We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.
The Cardinals starters — and even their reserves — are mostly set. Jedd Gyorko was acquired in return for Jon Jay and should serve as the primary backup to Matt Carpenter at third base, Jhonny Peralta at shortstop and Kolten Wong at second base. None of the starters ahead of Gyorko are in danger of losing their starting jobs, but should any of them suffer an injury, the former Padre could have modest deep-league value as a middle infielder with average to above average power (.158 ISO and 49 homers in 1,426 career plate appearances), albeit with an ugly average (.247 last year and .236 for his career). That said, there’s no playing time battle at second base, shortstop or third base. There is, however, a fierce battle to be waged at first base. The outfield is essentially settled, but there is one position worth monitoring during the year.
A pair of left-handed batters, Matt Adams and Brandon Moss, will battle for the starting gig at first base. The handedness and splits for the duo basically eliminates the possibility of the two splitting time there in a strict platoon. Adams is completely lost against lefties with a 30.9% strikeout rate, .241 wOBA and 50 wRC+ against them in his career. Moss, on the other hand, has been a tick above average against lefties since joining the Athletics in 2012 (.321 wOBA and 105 wRC+). That said, Moss has primarily been used in a platoon role and largely shielded from left-handed pitching, so take his palatable numbers against them with a grain of salt. The struggles of each against lefties could open the door for playing time at first base for Matt Holliday. Yup, you read that correctly. Holliday has begun the process this offseason of learning how to play first base. If he takes well to the position this spring, he could offer the club a right-handed complement to Adams or Moss. If he struggles, right-handed outfielder Stephen Piscotty could also play there on occasion against lefties. The second-year big leaguer played 11 games (nine starts) at first base for the Red Birds in his rookie season.
Since 2012, Adams and Moss have posted nearly identical wOBA marks — .355 and .356, respectively — and wRC+ totals — 128 for Adams and 129 for Moss — against right-handed pitchers. The approach of each hitter to reach those totals has been different, but from an overall offensive value standpoint, they’ve been equally good against righties. Adams missed most of last year with a quad tear, but when he was on the diamond, he struggled with the stick. In 159 plate appearances against righties last season, he hits just .247 with a .283 OBP and five homers. At his best, Adams offers above average power and a strong batting average against righties. His low walk rate (5.9%) has resulted in a mediocre and batting average driven OBP, and gamers in leagues that use OBP instead of batting average need to be cognizant of that fact. In Adams’ last healthy season, his power was underwhelming relative to the position, too. In 433 plate appearances against righties in 2014, the burly first baseman hit just 12 homers with a .187 ISO. He did hit for a high average (.318) that year, and his 23.0% line drive rate, 4.5% infield fly ball rate and 37.9% hard-hit ball rate bodes well for him continuing to post high averages annually. If Adams wins the starting job, he’ll have fantasy value as a corner infielder or utility option in 12-team mixed leagues or larger.
Moss played in 145 games for the Indians and Cardinals combined last season. He wasn’t himself most of last year, though. He underwent hip surgery after the 2014 season and lacked his typical thump. From 2012-2014, Moss swatted 66 homers with a .269 ISO in 1,130 plate appearances against righties. He hit 15 homers with a .194 ISO in 358 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers, last season. Interestingly, his average home run and fly ball distance jumped from 281.35 feet in 2014 to 285.05 feet last season, according to Baseball Heat Maps, despite the homer and ISO nosedive. As recently as 2013, Moss ranked among the league’s elite in average home run and fly ball distance checking in 30th with an average distance of 295.67 feet. Perhaps a normal offseason will allow him to recapture some of his power in 2016. Moss won’t help teams in batting average with sub-.270 averages each of the last three years and a .228 batting average in 2014 and .219 batting average in 2015 against righties. He will move the needle in homers, though, and his single-season low for walk rate against righties since 2012 is 9.2%. His plate discipline should prevent him from being a black hole in OBP if he bounces back and wins the first base job. Prior to last year’s struggles, Moss posted OBPs of .363 in 2012, .353 in 2013 and .328 in 2014. Moss can have similar fantasy value to Adams as a corner infielder or utility player, however his value will be derived from different category contributions. It appears to be a truly open competition with no favorite. Moss has the added benefit of being able to fake it in the corner outfield, though, so that presents a second path to playing time should he fail to secure the starting job at first base.
I’m stretching a bit — okay, more than a bit — calling center field a “position battle.” The job will be Randal Grichuk’s to start the season. The power-hitting outfielder slugged 17 homers with a .272 ISO in 350 plate appearances for the Cardinals last year. There are warts in his offensive game, though. He walked in just 6.3% of his plate appearances — and low walk rates have been the norm for him in his professional career — while striking out at an alarming 31.4% clip. Among batters who tallied a minimum of 350 plate appearances last season, Grichuk’s 15.6% SwStr% was tied with Chris Davis for the 10th highest in the majors. Grichuk’s power is legit, and he ranked 23rd in average home run and fly ball distance (302.21 feet), per Baseball Heat Maps. He didn’t just hit the ball far, either, he hit screamers ranking fourth among hitters with at least 100 at-bats in 2015 in average FB/LD exit velocity (97.77 mph), according to Baseball Savant. Circling back to his approach, his lack of plate discipline and swing-and-miss approach could pose problems and undermine his power.
If that’s the case, he’ll be reliant on his glove keeping him in the lineup, and it’s unclear how good his glove is. Grichuk has earned a higher UZR/150 in center field than in either corner outfield position, although it’s important to note the sample size for all outfield positions is small. Grichuk has played just 54 games in left field, 42 games in center field and 41 games in right field in the majors. Last March, Kiley McDaniel noted Grichuk fits better in right field but could play center “in a pinch.” With that in mind, it’s best to pump the brakes on anointing him an asset as a defender in center field. If Grichuk’s strikeouts cripple his offensive value and his defense takes a step backward, Tommy Pham stands to be the player who sees the most significant bump in playing time.
Pham’s minor league numbers overstate his offensive ability. His patience carried over from the minors, though, and he walked in 11.0% of his plate appearances in his first substantial taste of big-league joe. He has a bit of pop and some speed, but he won’t make major contributions to either category. If pressed into full-time duty, Pham would have NL-only league value and some value in deep mixed leagues.
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