JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) -- Mike Matheny has spoken candidly this spring about his desire to move pieces of his team around. The manager is using the laboratory of the Grapefruit League to try different combinations- be it positioning, lineup construction or pitching situations- and in his words, “see how it looks.”
The most interesting of those experiments was an hour away from playing out Saturday when Matt Holliday, he of 1,614 games in left field and only left field, was penciled in to start at first base against the Marlins. Though he was scratched before the game with back tightness, the move indicated, for the first time, how genuine the Cardinals’ interest in exploring the option was.
“He’s passed everything in his mind that he wanted to see. He’s passed everything in our minds that we wanted to see,” Matheny said. Just how he moved, what his hands look like, some of his instincts. All that was real obvious to us early. Now it’s the next step of: what does it look like at big league speed?”
It was the culmination of an idea Holliday brought to his manager in the offseason, when the veteran began mulling the idea of learning a new position.
"He and I talked way back in the winter and he said, 'would you see any benefit in me playing first base?'" Matheny recalls. "I said, 'Matt, let's just be honest. That's an extra tool we have in our toolbox, that's an extra tool you have in your tool box for as you move forward in your career. I don't see how it could be anything but positive, I just don't want you to think we're forcing you down that road.'"
So Holliday spent the winter and spring months working out at first, leaning on Jose Oquendo and other fielders in his quest to become technically proficient around the bag. Now, in the early days of March, he and the team believe he’s taken those lessons as far as he can.
“Until you get out there and play in a game, you can only recreate so much as far as understanding where to go on relays. Getting out there in a game and slow it down so you don’t have to think so much,” Holliday said. “The game scenarios where you know where to go instinctively as a opposed to, in your mind, trying to play out every possible scenario and where you have to be. I think as an athlete, the less it is thinking and more instinctual, the better.”
The first baseman has different positioning responsibilities depending on game situations, all of which are foreign to a career outfielder. Holliday has worked to rewire his brain to remember to trail runners on a double, or be in the correct spot after a single up the middle. It’s not until he gets an unscripted test in an uncontrolled environment that he’ll know if the wiring took.
If he’s successful, the St. Louis lineup could have an intriguing solution to maintaining its potency against left-handed pitchers.
The two candidates fighting to start at first base, Brandon Moss and Matt Adams, are both left-handed. Holliday,a righty, is a historically dependable hitter capable of carrying a lineup for stretches of a season. Around him in the outfield are two high-profile young bats in Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, both of whom are right handed. Were Holliday to move to first against a lefty, Tommy Pham (also right handed) could be deployed in the outfield. That would give Matheny an extra righty in the lineup and a defensively superior outfield without sacrificing one of his best swingers. It just comes down to Holliday's defense at first and how much time he can get there during spring.
“As far as Brandon and Matt (Adams) go, we’ve seen them play first base, we know what we’re going to get,” Matheny said, explaining the starter competition between the two will be won at the plate. “At bats. That’s what this comes down to.”
During spring training, Moss can get at bats in the outfield and either man can get them as the DH, freeing up first base for Holliday to test himself. If the defense is there, he can become a platoon option during the season, which would give Matheny “some serious [left-handed] thump on the bench,” in the form of Moss and Adams for later in the game.
For Holliday, the move has the potential to prolong his career. The back tightness that postponed his first infield start is something he’s dealt with annually. First base, which requires him to cover less ground, could provide him more years at the plate, where he makes his hay.
“I think career-wise he’s trying to figure out ‘is there a way for me to continue’ because he loves playing the game. Is there a way for him to help us out as a club knowing we have some of these young outfielders that are shining,” Matheny said. “And also, is there less wear and tear for him to be at first? We won’t know. Everyone has their own individual opinions, but there’s no overwhelming answer one way or another what’s more taxing on your body … He seems to think it's less. We'll see because that's only to be determined over time. He doesn't have anything to really go off of except just the work so far.”
Holliday has enjoyed the work, saying he’s had fun adding more tools to repertoire. He called Nike and had them ship him a first baseman’s mitt, which will remain in his locker for a few days while he waits for his back to loosen up. The veteran iterated the transition process has always been low key, and spring training starts aren’t part of a regimented plan.
“We just talked about a plan going forward. We just talked about if I’m needed in the regular season, having enough games this spring to feel comfortable. That’s really all it was,” Holliday said. “I think there’s potential for it maybe. It’ll be up to Mike, he’ll just watch how the games go. I think it’s still a little early to say how much or how often it’s going to happen.”
It will come down to "how it looks." If the first test goes well enough to warrant a second, then the experiment will continue. If enough good results stack up, that new Nike mitt will get plenty of work.