Every day when the Cardinals lineup comes out, twitter stirs. I am sure Mike Matheny pounds out that lineup and has a soft little chuckle as he hits print, send and exits his office. When you have a team like the St. Louis Cardinals streaking towards another playoff appearance and riding the roller coaster of fate, making this lineup can’t be easy. That being said, Matheny’s job was never supposed to be easy. He had a great first couple of years and won’t drop all the praise on a sturdy roster. Matheny’s game managing skills have been playing catch up with his leadership skills ever since he took the spot in the dugout. His third year has been challenging because the great young talent that has arrived isn’t producing as quickly as last years. Kolten Wong came up and struggled before being demoted. Wong came back, got hurt and has finally started showing his true potential. Oscar Taveras landed on the scene against the Giants on May 31st and blasted a game winning home run in front of a Busch Stadium crowd before going 6-34 in the following 11 games before being sent back to Memphis. Matheny has lost key starters to injuries. He has seen his once reliable sluggers struggle(Allen Craig) and watched another veteran(Matt Holliday) struggle to remain consistent. Very few things have gone right this year. I will give a little praise to Matheny for keeping this team upright as they walk into tonight’s prime time finale with the Dodgers at 53-43 and tied for first place with a chance to sweep. However, the question remains. If Oscar Taveras is here, why isn’t he playing more often?
Young players can’t be expected to improve if they sit on the bench. That isn’t a recipe to elicit greater results from your #1 prospect. John Mozeliak has told every scribe that would listen that if Oscar was here, he was going to play. Taveras has only started two of the past five games. Granted, Taveras isn’t lighting up the field with rockets just yet. He is 8-41 since he was called up on July 1st. That .195 average included seven strikeouts and two walks. He has started 9 of the 15 games and not appeared in 2 of them. If you look at Wong, the more consecutive days he has seen the lineup, the better his bat has become. Would the same thing work with Oscar? I would think so.
I have had a few readers tell me that Oscar doesn’t care enough and isn’t adjusting. Those claims don’t make a lot of sense because all I see is a guy trying to get his feet firmly planted on the ground and become acclimated to Major League Baseball standards. This isn’t Memphis and pitchers don’t make that many mistakes with their arms in the big leagues. The adjustment was always going to be slow but Oscar’s case is peculiar. He seemed to be putting something together when he recorded back to back 2 hit games against the Pirates last week before going 1-13 since then. He went 1-5 in a 10-2 Cards route over the Brewers the Saturday before the All Star Break and hasn’t gotten four at bats in a game since. Granted, he started Saturday’s game but came out when Craig pinch hit for him and grounded out to third in the 7th inning.
Oscar’s bat has been slow and there is no guarantee it will become mightier with more at bats but unless Matheny plays him, it may be time to send Oscar back to Memphis until the September callups. He wasn’t brought here to come off the bench and fight struggling hitters like Allen Craig for playing time. Oscar doesn’t benefit from a start every four days. He needs to play every day. The wait is over. Play him or pack him up. The Cards called him up twice to bolster their offense but he can’t do it if he doesn’t play.
It’s not even fair to put all the blame on Craig. He hasn’t played in 5 games in July and has 6 less at bats than Taveras this month. Craig has 5 hits and his average has dropped from .255 to .244. He isn’t showing any signs of breaking out or even waking up. His bat looks as slow as ever and his ability to adjust to pitchers has eroded. Craig has only sharpened his ability to roll over on pitches and ground to third base. How does a 30 year old suddenly forget how to hit or drive the ball to right field? I still believe Allen is hurt.
You can’t fault Jon Jay for playing. In 45 at bats, Jay is hitting .289 this month and remaining that steady performer at the plate. While others want him out of the lineup for Taveras, I am not sure I can pull that trigger yet.
Peter Bourjos isn’t starting much anywhere these days to be a factor in this discussion. He gets the nod tonight against Clayton Kershaw because he is 3-8 in his career against Kershaw. Too bad Pete is hitting .189 this year against lefties in 74 at bats with 26 strikeouts. I doubt his playing time will increase anytime soon.
Taveras is contending with Craig for playing time so as long as Matheny sees a light at the end of the tunnel in Allen’s swing, Taveras won’t start every day. Holliday and Matt Adams are swinging the bat well so they won’t sit. Jay is steady and will get a majority of the starts in center field. Oscar’s only hope for real playing time is Craig going on the disabled list or being traded for a starting pitcher.
There are also the trade rumors surrounding the team. Names like David Price, Giancarlo Stanton and Troy Tulowitzki being floated around and Taveras’ name is a part of every trade proposal. Allen Craig couldn’t be the center piece of a trade but he could very well be part of one. This will be an interesting 11 days for the Cardinals as Oscar tries to find at bats and Craig tries to find his swing.
Does Mike Matheny trust Oscar? Will he ever trust him to start 5-6 days in a row? Only time and days on the playing calendar will give us a definitive answer but I can tell you this for certain. There has to be a reason Craig can’t hit the ball to right field for power or pull a double for his life? If he is hurt, it’s time to put him on the disabled list. Craig rests up while Taveras gets those 7-10 days to start in order and see what his ability can truly bring. Everybody wins there. That’s my solution. What is yours?
Follow on Twitter-@buffa82