is defined by one small but critical distinction.
The Cardinals roster has a lot of choices but few options. Consider this…
The 25-man roster currently lists seven players as infielders, five of which can play second base, but only three are real possibilities, two if you cross off Gyorko whose currently entrenched at third. And yet, when every day starter Kolten Wong hit the disabled list, the Cardinals called up rookie Paul DeJong to make his major-league debut and play every day at second base.
Likewise, four of the listed fielders can play third base, five if you count Kolten Wong in a pinch. Three have spent measurable time there. But only Greg Garcia and Jedd Gyorko are considered regular options, and only Gyorko can stick every day.
Gyorko doesn’t have a hit in his last four games (three as a starter) and only two extra base hits since June 1st. Ideally, Garcia could spell him for a game or two, but with one hit in 19 June plate appearances, he’s not hitting either.
Now, it’s time to get creative.
Matt Carpenter could cross back across the diamond – he’s already done it once this season – especially with Jose Martinez heating up over the last few days. That would put two of the Cardinals’ hottest bats in the lineup at the same time and in the same infield. It’s not defensively ideal – Carpenter is below average at third and Martinez is little more than a statue at first base – but it could work for a game or two.
But then, that opens up another hole in the outfield.
Matheny has been playing Jose’s hot bat, in part, because Tommy Pham has just one extra-base hit since May 29th. Deploying Martinez at first base forces Pham back into a lineup that relied on him in his return to MLB duty but now appears to be looking for a way to hop off that streaky ride.
Again, lots of choices, few options.
That’s where first baseman Luke Voit comes in.
He won a home run derby. He won a batting title. He won two different Player of the Month awards. And that’s all in the last year. On Wednesday, when four different Redbirds hit solo home runs, Voit hit two. Currently, his .327/.405/.584 slash line and 12 home runs leads the Memphis Redbirds in multiple offensive categories.
Flying under the radar since being drafted in 2013, Voit is making people pay attention now. Mozeliak needs to see if his success can translate to the major-league level, and now is the perfect time to find out.
Randal Grichuk needs more time in Triple-A to see if a reconsidered approach at the plate can make him a viable option going forward. Tommy Pham, Grichuk’s replacement, needs a break from every day duty, and that puts Martinez in the role of starting corner outfielder. But Jedd Gyorko also needs a blow, opening up a spot at third base for a day or two. His replacement, Greg Garcia, has been punchless for more than a month. Carpenter could slide over, but his back up at first base is needed in the outfield.
And here we go again.
The answer to this endless loop of shifting players could be Voit. By playing him at first base, Martinez can play the outfield, Carpenter can play third base, and both Gyorko and Pham can rest and reset. It also doesn’t hurt that the Cardinals are preparing to leave for Baltimore for a three-game series against the bombing birds in a park that makes use of the designated hitter.
There may be no better time to find out what the Cardinals have in a surprising local boy currently outplaying the competition in the Pacific Coast League.
Voit isn’t the answer to the Cardinals woes, but he could be an answer. All those flexible players on Matheny’s lineup card are nice to have, but when it comes to maintaining offensive momentum, they have little to offer. Carpenter and crew can carry the lineup for a week, two weeks, maybe even a bit more. But eventually, guys regress and need a break. That’s when the lineup falters.
Voit could help the Cardinals maintain their offensive surge and avoid a prolonged slump by giving Matheny a real option at first base – and some needed power off the bench – not just another playable choice.
The only problem now is, can Mike let go of his 13-pitcher security blanket to squeeze him on the roster for a few days?
(Update: A reader mentioned Luke Voit’s absence from the 40-man roster as a reason the Cardinals won’t call him up. Absolutely. The 40-man is an issue. However, it’s one we’ve seen Mozeliak overcome before, especially when trying to goose an offense. Also, by my count, the roster has one spot available w/Zach Duke on the 60-day DL – which does not count against the 40 – and Alex Reyes is currently on the 10-day DL. He could be moved to the 60-day once the 40-man is full. That effectively creates two spots on the 40-man. It’s pretty clear Mo is focused on using his newfound flexibility on the roster – after DFAing Broxton and Peralta – to bring clarity to the pen. However, it’s also worth noting that the club is 4-5 weeks from moving players either for acquisitions that make the club better, or as sellers to look towards 2018. Either way, players traded will likely either come from the 40-man – freeing up space – or come from the crop of players Mo and Co. will need to add to the 40-man this offseason to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. Again, either way, 40-man roster relief could be just around the corner. And that doesn’t even consider whatever solution the club settles on with Randal Grichuk’s future. Besides, a showcase of Voit at the MLB level could be just what Mo needs to flip him as an asset, and that would solve the Voit/40-man issue all by its lonesome. Ultimately, always remember the GM has options when it comes to manipulating a 40-man, and it mostly depends on what he has in mind for players that would take up spots on the 40-man. And only Mo and his assistants know that.)
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.
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