Center field a focus as Cards eye offseason market -

Center field a focus as Cards eye offseason market

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( -- The challenge in creating a different look in the St. Louis Cardinals outfield in 2017 is balancing the desire for a much-improved defense with the need for consistent offense from all three spots.

That could only be accomplished, it would seem, with a big name acquisition.

The only position not up for grabs is right field, where Stephen Piscotty appears set for years to come. In his first full season, Piscotty hit .273 with 22 homers and 85 RBIs, a very credible performance. Defensively, while he committed four errors, sabermetrics predict that over the course of 1,200 innings, he would save three runs above average, perhaps not as impressive as Jason Heyward last year, but a solid major league performance nonetheless. Write his name in the lineup anywhere you like.

Randal Grichuk continues to be a baseball enigma; a supremely talented player, but never able to put all the pieces in place. The ball rockets off his bat and even a mishit can travel 400 feet. He hit 24 homers in a limited number of plate appearances but batted just .240 on the season. Defensively, he misread a few seemingly routine fly balls, but those same defensive analytics  project that over 1,200 innings, he would save 10 runs above average. Still, he figures to be a corner outfielder, taking Matt Holliday’s place in left, thus offering an upgrade over Big Daddy’s defense (-12 runs below average).

Cards GM John Mozeliak said the Cards would consider what might be available for a full-time, everyday center fielder. “For us I think it’s going to be what can we do to upgrade in center, vs. keeping Grichuk there. If we don’t find a good solution then we just keep Grichuk there, and put someone else in left. I feel for us it’s really going to be exploring what that trade and free-agent market looks like before we make that determination.

“All of us from an offensive standpoint think he could be an All-Star. And I think if we’re having this conversation last year, defensively we were pretty confident he would be above-average defender. I do think maybe the pressures of being that everyday player this year – Mike alluded to some of these younger players getting thrown into the fire, and he was one of them. There is a maturity growth pattern that he needs to follow as well. (We) still think he’s an elite type talent.”

If Grichuk moves to left as the Redbirds seem to be leaning, that leaves center open for the taking. It is clear that no one on the 2016 roster will be able to claim it however. Tommy Pham and Jeremy Hazelbaker will both be 29 next year and are essentially the same player. Hazelbaker hit .235, Pham .226.  Both had spurts in which it seemed great things might develop but never did. Defensively, the metrics say over 1,200 innings, Hazelbaker would give up nine more runs than average. Pham would cost the club 13. Neither is compelling.

What does the Cardinal center fielder next year look like? Mozeliak stressed defense first, speed and hitting next. “We have to decide what we want center field to look like. Ultimately, those are the discussions that we will have over the next few weeks, and that will set the agenda for the offseason.

“If we decide Carp is going to move down in the order, then having someone hit in the leadoff spot would be helpful. But I don’t think the identity of the center fielder is solely based on where he’d hit in the lineup as much as being above average defensively.”

One guy who fits that description is Dexter Fowler, who signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs but who will be difficult to pry away, given the Cubs’ success this year and his key role in it.

If the Cards are unable to trade or sign a premier talent and Grichuk stays in center, a decent option for left field would be Matt Carpenter. A professional hitter by every measure he has not found a position in which he excels defensively. Left field would be a good fit and an upgrade over Matt Holliday, with less exposure of his flaws.

Committing long term to a top tier center fielder could block young, promising players like Harrison Bader, whose rapid ascent through the minor league system indicates he could get a look as early as next year.  Bader has shown good offense, excellent defense, speed and a presence in big ballgames the Cardinals could really use. And he checks another box Mozeliak stressed in the postseason wrap-up, that of athleticism.

“I think when you look at our minor league system, athleticism is a driving force. Bader is someone that’s that type of complete player, which is good. I think most of our depth is still a couple years away. But even (Paul) DeJong is an athletic player. Directionally you’re seeing our system produce a more complete type of player.”

Bader and DeJong, along with, perhaps, Luke Voit, are still a year or two away from everyday consideration. Good to have in your system, but of no use if they languish in Memphis.

So, look for Piscotty and Grichuk as corner outfielders and a trade or free agent acquisition in center. If that does not materialize, Carpenter could go to left, but that trio does not address the need for better outfield defense.

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