From the moment the Cardinals decided that first base was the ultimate landing spot for Matt Carpenter in the team’s defensive alignment, they had a Matt Adams problem.
Adams has only ever been a first baseman throughout his five-year major league career. Lacking the flexibility typically associated with an asset off the bench, Adams became a roster redundancy upon Carpenter’s permanent position switch. Because both are left-handed batters, Adams doesn’t even represent a sensible option as the team’s backup first baseman on a daily basis; his career splits render him a poor complement for spot starts on days when Carpenter receives a rare rest against a tough lefty.
With that roster quirk in mind, the news that Adams was taking some outfield repetitions on a backfield of the Cardinals spring training complex Saturday makes sense. If he’s not going to play at first base, gauging the realism for using Adams at another position isn’t an unreasonable spring training venture.
According to Ben Frederickson of the Post-Dispatch, the keen eye of Derrick Goold is the reason this news became public in the first place. Rick Hummel reported that Adams had taken fly balls at the beginning of camp–just for the heck of it–but that Mike Matheny only first broached the subject of Adams exploring the outfield as a more serious option Saturday morning. Adams spent time with Willie McGee, and is working on learning how to read the flights of fly balls as a left fielder.
Nice catch by DG. Noticed Slim City carrying an outfielder's glove. https://t.co/r0LHsfPS0j— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) March 18, 2017
Adams was reportedly receptive of the chance to expand his defensive repertoire–no surprise, as he likely realizes the team’s current plans neglect to use him with any frequency at his natural position.
The Cardinals latest potential position-change experiment has attracted some online criticism from those who feel the Cardinals have better options ahead of Adams as replacement outfielders. Jose Martinez has shined in his quest to crack the Opening Night roster, and Tommy Pham surely has an edge in athleticism over Adams on a team with defensively oriented goals. Even Harrison Bader could be a candidate for major league playing time should the need arise through injuries to Dexter Fowler, Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty. Why bother with Adams changing positions if the team has so many better options?
Adams possesses one quality each of the others does not; the very element that keeps him from being a fit as a backup first baseman makes him a possible solution as an outfielder: he bats left-handed.
Only the switch-hitting Fowler can swing it from the left side among the other potential Cardinals outfielders. If Adams can be even remotely competent in left field, he gives the roster added flexibility over the course of a six-month season. And this isn’t the same kind of flexibility that may have actually hurt the Cardinals last year; with everyone healthy, Adams isn’t stealing regular at-bats from any of the starting outfielders.
This is simply a preliminary exploration of a contingency plan. Matt Adams has a career OPS+ of 109 (OPS+ is a combined rating of on-base and slugging percentage as it relates to the rest of MLB, with a league average of 100). That’s equal to the career OPS+ of Brandon Moss and Jay Bruce–illustrating that when Adams plays, he’s a pretty good hitter. He just plays a position that demands more than ‘pretty good’ on a contending roster. First base is the home of MVP candidates–Matt Carpenter is the closest thing the Cardinals have to fitting that description.
So it’s worth finding out if a slimmed down Adams has ability to stand in left field and compare to Moss or Bruce. Neither are defensive stalwarts, but if Adams can match their relative competency in left field, he may well represent an attractive option if St. Louis loses an outfielder along the way. Think of it as an idea in case of emergency.
Another popular take has been to caution against the Adams experiment by citing what happened to Kolten Wong in his outfield stint last August. But when discussing the relative risk to the roster between the two examples, they’re not at all comparable. Wong is the best defensive second baseman on the roster–in fact, his primary benefit to the lineup is probably his defensive prowess, with his production at the plate considered gravy on top. Without Wong, the Cardinals project a daily infield similar to the one bemoaned consistently last summer. That’s a move with direct consequences to a player expected to be an everyday starter.
It may sound blunt, but there’s less risk in losing Adams to injury as a result of playing an unfamiliar position–because of his status on the roster. Short of an injury to Carpenter, Adams’ path to playing time doesn’t really exist unless the Cardinals double back on their intention to leave Carpenter at first. Now, if Carpenter does miss time, which is certainly plausible based on recent history, Adams stands to gain the lion’s share of first-base playing time. But if the concern is that high over Adams’ health because of his value as a backup first baseman, it should be worth exploring other ways to use him at the most basic level of risk. If he somehow hurts himself fielding batting practice fly balls–and that’s all we’re really talking about so far–that injury was probably coming, anyway.
If you want to argue the Cardinals should have realized they lacked a left-handed hitting bench outfielder a little sooner than 15 days before the regular season opens, that’s a fair complaint. Neither Moss nor Jeremy Hazelbaker have been in the picture since November–this hole in the roster shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But if the fundamental issue with Matt Adams doing some new defensive drills in March is concern over how the manager will find a way to inevitably bungle it–that feels like a disproportionately pessimistic view.
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