The St. Louis Cardinals’ Matt Adams is having a great season. In 164 plate appearances, Adams has hit 7 home runs, maintaining a solid walk ratio and hitting .307. The problem: Adams only starts when 1B/OF Allen Craig or OFs Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday miss time. One wonders what Adams could accomplish in a season with 600 PAs (25-30 HR?), but it’s three spots for four players, and since the other three players are among the team’s best hitters, Adams’ time will come from filling in or pinch hitting for the foreseeable future.
But Adams’ situation is not unique in the sport. With Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler locked up, the Texas Rangers have had future star Jurickson Profar roaming the field since his term filling in for a Kinsler injury came to an end in June. Profar’s super-sub role does not get him everyday at-bats — he’s filling in only occasionally at SS, 2B, 3B and LF, while picking up some at bats at DH. If Profar is who scouts believe he will be, you could say that he, like Adams, is currently a mismanaged asset. Major league GMs are normally almost allergic to under utilizing assets in this manager. A team that have two catchers capable of starting everyday typically trades one of those guys (think Minnesota’s Ramos trade) — the thought being that the asset should be liquidated for something more fungible, like pitching, instead of letting the asset waste away on the bench. Even if you trade the asset for 80 cents on the dollar, the thinking goes, the return may have a bigger impact on the season.
The approach of the Cardinals and Rangers is very smart, however, in my estimation. There are only so many spots on the field, which is the nature of the “problem” but also the reason why the teams’ gambles are working out. You can’t always go out and upgrade a position by trading an asset — if the Cardinals moved Adams for a position player, where would the new guy play? The best of the best at any position are rarely attainable, even if you’re willing to pay out the nose — there just aren’t that many of them, by definition. A team that wishes to land a frontline pitcher, even by overpaying, doesn’t always get its wish, because even a willingness to overpay doesn’t mean a pitcher will be available. And if a new acquisition is only marginally better than the player he replaces, the team enjoys only a marginal return.
But there is room between everyday players in the cracks of the roster, especially for National League teams that need reliable pinch hitters anyway. Why replace an outfielder with a player only marginally better, when you can replace the at-bats that teams so regularly throw away on backup infielders and fifth outfielders? Because of Adams and the position flexibility of Allen Craig, outfielders not named Craig, Beltran, Holliday or Jon Jay have only accounted for 162 PAs for the Cards this season — and a big chunk of those are due to pinch hits. Once Ian Kinsler was reinstated by the Rangers in mid-June, Profar’s roster spot came at the expense of Leury Garcia, who took his .192 average back to AAA. Replacing the at-bats of light-hitting backups is definitely a compelling reason to keep extra everyday types in non-everyday roles.
It is not the only reason, however. When fitting four players into three spots, one also gets the chance to play matchups. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has played the lefty-hitting Adams mostly against RHP (125 AB vs. RHP, 25 vs. LHP), with a significant proportion of the LHP at-bats as a pinch hitter. While Adams is not showing a platoon split this year in the limited sample, he showed a huge split (.273/.150) in a similarly small sample. The switch-hitting Profar has tended to spell right-handed infielders in games when the Rangers face RHP; more recently, he has started to fill in for lefthanded left fielder David Murphy, who has shown strong platoon splits in the past. And matchups are not limited to handedness; managers can also take pitching reportoires and hitting strengths into consideration day to day.
I note all this, of course, because Arizona is facing a similar situation, with five outfielders that might be worthy of everyday gigs. Cody Ross’s defense is nothing to brag about, but he’s coming off a brilliant campaign with the Red Sox, and he’s in just the first year of a three year, $26 million contract. Gerardo Parra has the most playing time of the group, contributing solid offensive numbers (.277/.336/.412, with 36 XBH in 431 PAs) and outstanding defense. He showed off his impressive throwing arm in two big plays in the last week.
Meanwhile, A.J. Pollock has the second-most PAs among Dbacks outfielders, playing outstanding defense mostly in CF while providing 33 extra-base hits. He was in CF for most of the season, in part, because rookie Adam Eaton was on the shelf with an elbow problem. With very good performances in the last two nights, Eaton’s OBP is .349 already, well in line with his minor league numbers and making him an excellent weapon in the leadoff spot, especially with his speed. Count me among the Dbacks fans who are very excited to see what he can do.
Jason Kubel was already the odd man out more often than not before Eaton’s promotion, and probably gets pushed down the depth chart even more despite making $8 million this season. It’s not too hard to imagine a lot of nights in the near future like last night’s extra-inning affair, in which Kubel started and had three PAs before being removed in a double switch at the top of the sixth. Pollock might frequently be brought in in that context, for any outfielder.
You can’t overplan for extra innings, so Patrick Corbin’s pinch hit in the eleventh doesn’t mean the bench was mismanaged yesterday. Eaton and Pollock will trade starts in CF (probably quite a few more for Eaton), Ross, Kubel and Parra will each start a little less than they’d like, double switches will abound, and everyone will log at least one at-bat every day. With three left-handed hitters (Parra, Kubel, Eaton) and two right-handed hitters (Pollock, Ross), and with each outfielder having significant experience in at least two positions, the number of alignments is almost limitless. Hopefully Gibby does his homework and takes advantage of matchups less superficial than handedness.
The Diamondbacks have a Matt Adams problem, but it’s a good problem to have. If all five outfielders play enough to get going and get an Adams-like bump in production numbers from matchups, the outfield can be a relentless force at the plate and in the field.
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