Here’s my take on five Cardinals position players that are under pressure to come through in 2017:
1. Kolten Wong, second base
The storyline: Will he deliver on his talent and potential? The delivery already is behind schedule, and Wong isn’t a kid. He’s been in the bigs since late 2013 and is entering his age 25 season. In the spring of 2016 Wong received a profound vote of confidence from team management in the form of a sweet five-year, $25 million contract extension. He went out and batted .240 with a .327 OBP and .355 slug for a .682 OPS. Mike Matheny lost patience and Wong got demoted to the minors. Some fans and media blame Wong for his failure to justify all of the fuss, all of the money, that’s come his way. Others blame Matheny for being impatient and turning away from Wong and doing damage to a young veteran’s confidence. Frankly, I’m tired of arguing about it … talking about it … thinking about it. I’m on the pro-Kolten side of the aisle but it’s time for him to put himself — and his talent — together.
What he needs to do: the Cardinals need Wong’s defense and speed in the lineup. But he has to get on base more frequently to raise his yucky career .309 onbase percentage — and supply a reasonable amount of power. Wong needs to channel the first half of the 2015 season when he cranked a .280 average, .343 OBP and .443 slug … numbers that put him in consideration for the NL All-Star squad.
2. Randal Grichuk, left field
The storyline: Now that he opens a season as a sure starter for the first time, can this impressive but wild thoroughbred settle down? Over the last two seasons Grichuk has slugged .508 and generated a booming .254 ISO (isolated power) that ranks 13th among MLB hitters with at least 750 plate appearances. The problem? Too many strikeouts, not enough walks, and chronic slumps. I’m in favor of letting Grichuk be Grichuk. Early last season when the staff tried to harness Grichuk by imploring him to concentrate on plate discipline, his power waned. His confidence disintegrated. He was sent down to the minors … twice. When Grichuk returned from the second demotion, in early August, Matheny told him to quit worrying and let it rip. Grichuk responded with a .579 slug and 29 extra-base hits (including 12 bombs) in his final 185 plate appearances.
What he needs to do: Again, I think Grichuk has to do what comes naturally … this is the new way of baseball … sluggers swat away. They give you power and lots of strikeouts. And in exchange for Grichuk’s 30 percent strikeout rate, he’s put up formidable slugging and ISO numbers. But I can’t help but wonder how much Grichuk would improve if he could just tweak his walk/strikeout rate in a positive way. Over the past two seasons Grichk’s BB/K ratio ranked 207th among 215 hitters that had a minimum of 750 plate appearances. I think Grichuk is under a little more pressure now; the team doesn’t have much outfield depth on the big-league club but some legitimate outfield prospects are on the way (soon) including Harrison Bader, Aroldis Garcia and Mags Sierra. And there’s another wave after that.
3. Jhonny Peralta, third base
The storyline: Peralta will be 35 on May 28. He’s coming off an injury-busted season. But his broken thumb has healed, his dexterity has returned, he reported to camp in good shape, and seems more comfortable playing third after spending somany years at shortstop. This is the final year of Peralta’s four-year contract. He has a lot on the line. And so do the Cardinals, who want to see Peralta produce closer to the level displayed in 2014 and the first half of 2015. From the start of the 2014 season until the ’15 All-Star break Peralta slugged .454, had a .797 OPS and homered every 26 at-bats. But since the ’15 All-Star break he’s slugged .370 with a .677 OPS and a homer every 44 at-bats. Big difference. Is it age? Was it fatigue in the summer of 2015? Do we write off all of 2016 because of the broken thumb that unplugged his power?
What he needs to do: Build on his strong close to the ’16 season. In his final 85 plate appearances last year — a chip of a sample — Peralta slugged .449 and struck the ball with authority. That could have been a fluke.
That could have been a partial restoration of power. We’ll know soon enough.
4. Dexter Fowler, center field
The storyline: Fowler was recruited hard by the Cardinals when the free-agent market opened late last fall, and he cashed in for a five-year contract worth $82.5 million. This most likable of personalities brings multiple assets to his new team: the ability to work counts and get on base; flexes of power, speed on the bases, stability in center field. On the intangible side, Fowler came into the Cardinals’ Jupiter clubhouse swirling like a fresh breeze to lighten the air around an uptight team that collectively needs to exhale more often. Fowler already has emerged as a de facto team leader — able to connect players of every age and background. By all accounts the Cards made a very good signing here, but much will be expected of Fowler when the real baseball games begin. Pressure comes with that, but Fowler seems capable of handling it. The successful leadoff hitter of a Cubs team that had to erase decades of futility and frustration to win a World Series for the first time since 1908 knows all about dealing with pressure.
What he needs to do: Be Dexter Fowler. In his two seasons with the Cubs, Fowler ranked among the best No. 1 hitters in the game with a .369 onbase percentage. In his 1,218 plate appearances in the No. 1 spot Fowler ranked second among MLB leadoff men for most times reaching base, was second in runs, was fourth in total bases, and fifth in extra-base hits. He ran the bases well and improved his center defense after adjusting his positioning. Now he has to do all of that again for the Cardinals.
5. Stephen Piscotty, right field
The storyline: A polished and cerebral hitter that’s put up mostly positive numbers during his first 216 big-league games with the Cardinals, Piscotty faces more responsibility this season in his likely role of batting cleanup. No one is asking him to be a contender for the league MVP award in 2017, but Piscotty will hit fourth in a lineup that should have strong onbase percentages in the first three spots. If this goes as planned, Piscotty will be presented with abundant RBI opportunities. That explains one reason why he’s on the spot. The other: a second-half downturn in which Piscotty batted .239 with a .304 OBP and .399 slug over his final 265 plate appearances. The Cardinals will need more than that from their No. 4 hitter.
What he needs to do: Hit and rest, hit and rest. Piscotty was admittedly worn down by the long grind of his first full major-league season. And as he told reporters in Jupiter, he worsened the fatigue by incessantly heading to the batting cage to take hundreds of swings. Piscotty is a perfectionist, and we respect that. But he’s also smart enough to realize that he needs to put the bat in the rack to cool down and conserve energy. A properly fresh Piscotty can be an effective cleanup hitter. He’s taken excellent, poised at-bats with runners in scoring position so far in his career — hitting .393 and slugging .541 with a .984 OPS. Late last season Piscotty really struggled on fastballs thrown by RH pitchers, another sign of a tuckered-out hitter. I’d be surprised to see Piscotty muscled by four-seam fastballs again this season.
I also wanted to mention shortstop Aledmys Diaz; I debated putting him on this list. And certainly he’s one to watch as we collectively wonder if he can come close to repeating the offensive production of his rookie season, an impressive file that included a .300 average, .369 OBP, .510 slug, 17 homers and 28 doubles in 460 PA. But we saw Diaz adjust to the pitchers once they changed their approach against him in May, after his torrid April. That ability to adapt was encouraging.
Thanks for reading …