Not every St. Louis Cardinals problem can be solved with a platoon

Certainly, the St. Louis Cardinals started the season in a rockier fashion than many expected. An under-performing team will always find that it has a lot of volunteer general managers. This season, those general managers have come up with some potential solutions that I never would have thought of. Not all of them are good, and probably most of them wouldn’t perform in real life like they look on paper.

Central to the team’s problem is a group of hitters not performing up to expectations. No where is this more pronounced than in the outfield. The season started with a platoon of Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos in the outfield. The rationale was pretty clear: Jay would go against righties, Bourjos against lefties. In games where Jay had started, Bourjos could come in as a late-innings defensive replacement. The reality? Both are performing below expectations and below their career numbers. Particularly in the case of Bourjos, those numbers could ill-afford to slip any further, but they have.

Allen Craig is complicating matters with his on-again, off-again performance in 2014. His .249 average is seriously crippling the offensive power that the team could have, especially in RISP situations. Matt Adams isn’t hitting lefties well (and also struggles hitting with RISP, a common theme for the team), and that’s adding more fuel to the fire.

It’s the recipe for a perfect storm of home GM theorizing. The core of all speculation begins with Oscar Taveras and his .325 average this year in Memphis. Each scenario starts with a call up of Taveras and then a variety of roster and/or role changes to accomodate his presence as an everyday outfielder. Strangely, the majority of the proposed scenarios don’t involve a trade. More commonly heard is some variation of a platoon among several players. Let’s review a few of the more common ones:

  • Oscar Taveras comes up and plays right. Allen Craig and Matt Adams share time at 1st.
  • Oscar Taveras comes up and plays center. Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay work the bench and provide off days or a late-innings defensive replacement.
  • Oscar Taveras comes up with no set role except to float in the outfield. By simply providing off day coverage, and perhaps a getting a little more playing time (at Jay’s and Bourjos’ expense) in center, he could work 4 days a week.

One could assume that in all of these scenarios Robinson is sent back to Memphis to open a spot on the 25-man roster. The ideas all have merit, but all share one common misconception: That swapping players in and out is a zero sum game. In fact, that’s the fundamental problem with all platoons, and not specifically the platoon the Cardinals currently employ nor any of the proposed ones. Based on the Cardinals’ success (or relative lack thereof) with platoons this season, it’s hard to imagine they’re excited about starting up another one. Jay/Bourjos hasn’t received the expected results, and Ellis/Wong was botched from day one.

If there’s one thing that could scare management more than a new platoon it’s the specter of a three-way “platoon” between Craig, Adams and Taveras. In this bizarre dream sequence, one of the best Cards hitters (Adams), a recently signed extension (Craig) and a top prospect (Taveras) each play only two games of every three. If there’s something wrong with under-utilizing one player on a team, there has to be something seriously wrong with under-utilizing three.

The more painful and realistic possibility is that John Mozeliak does what he does best and creates a mini-blockbuster deal. As always, these come at serious cost, but with major potential upside. Allen Craig and Jon Jay have been the subject of some trade speculation. There’s a wrinkle: Craig was just recently signed to a long deal. It’s tough to imagine the team gives up on him that quickly, and it’s hard to get another team excited about a player your own team has decided to bail on. Jon Jay could be a legit possibility, but like Craig, he’d need to get hot first.

To answer the question about who the Cards are willing to deal, a question must first be answered: What do they want in return? Obviously, it’s not an outfielder. The starting rotation is looking very good (Shelby Miller‘s Wednesday outing aside). The pen could use some help, as always, but it isn’t the sore spot that it was in 2011 when the last blockbuster deal was orchestrated. At that time Rasmus was prized, but not living up to expectations, and fighting with his manager.

There is no true analog to the 2011 dynamics this year. There is just a team on the brink of greatness that happens to have too many outfielders in the system. Adding a platoon won’t fix the team’s problems, it will simply mask the fact that the team has some players not meeting their potential, and the team is not yet ready to admit it.

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