ST. LOUIS -- Without putting anything in ink for 2018, manager Mike Matheny hinted this week that the Cardinals are leaning toward a lineup configuration that does not feature Matt Carpenter up top.
Matheny has toyed with batting order possibilities since the Cardinals acquired outfielder Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins last month. The club seems content to plug Ozuna into the cleanup spot -- which is where he hit most often in 2017 -- but ordering the three hitters ahead of him has prompted a bit more debate.
The club has established leadoff hitters in Carpenter and William Fowler, two of 15 Major Leaguers with an average on-base percentage of at least .371 since 2012. Fowler's arrival last season prompted the Cardinals to try Carpenter as a No. 3 hitter, but the team abandoned that alignment two months into the season after both Fowler and Carpenter got off to slow starts.
Now, the Cardinals seem ready to give it another go, with Tommy Pham likely to slot in between Fowler and Carpenter.
"People still don't believe me," Carpenter said. "They think I'm knocking on Mike's door every single day begging to hit leadoff, and I'm just not. I end up there every year because that's just kind of how the chips fall. And I've had a long conversation this offseason about this: I think that this year, more than ever, we've got a lot of guys who can do that and do that well. And I think you're maybe going to see a new face there."
But why tweak the part of the lineup that fit nicely into place after Carpenter returned to the leadoff spot last year?
Though there's no explanation for the difference in results, Carpenter has routinely performed best when batting first. Last season, Carpenter was hitting .209/.341/.396 when the Cardinals decided to move him up in the order. He went on to bat .268/.418/.497 from the leadoff spot.
The move sparked improved production from Fowler, too, who set career highs in slugging percentage (.488) and home runs (18) in 2017.
"A lot of times -- and Mike can vouch for me because we've had these conversations -- but a lot of the times when I'm hitting third or hitting second and it's not going as well as I want, I can feel myself turning the corner," Carpenter said. "It's like the natural flows of a season -- you go up, you go down, you have highs, you have lows. Well, I felt myself on some of these lows and felt like I was trending in the right direction, and it just so happens that that day he's made the move and I'm back in the leadoff spot, I take off. A lot of that is circumstantial. A lot of it just happens. So I don't buy into, 'He doesn't hit as well in these other positions.' I just don't think I've had enough opportunity in those spots to really truthfully be able to give a good explanation for it."
Carpenter is eager to debunk the theory that he can't hit as well elsewhere in the order, and the Cardinals do see value in splitting up a string of right-handed batters, which is what they'd have if Carpenter hit first.
Only two of the club's projected starting position players -- Carpenter and Kolten Wong -- hit exclusively from the left side, and Wong is likely to open the year batting eighth in the order.
"As you draw up a perfect lineup, which we all do, you'd like to see Carp really be able to fall into that middle of the order a little bit more," Matheny said. "Carp provides that flexibility. You have a guy that can hit first, that can hit third, that can hit anywhere in the lineup. Versatility, you can't have enough of it this time of year."
Carpenter's versatility will extend to the defensive side, too, as the club has told him to prepare for work at first, second and third base this spring.
"I'll do," he said, "whatever is asked of me."