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Cardinals confident defense will improve, but is improving it still a priority?

St. Louis Cardinals defense

The overriding narrative from the Cardinals disappointing 2016 season was one fans hoped would dissipate upon the dawning of a new campaign. The defense was bad, but that was old news–it was last year’s story. This year would be different; it would have to be.

Some were convinced a heavier dose of Kolten Wong at second base and the addition of Dexter Fowler to retool the outfield would be the only notable moves required to accomplish a better defensive outlook. I was one of those people.

Matt Carpenter stationed every day at first base instead of at second or third–but especially second, where metrics grade him worse than at third and where the alternative (Wong) is far better–would be a good thing. He wouldn’t earn accolades over there, but he wouldn’t need to; sticking him there would lead to a better aggregate defense.

Fowler flanking Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty in the outfield would give the team an athlete at each spot–that wasn’t the case with Matt Holliday manning left field. Holliday’s departure made sense–he could still swing the bat, but clearing him and Brandon Moss allowed the Cardinals to commit to playing better defense. Remember, that was the stated priority of the winter.

Not everyone believed this plan would work, but for those who did, these were the new tenants of the doctrine on defense that inspired their optimism.

Just a week into the new season, that optimism is wearing thin.

If you weren’t convinced the Cardinals’ offseason moves were enough to fix the defense, you’ve probably fired off your share of  ‘I told you so’ tweets while watching St. Louis stumble to a 2-4 start. But don’t get it twisted: the offense, with the exception of a 10-run outburst Saturday against Cincinnati, has been the primary factor in these losses, scoring one, four, zero and zero in the four losses. Obviously, that won’t get the job done–but the team didn’t spend the entire winter promising the Cardinals would score more runs this year. The bullpen has been rough too, but again, John Mozeliak didn’t emphasize the bullpen as the team’s top offseason priority.

The Cardinals are not concerned about their early-season defensive woes, believing the rust will inevitably shake off soon.

“We feel really confident–we have a good team, guys with good defense,” Jhonny Peralta said in a post-game interview aired on Fox Sports Midwest after Sunday’s 8-0 loss to the Reds. Peralta became that day’s symbol for porous defense after he earned two errors on a single play. “Errors are going to happen in the game. We don’t need to worry about that today. I know we lost the game, but tomorrow’s another day.”

Similarly charged with a couple errors in the season’s first week, Grichuk is also not buying into worry over the Cardinal defense.

“Oh yeah, definitely,” Grichuk said about his belief the defense would improve. “It’s not one of the things we’re worried about. It’s early, things happen, it’s part of baseball.”

Like his players, the Cardinal manager is not concerned about the sluggish start defensively, either.

“I’ve seen some good defense, and today had one play that turned into double trouble,” Matheny said. “And then just a bobbled ball. But I would hate to think that’s going to be the talk of our team right now, because that’s not true. This is going to be a good defensive team.”

In a vacuum, I agree with Matheny that a tough start defensively should not be the conversation surrounding this team. The Cardinals lost 8-0 Sunday; poor defense added fuel to the fire, but it didn’t cost them the game. Truthfully, defense hasn’t been the main culprit in any of the Cardinals losses–you can’t win if you don’t score.

But this conversation isn’t taking place in a vacuum. Defense is relevant to fan interest because of the implication that it would be prioritized this season differently than it was last season.

Through one week, that hasn’t happened. It’s absolutely worth noting, we’re talking about one week of a six-month marathon. But in that week, have the Cardinals emphasized defense more intently than they did last year? Because of how prominently it was stressed over the winter, it’s fair to ask.

So far, the Cardinals have used Matt Adams–albeit, a slimmer, more mobile version of Matt Adams–as a left fielder on multiple occasions in the first week of the season. Note: I have been on the record as an Adams supporter, and especially like his track record against right-handed pitching (Career: 122 wRC+, with 100 being league average).

I say this to illustrate that I don’t come from a bias that feels Adams is nothing more than a bench bat; that’s not the case–I’d like to see Adams start against righties. Just not in the outfield.

Using Adams in left field–a position he had never played as of a few weeks ago–is not consistent with a priority on defense. I understand why Adams is playing left field: the Cardinals can see the numbers–he hits righties pretty well, so they want him in the lineup. With Carpenter playing first, there’s no room for Adams there. So you make it work, with the belief that Adams’ performance at the plate will justify his inexperienced defense in left.

Normally, I’d argue this is perfectly defensible; teams sacrifice defense for offense all the time. But specific to the Cardinals’ circumstances–with Mozeliak’s stated intention to prioritize defense at the expense of offense–Adams playing so much left field this early is puzzling.

While saving the argument for a more traditionally applied platoon for Kolten Wong (Career: 91 wRC+ vs. RHP, 73 wRC+ vs. LHP) and Jedd Gyorko (Career: 92 wRC+ vs. RHP, 112 wRC+ vs. LHP) for another day, the infield alignment has been reasonable. Although, if the Cardinals insist on Adams in the lineup, another sort of platoon could suit the team defensively better than using a first baseman in left field.

Jhonny Peralta struggled defensively as a third baseman in 2016, particularly based on metrics. Though a greater level of comfort at the position could give him more consistency there this season, Peralta’s career splits (101 wRC+ vs. RHP, 109 wRC+ vs. LHP) lend a slight favor to his performance against lefties. If Peralta played against lefties and conceded to Adams against righties, that would be another way to–based on career numbers–maximize the team’s offense while still prioritizing its defense.

Of course, that statement depends on your view of Carpenter as a third baseman, as he would have to shift there against righties to make room for Adams at first. Metrics have viewed Carpenter unfavorably at third over his career, but no worse than they did Peralta in 2016. The other complication: locking Carpenter into one position was a priority coming into the season–through one week, the Cardinals have accomplished that, using him only as a first baseman. So moving Carpenter may be a non-starter–that doesn’t change my personal belief that doing so would provide a more sensible alignment than employing Adams in the outfield.

Like Carpenter’s confinement to a consistent position, defense in general was supposed to be a priority for the Cardinals. It’s possible that priority has already faded, again giving way to the emphasis of a more powerful offense. If that’s the case, it would seem a disturbingly brief stint for a goal that was so widely considered as sensible going into the offseason.

Perhaps it’s too early to make a definitive claim one way or the other; after all, six games is a minuscule sample. Still, if those six games are a harbinger of the summer, winter’s most prominent discussion may have been for naught.

(Photo Credit: @cardinalsgifs)

  • Joi

    Great article. Hard to swallow the focus on defense after getting shut out – by the Reds especially. I’m in the minority, but I’ve always wanted Carp left at third, Adams on first, Wong at second and Diaz (of course!) at third. Year before last, with these guys at their given bases, we were a contender. We don’t look like one so far this year. And while I sort of understand it, I hate to see such nonchalance from the coaches/team. EVERY game matters, as last year proved. If we hadn’t stunk so badly in our first games last year, we’d have made the off season. The fact they didn’t seem to learn from this has most of the fan base pretty annoyed. Hoping they turn it around before they fall further back.

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