When someone gets traded for a bucket of baseballs and proceeds to blow up bigger than Cee-Lo Green on The Voice, it raises a few eyebrows. With no consideration for circumstance, it’s hard to blame the Cardinals for handing Matt Adams to the Braves for a player whose name probably escapes you. But after you consider the sequence of events, it may be really hard NOT to blame the Cardinals for the long game domino effect that got them to this point.
Matt Adams got a couple glimpses of life in the big leagues before absolutely bashing PCL pitching in 2012 (.329/.362/.624). The Cardinals rewarded that effort with a spot backing up Allen Craig in 2013, and Adams responded with 17 HR, 51 RBI, and a .284/.335/.503 line in limited duty (319 PA). When Craig went down in early September, Adams took full advantage of the regular starts and hit .326/.355/.629 during Craig’s absence.
When Craig struggled through the following July, Adams clearly looked to be the better option, and Craig became the centerpiece in the deal that landed the Cardinals starting pitching help in the form of John Lackey. Since that time, Adams has turned into a 2-win player with slightly less power than projected and a slightly better glove than expected.
That probably would have been enough to keep his spot at 1B safe in St Louis, but then Jedd Gyorko and Matt Carpenter both upped the ante on offense, and Adams was left without a position. Credit the team for getting creative trying to get Adams some at-bats, but left field was no place for him, and it certainly wasn’t a position in which anyone expected him to succeed.
The Cardinals had backed themselves into a corner, and everyone knew it. The team had to move Adams with Peralta coming back from an extended absence due to an upper respiratory infection. The “had to” part was a mess of their own making though. When a team carries 13 pitchers, that leaves 4 bench spots, and it’s hard to justify keeping two position-limited players on an already short bench along with a backup catcher. That would’ve left the team with no backup middle infielder OR no true fourth outfielder.
The necessity of Adams exiting St Louis had as much to do with payroll politics and roster management as his actual on-field performance. The team could have sold high on Jhonny Peralta after his career best 6-win season of 2014. That’s just hindsight talking, because it’s nearly impossible to justify that move without having a reason. Still, they could have sold with his stock still up after his 2015 season at which time the team only owed Peralta $22.5M. After passing on those opportunities, there was the winter of 2016 during which I felt sure he would be gone. Aledmys Diaz had pushed him completely from SS to 3B, and Gyorko was a much better option at third already. It seemed that Peralta had no position (much like Adams actually).
Instead of designating Peralta then and there, the team insisted on holding on until the middle of June. Had they just pulled that particular trigger a month earlier, they could have saved Matt Adams a spot on the bench. They were already on the hook for Peralta’s 2017 salary, so there was nothing to be saved by holding onto him. That they chose Peralta over Adams says a lot about their priorities. Peralta had shown zero signs of life, and he certainly hadn’t taken well to life on the bench.
On the other hand, Adams had displayed a penchant for pinch hitting, and if you consider that to be a recognized skill, then he had it. He had it to the tune of .328/.349/.555 for his career. Combine that with his defensive comfort level at 1B, and he could’ve served as a spot starter to spell Carpenter, pinch hitter, and even a DH against right-handed starters. Instead, the team chose Peralta and opted for a bunch of non-1B guys to play 1B when Carpenter isn’t manning the position.
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Matt Adams is enjoying a short renaissance and looks every bit the player he was hyped to be everywhere from Slippery Rock to St Louis. He’s hitting for power, average, and getting on base a lot. His .306/.361/.658 line with 10 HR and 27 RBI in just 122 PA makes the Braves look like geniuses for robbing Mozeliak and company blind. Good for the Braves for recognizing some potential and jumping on the Big City bandwagon so fast it made James Loney’s head spin.
While nothing about what Adams is doing for the Braves now may be sustainable for long, it’s still enough to put him back into that 2-win per year player category. Perhaps even more importantly for the Braves, they have a guy hitting bombs who has drawn the attention of contending teams looking for a bat. Smart money says that if they choose to flip Adams in a few weeks, they’ll get more than Juan Yepez in return.
That really isn’t a shot at the Cardinals (well, maybe it is sort of). The Cardinals could sure use a middle-of-the-order bat, but Adams wasn’t going to be it. He didn’t hit .306/.361/.658 or anything like it for St Louis this year, and he wasn’t going to do so playing behind Carpenter. That he’s now doing so for the Braves even for one month begs some questions be asked. Why didn’t he do that for St Louis? Could he have done it for St Louis? What are the Braves doing differently with Adams that St Louis did not? Are the improvements just internal ones that only Adams can explain?
He still looks like a bit of a free swinger, but his swing rate is actually down just slightly to below 50% for the first time since 2013. His swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone is down to below 35% with the Braves which beats his 37.3% rate from 2016 by a lot. The percentage of pitches he’s seeing in the zone is up a tick to 41.3%, and that includes his time with the Cardinals this year.
Based on his swing data, I think it’s relatively safe to infer that he’s being slightly more selective now. If the trends continue, I’d argue that seeing more strikes is the pitchers’ response to Adams chasing fewer pitches outside the zone, but that’s a stretch right now. He’s still no Matt Carpenter or Joey Votto, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe he’s just a better version of Matt Adams, and that’s more than enough for the Braves.
RECAP: Matheny insisted on carrying a 13th pitcher (not literally, although he may have to carry Bowman’s arm by the end of the year), and that left 3 bench spots plus a catcher (Fryer). Peralta was a dead man walking and still favored over Adams. We’re still not sure what John Mabry actually does other than walk around behind Matheny carrying a mirror and some hair products.
DISCLAIMER: If/when Adams drops back down to Earth, it won’t change my opinion that the Cardinals gave away a useful bench bat and backup 1B in favor of keeping Peralta’s walking carcass.