There isn’t anything that can be said today about the Cardinals’ defense last season that hasn’t been said, written, and shouted repeatedly in the months since the tumultuous 2016 campaign concluded. It was bad. The Cardinals publicly stated it needed to be better, and would be prioritized going forward. Mashing home runs became the default identity of the team as the season progressed, but in the end, the deficiencies in other area could not be overcome.
For all the conversation about a better defense, the Cardinals arrived in Jupiter, Florida in February with largely the same group of position players from a year ago. It was easy to envision Dexter Fowler reshaping the outfield, as Randal Grichuk could shift from center to left to increase the athletic aesthetic of the group. But on the infield, the names were basically the same.
The roles were pledged to be different.
Matt Carpenter, below average elsewhere on the infield, would make a home at first base. Aledmys Diaz would return to shortstop, where blunders from early in his rookie season faded to steady defending as last summer wore on. Former shortstop Jhonny Peralta’s reintroduction to regular time at the hot corner last year was an unmitigated disaster according to defensive metrics. The Cardinals hoped that with a healthier body and a full offseason to prepare for the position, Peralta would be better at third.
It all sounded fine, if not a bit underwhelming, to fans who longed for substantive changes around the horn. Through these small changes, the Cardinals could achieve better defense–but the lynchpin in the whole thing had to be Kolten Wong.
“I was bullish on the defensive side,” John Mozeliak said on the Fox Sports Midwest broadcast Saturday. “I certainly think the way some of our players have entered camp and played defense this year in our camp has been positive. Kolten, I do think, gives you the most sure hands defensively and range.”
Wong can do more with a glove than any other infielder on the St. Louis roster. If everyone else on the infield could provide average to slightly above average defense, Wong could elevate the group to achieve the type of results the Cardinals desire.
To do so, he would have to play. According to new statements by the team, in order to to play, he’s going to need to hit–at least a little more than he has been so far this spring.
“You still have to do both,” Mozeliak said of Wong requiring not only good defense, but also a solid bat to earn playing time. “There is that sort of balance. But sometimes, with Kolten you sometimes feel he takes his at-bats with him out there to the field. Then you have the problem. In essence, what we are hoping to see is that he gets off to a good start and he can keep pushing forward. If he takes hold of that job, then it's his. I do feel like what you've seen from other players in this camp gives you reason for confidence that there are other alternatives.”
Wong’s .190/.277/.262 batting line this spring–especially compared to Greg Garcia’s impressive .349/.383/.558 line–threatens to derail the offseason expectation that Wong would be entrenched at second base. Mike Matheny's inclination to bench Wong instead of riding him as an everyday player through the tough times–like he did with Grichuk successfully during the second half of the season–is a mindset threatening to make an encore appearance.
“That's something we are going to have to consider,” Mozeliak said regarding a possible platoon between Wong and Garcia or Jedd Gyorko, who bats right. “We can't expect these guys to play sharp if they never play. It's a challenge."
Fair point by Mozeliak: it’s hard to keep hot hitters out of the lineup. Few things are more frustrating for a bench player than having a big game in a rare start, but going right back to riding pine the next night–it’s nearly impossible to find a good rhythm.
Just ask the supposed starting second baseman, whose lack of consistent work last season was used at times to justify his sluggish play. It sounds like he could be in danger of seeing last year’s troublesome circumstances crop up yet again.
“It's hard to say,” Mozeliak answered as to whether Wong could find his groove out of a platoon role. “I can't speak for a player on how they react to inconsistent play. Some people, it's fine. Other people, it pulls them down. Everyone is different. Regardless of whether he's playing every day or playing four days a week, you just hope he gets off to a quick start.”
Everyone hopes so. Because if he doesn’t, the defensive alignment of the new-look Cardinals is going to look strikingly similar to the one the team employed a year ago.
Copyright 2017 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.