<
>

Can Baby Birds carry the Cardinals?

As they begin to move on from core players such as Yadier Molina, the Cardinals are looking to Stephen Piscotty to help shape the future. AP Photo/Paul Beaty

ST. LOUIS -- The perception of the St. Louis Cardinals as an aging former National League Central dynasty is a bit misleading. They fielded a younger-than-average lineup last season. The average of their hitters' ages was 28½, not shockingly different than the Chicago Cubs' 27.4.

What's not misleading: The Cardinals are trying to move on from their championship core of Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright by searching for in-house replacements, even while Molina and Wainwright remain and are being counted on heavily next season.

If prospect Carson Kelly and right-hander Carlos Martinez are the literal answers to who will be the behind-the-plate anchor and ace of the future, finding people to replace Holliday's production and leadership will be a real task. For 2017 to be more satisfying than 2016 and for the Cardinals to return to their traditional spot among baseball's legitimate World Series contenders, they'll need a handful of hitters to prove things they have yet to prove. Let's look into what's being asked of some of those pivotal players.

Kolten Wong

The Cardinals have lavished Wong with praise this offseason for one obvious reason: They need him. That's why they showed little interest in trading him when other teams called, such as the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Angels. The Cardinals are relying heavily on Wong; the team is intent on steadying its infield defense. He is an elite athlete who ironed out some early foibles to become the only true impactful defender on the team (with the possible exception of Yadier Molina).

General manager John Mozeliak has long been a believer in Wong. The infielder received a five-year, $25.5 million extension last spring.

"You have to have the understanding of patience," Mozeliak said. "I also feel like with Kolten, he understood some of those ups and downs last year. He's going to approach this year as a fresh start. Hopefully everybody involved takes advantage of that. He's one of those rare talents.

"By not being patient, by not understanding, there could be some bumps in the road."

But urging manager Mike Matheny to be patient is a big ask. Wong can be a frustrating offensive player, to say the least. He lacks on-base skills and has not yet displayed his potential power, which means he is virtually useless if he isn't getting base hits. Last season, he didn't. He batted .240. Only 16 NL players with at least 350 plate appearances had a worse wRC+ than Wong's 85. Among them were Erick Aybar, Jason Heyward and Ryan Howard.

But Wong's fielding is strong enough to make up for his struggles at the plate. He is among the few Cardinals with above-average base-running ability. He still had an fWAR of 1.2, hinting that Mozeliak's desire for patience is the proper path. A .268 BABIP hinted that Wong hit into more than his share of bad luck. Mostly, the Cardinals are banking on Wong's talent and the hope he no longer will try so hard to live up to the contract. He is a sensitive player who takes his obligations to the team and fan base seriously, perhaps too seriously at times.

It's a pivotal season not only for the Cardinals, but for Wong, 26, to finally establish himself.

"Kolten has had success at every level offensively, and that doesn't disappear," Matheny said. "It's just part of the process for a young player. I think he's a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman. And he's going to have to go out there, and he's going to have fight through some of those lulls that the game just brings.

"I saw him grow up last year through the adversity, and I see some exciting things ahead for him."

Randal Grichuk

The question around Grichuk all winter was whether his glove deserved being relegated to left field to accommodate the arrival of Dexter Fowler in center. That might be the wrong question. A better one is whether Grichuk's bat is reliable enough to make him a team's everyday left fielder, a position often reserved for a team's most feared hitter.

Grichuk regressed in every major offensive category last season with the exception of his 24 home runs, which were largely the product of 128 more plate appearances, and strikeout percentage, which still hovered near 30 percent, a number that was practically unheard of 20 years ago. Only one everyday NL left fielder, Howie Kendrick, had a wRC+ worse than Grichuk's 102, and none had an OBP as low as his .289.

Grichuk's case for playing time is virtually identical to Wong's. Grichuk has upside. He is 25, has more right-handed power than any other Cardinals player and has proved to be an asset in base running. He should be more than competent at handling left field, which he played regularly in 2015. Grichuk's .294 BABIP last year suggests his struggles were largely his own doing, unlike Wong. The astronomical strikeout rate and low walk rate (5.8 percent) suggest trouble ahead in terms of making consistent contributions to the offense.

The slumps were easier to take when the Cardinals were relying on Grichuk to man a premium defensive position such as center field. Right now, his best defense is the team's lack of other options.

Stephen Piscotty

Matt Adams created some buzz when he showed up at a hockey game in St. Louis looking considerably lighter and told reporters he shed roughly 25 pounds. The Cardinals might be better off if their right fielder packed on some weight, presuming he made sure it was muscle. The rigors of a major league season wore down Piscotty.

His April (.883) and May (.909) OPS and August (.777) and September (.714) OPS tell that tale pretty clearly.

The way the Cardinals' lineup is shaping up, Fowler figures to bat leadoff, Aledmys Diaz figures to remain in the No. 2 hole and Matt Carpenter figures to bat third. That leaves Piscotty as the cleanup hitter, giving Matheny an ideal lefty-righty balance. It also means the Cardinals would love if Piscotty continued his upward trend in power. Until last season, he had never hit 20 home runs at any level.

The Cardinals finally came up with power last season, but they sacrificed other aspects of the game to get it. They are intent on restoring equilibrium and hope they haven't lost too much power by letting Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss walk. Moss, however, continues to dangle on the open market.

Even in college, Piscotty was more intent on being a pure hitter. The Cardinals urged him to work on his power at Triple-A Memphis two seasons ago, and he did so diligently. The 2017 season will give a good indication of how he has progressed in the early stages. He seems more bankable than Grichuk as an everyday presence because of his superior on-base skills, but like Wong, Piscotty remains in the proving stage.

Matt Carpenter

Carpenter is the only Cardinal who has virtually nothing to prove as a hitter. However, he has to help the team answer a simple question: Are they fixing something that wasn't broken?

Carpenter has been one of the league's best leadoff hitters, but the Cardinals got another one: Fowler. Carpenter has better power and Fowler has better base-running ability, so that means Carpenter figures to move to another spot in the order, either second or third, ideally third. His career OPS in that spot of the order, however, is .614, way down from his .871 as a leadoff hitter.

The Cardinals have done the only thing they can do in this situation: shrug it off as a small sample size. Carpenter has batted third in only 10 games primarily because the Cardinals always had Holliday. But Carpenter says he'll be the same guy no matter where he hits or plays in the infield. They think he'll be the same guy. They need him to be the same guy, because their offense is built around him more than ever before.

Holliday is gone. Molina will turn 35 near the All-Star break. In some ways, this is Carpenter's team, so how could he not be viewed as one of the pivotal hitters?