Where does the Cardinals’ bench stack up in the league? Take a read to find out.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the Cardinals broke the pinch-hit home run record this season, amassing 15 long balls off the bench in 2016. This shows the general bench prowess, but I’d like to go into more, individual depth in this article, breaking down each bench player separately. To do this, I will take the starting lineups as they stood at the end of the 2016 regular season, and analyze the notable bench players based off of the season long 25-man roster, provided by MLB.com.
Lineup for October 1-3:
Matt Carpenter (1B)
Aledmys Diaz (SS)
Yadier Molina (C)
Stephen Piscotty (RF)
Johnny Peralta (3B)
Brandon Moss (LF)
Judd Gyorko (2B)
Randall Grichuk (CF)
Extra Position Players on 25-Man Roster:
*denotes arbitration process
**denotes free-agent after 2016 season
Let’s start with Brayan Pena. As of now, Pena will become a free agent going into 2018, signed through his age 35 season. Over his 12 year big league career, which has spanned over now five teams, Pena has been a virtual life-long back up. However, he has served the role reasonably well, batting just under .260 in his career over 638 games. While he does lack any sort of production what so ever, tallying just 6 home runs and 42 RBI in his 12-year big league stint as a back-up catcher, he has always been a solid defensive player, holding a .995 career fielding percentage, and a caught stealing rate of up around near 30%.
In 2016 with the Cardinals, however, he played the lowest amount of games in his career, just 9, amassing only 14 plate appearances and a measly .154 batting average, also his career low. The Cuban backstop spent most of his 2016 campaign on the DL with left knee problems, and although, with his contract extending still one more year, he is still the Cards’ official back-up catcher as of now, one should wonder if he is reaching that age as a catcher, entering his age 35 season, when his body is starting to break down on him.
As for the backup infielders, unlike with Pena, here we deal with three players, in Adams, Garcia, and Wong, who are all entering the primes of their careers. Matt Adams, entering just his age 29 season, completed his fifth year in the big leagues in 2016, playing 118 games, his most since 2014, and whopping 16 long balls, the second-most in his career, in just 297 at-bats. Three of these shots were included in the Cardinals’ record setting year of pinch-hit homers. As well, Adams, for his career, is batting .270, a solid mark for a power hitting first baseman, and, as well, has been solidly improving in the production department. In 2014, his only year getting starter at-bats (527), he drove in 68 runs, while this past year, getting barely half that number, he drove in 54. As a fielder, he is solid, but nothing to write home about, collecting a .992 fielding percentage over his 5 year stint as a Cardinals first baseman. Overall, though, I see Adams entering the prime of his career in his age 29 season this upcoming year, and could really give the Cardinals some much need pop off the bench.
Greg Garcia, coming off his first full season with the big club, and entering his age 28 season, really showed potential off the bench for the Cardinals in 2016. Again, another young infielder entering the prime of his career, in 214 at-bats Garcia hit over .275 last season with an on-base percentage sneaking up on .400. Despite a lack of power and production out of his bench role, the slap left-hander showed an incredible ability to put the ball in play, striking out just 12 more times than he did walk all year. While Garcia’s fielding does need some work, posing just a .956 fielding percentage over his 3 years with the Cardinals, this number can be taken with a grain of salt because of the relatively small sample size it comes with. As well, I think Garcia showed some spark as an offensive player, especially providing the already home-run happy Cardinals line-up with some small ball to even out the offense. So, as of now, while it may be dangerous to put Garcia in the field in an important spot, if the Cardinals are ever in a late inning situation when they need a baserunner, he would be my guy to put in the game to get the rally started.
And now, Kolten Wong. Well, let me first say, he better be good, with that 5 year/$25M contract. That’s a hell of a lot for a back up second baseman if ya ask me. But, let’s look at it closely. Wong burst onto the scene in the 2013 postseason as part of that great Cardinals team that made it all the way to the World Series against the Red Sox. Wong was inundated with expectation and hype, however well deserved at the time. No matter the publicity, however, and the excitement surrounding Wong, since then he has batted to the tune of just a .248 career batting average, and a lowly 28 career homers in his 3+ years as a big leaguer. As a .308 career minor league batter, much more was expected of Wong. 2016 was by far his least productive season, batting just .240 and collecting just 7 stolen bases, less than half of his previous big league low. His playing time diminished as well, coming to bat just 363 times, compared to his previous big league low of 433. Although his fielding remained top-notch, ranking fourth in the league in defensive runs saved, overall 2016 was definitely a downturn for Wong. Personally, I am interested to see what he does with it, especially with his big new contract, and a veteran Jedd Gyorko in the starting second base role. There’s no doubt Wong has talent, as shown by his ranking third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2014. And he is entering the prime of his career as he enters his new contract, 2017 being his age 26 season. However, there is always the possibility that something could have clicked for him, in the wrong way, and that this contract, and a proven producer starting at his position, may make things all the much more difficult for him to snap out of whatever mental slump he may have fallen in to.
And finally, onto the outfield. Like the infielders, this group consists of two young players entering their primes. Yet the one distinction of this group is the veteran Matt Holiday. I won’t spend too much time On Holiday, because the expectation is that he will not return to the Red Birds next season, but I will say this. Matt Holiday had a great, if not amazing, career as a Cardinal, and deserves all the thanks and admiration he can get. That moment he had at the end of the 2016 season, hitting that Zach Phillips pitch over the right filed fence at Busch in his first ever pinch-hit home run, tears streaming out of the eyes of the 36 year old, not much can beat it. If, somehow, he ends up playing another year, and comes back to Busch stadium as an opponent, he deserves the upmost respect and applause, and I’m sure, Cardinals fans, he will get it.
Jeremy Hazelbaker, in his rookie season, came out with a bang, mashing 7 homers in the first two months of the season. The 28 year old slowed down as the season progressed, however, finishing 2016 with just 12 homers and 28 RBI in just over 220 plate appearances. While showing good power, slugging himself to a solid .480 slugging percentage, his batting average was a tag lacking, at just ,235. Like some of the other young players, his fielding percentage was a little lacking at just .952, but I trust that once Hazelbaker gets more opportunities in the outfield that that statistic will raise itself to where it should be. A life long minor league player, Hazelbaker batted .265 with over 00 homers in 8 seasons in the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cardinals farm systems. Entering the prime of his career at age 29, the future seems unclear for Hazelbaker. I could see him taking off in 2017, and taking a possible starting role from one of the weaker corner outfield positions, on his way to a 30 home run season. However, I could also see, and if I were a betting man, would predict, that he would remain in his bench role, and rotate in and out of the minors in 2017 as needed, as his production value goes down, unable to reproduce his stellar 2016 April and May in the big leagues.
And our last player up for analysis is Tommy Pham. Entering his age 29 season in 2017, Pham is coming off two years as a steady outfield backup for the Cards, over which he has hit .245 with 14 homers and 35 RBI in 356 plate appearances. If we think about this as about a half a season’s worth of at-bats, the production is not terrible, especially coming in as a pinch hitter most of the time. As well, Pham gets on base a third of the time, and despite not being a huge base stealing threat, he does have good speed, and is an excellent base runner. In 2+ seasons, Pham has never, I repeat, never made an error, in 710.0 innings, and has amassed 4 outfield assists in that time. So, altogether, Pham constitutes a pretty solid player, one that I think could really help the Cardinals out of a bench role as he moves into the prime of his career.
Overall, besides perhaps the presence of veteran catcher Brayan Pena, the Cardinals bench is riddled with young, emerging talent. The question is, for many, if not all of them: what will the future hold? For some of them, such as Garcia and Pham, I predict a solid next few years remaining as a strong piece on the Cardinals bench. For others, like Hazelbaker and Wong, I believe it go go one of two ways. I believe they could either emerge as stars, and take a starting role, or they could fall into the background, and live a life of constantly going in and out of the minor leagues. The uncertainty of the future for these players is certainly tangible, and even further heightened by the fact that many of them have not yet reached contract agreements. However, I have given my predictions, and that is the best that I can provide. The rest, unfortunately, is left up to fate.
Photo Credits go to Adam Hunger of USA Today