Around the Horn: Bench hoping to provide more power
If the Cardinals had a weakness last year, it was pinch-hitting
ST. LOUIS -- This is the final installment of a seven-part Around the Horn series that has taken a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and backup options heading into the season. The catchers, corner infielders, middle infielders, outfielders, rotation and bullpen have already been discussed in previous editions. Up last: the bench.
From the ascendance of a group of young pitchers to the historic success the offense had with runners in scoring position, the Cardinals saw much go right en route to capturing another National League pennant in 2013. If there was a weakness exposed, however, it was the bench, which finished among the league's most unproductive.
With Matt Adams as the obvious exception, the group largely underachieved. The Cardinals' pinch-hitters ranked last in the NL with a .201 average and 10th with 23 RBIs. Only two clubs had fewer extra-base hits off the bench than St. Louis' 12.
The deficiencies -- which were personified in Ty Wigginton's flop -- left manager Mike Matheny with limited pinch-hit options late in games and few desirable starting options when he wanted to rest his starters. It is a piece of the club that the Cardinals will need to see improve in 2014, a task made even harder with Adams sliding off the bench and into an everyday role.
There will not be an obvious replacement of power for Adams, who had three homers and hit .314 as a pinch-hitter last season. But there will be an infusion of experience
The veteran of the bunch will be Mark Ellis, a 36-year-old second baseman who will be a right-handed bat off Matheny's bench unless he's needed to play more regularly in place of Kolten Wong. Ellis has a career pinch-hit average of .194, but his opportunities have been limited. In 11 seasons, Ellis has accrued only 31 pinch-hit at-bats.
He is prepared for the possibility of a sharp increase in such chances.
"My game plan is to do whatever I can to help the team win," Ellis said. "My game plan is to go out there, get prepared like I always do to be an everyday player and then I'll just be ready to play. Whatever Mike wants me to do. I want to win. I want to win a championship. Whatever my role is on this team is what it is going to be."
The Cardinals will keep at least one other infielder on their bench, and that spot is almost assuredly going to Daniel Descalso. Having Descalso, who recently settled his arbitration case for $1.29 million, gives the Cardinals enviable flexibility. He has proved himself capable of playing second, short and third, and comes into the season with at least 79 starts at each of the three positions.
Descalso is coming off a pair of subpar offensive seasons, but he does offer a left-handed look.
"We'll see where I fit," Descalso said. "I think I've done the same thing that I've done in years past, which is try to put in work at all three spots and be ready for whatever comes."
One of the team's two center fielders -- Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay -- is also likely to be on the bench on any given night. Though Spring Training still has to play out, Bourjos appears poised to get many of the early starting opportunities. That would shift Jay out of the lineup and back into the reserve role he filled early in his career.
Of Jay's 54 career pinch-hit at-bats, 45 came in 2010-11. He has been the team's starting center fielder since the Cardinals shipped Colby Rasmus to Toronto in July 2011.
With this new role, too, may come opportunities for Jay to spell the team's corner outfielders and get periodic starts somewhere besides center.
"I've done it before," Jay said. "I have played left field. I have played right field. It's a luxury on our team. We have so many guys who are so talented that they can step up to play any given day and do a good job. It's one of those things that's going to give our team flexibility. I'm looking forward to the talent we have around us. I think the competition is going to be good for the whole team."
Taking another of the five bench spots will be Tony Cruz, who remains entrenched as Yadier Molina's backup. Though the nature of Cruz's role will preclude him from taking many pinch-hit at-bats, his rapport with the pitchers is strong, and the Cardinals have been more than pleased with Cruz's ability to step in seamlessly with such few starting opportunities.
Candidates for the final bench spot include Shane Robinson and Pete Kozma, both of whom spent the full 2013 season in St. Louis. Kozma has fallen down the depth chart after a subpar season and seemingly has an uphill climb to dent the Opening Day roster. Keeping him would mean giving three of five bench spots to infielders.
What Kozma would offer, however, would be an ability to step in at short as a defensive replacement late in games. The Cardinals do not have a better defensive shortstop on their roster. He also brings an element of speed.
But so, too, does Robinson, who can play any of the three outfield positions. Robinson also has the experience of being a pinch-hitter, and did fine in the role last season. Robinson had five hits in 18 pinch-hit at-bats last year and would join Ellis as a right-handed hitting option.
He enters camp as the more likely of the two to win a place on the big league roster.