This past weekend, at the Cardinals’ annual ‘Winter Warm-Up’, most of the talk that I heard surrounded the Chicago Cubs. How will the Cardinals react to being underdogs? Is this finally the year Chicago wins it all? In what new way can the Cubs destroy St. Louis next?
The rivalry with Chicago is, without a doubt, the most interesting storyline entering the 2016 season for St. Louis, but as I was thinking about how the Cardinals match up with Chicago the other day I realized something.
First base is a confusing black hole in St. Louis.
There are two types of positional solutions in modern baseball; conventional wisdom would claim that every position needs a primary starter that will receive between 90 and 95% of the at-bats while teams like Oakland and Tampa Bay have revolutionized the platoon, a system in which two players almost evenly split at bats to highlight the specific strengths of each player.
The Cardinals have neither of those
What St. Louis does have is a pair of left handed sluggers who play average defense, have big power potential and are more fit to be platoon first basemen. Therein lies the issue…both of them are left handed.
How are you supposed to platoon two left handed first baseman?
Both Brandon Moss and Matt Adams have shown that they are capable of handling a starting job at 1st base; and not just starting, but being above average players.
Over 563 PA as the primary Cardinals’ 1st baseman during the 2014 campaign, Adams produced a 129 OPS+, mashed 17 dingers and drove home 68 en route to a 3.4 WAR. During the 3 seasons he spent as Oakland’s starting 1B, Moss delivered an .844 OPS, 135 OPS+, hammered 76 HR’s and accumulated 6.5 WAR. Both guys are capable of being above average starting 1st basemen, but both guys come with their share of uncertainty.
After his breakout 2014 season, Adams entered 2015 looking to solidify himself as the Cardinals’ 1st baseman of the future when a devastating May quad injury robbed him of just about all of his season. His knee injury forced Mark Reynolds into primary duty, and when Reynolds – not really suited for a full time starting job – started to falter, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak was forced to deal for Brandon Moss.
Moss came to the Cardinals following a disappointing half season in Cleveland in which his power was sapped by an offseason back surgery. After hitting 30 homers in only 505 PA during the 2014 season, Moss was only able to hit 15 homers in 526 PA during 2015.
So take your pick between the guy coming off the serious leg injury or the guy coming off the serious back injury as your primary first baseman. In true baseball fashion, the Cardinals current 1st base situation is unpredictable and uncertain.
The question is pretty obvious, but unfortunately the answer is far from obvious. As I brought up earlier, how in the world are you supposed to platoon two left handed 1st basemen? But let’s say we were to try and do it, how would it work?
The point of a platoon is to highlight each player’s splits vs. a left handed or right handed pitcher. So if player A can hit lefties but not righties, while player B can hit righties but not lefties, player A and player B would naturally form an ideal platoon. So let’s check the splits.
Adams – in a pretty small sample size – slashes .197/.230/.317 with 6 HR, 26 RBI and a 30.9% strikeout percentage in 230 PA. If my years in baseball have taught me anything, that’s not anything to be real proud of.
Moss – in a much larger sample size – slashes .246/.322/.399 with 16 HR, 71 RBI and a 28.1% strikeout percentage in 559 PA, nearly a full season’s worth of PA to base these numbers. Again, not particularly outstanding but certainly respectable.
Against right handed pitchers over his brief career, Adams has accrued a much larger sample size of 929 PA; and in those 929 PA he slashes .296/.337/.485 with 33 HR, 130 RBI and a 20.2% strikeout percentage.
Moss – in 2,097 PA vs right handers – slashes .243/.322/.463 with 94 HR, 285 RBI and a surprisingly robust 25.8% strikeout percentage. While he strikes out less vs. righties, Adams’ walk rate is a paltry 5.9% while Moss’ walk rate is a less paltry 10.5%.
These splits really only further complicate the problem. Both guys are bad against southpaws, but Moss is less bad than Adams. Both guys are pretty good against righties, but Adams is better than Moss. So do you start Adams vs. righties and start Moss’ vs. lefties? It’s a possibility, but facing right handers would give Adams the majority of the at bats and would be not only irresponsible, but would defeat the purpose of a platoon.
Knowing Mike Matheny and his penchant for simple positional solutions, the Cardinals will probably give both guys equal opportunity over the course of the first few weeks of the season before riding the guy who plays the best over those few weeks as the primary starter. Matheny did this in 2014 when he split at-bats in CF between Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay before giving the full time job – whether it was fair or unfair is up for debate – to Jay when Bourjos went ice cold at the plate.
So what do I believe? I believe that Adams’ 2014 season was his ceiling and that he really doesn’t have much more to offer the Cardinals, while Moss’ massive power potential combined with a full offseason spent gaining back his lost strength from the aforementioned back surgery make him the best option.
As has been well chronicled, the Cardinals lack a truly transcendent power bat in the middle of their lineup. While Moss won’t ever really be a Ryan Howard-esque superstar, he can still deliver the power that has been missing from the Cardinals lineup since Albert Pujols left town.
It’s a fascinating conundrum that has plagued the Cardinals all offseason, but for St. Louis to take the next step in the postseason, 1st base must be solidified. If either guy can take control of the position to the full extent of his abilities, the Cardinals will be solidified and ready to challenge the Cubs for the division title that has seemingly already been presented to them.
Thanks for reading…
Credit to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for all data used in this post