Don’t Automatically Dismiss the Cardinals’ Spring Training Slumber. Real Concerns Exist.

You may have heard about the developments coming out of Palm Beach County. The seaside community of Jupiter, to be precise. And no, this has nothing to do with Robert Kraft’s visit to a local bawdyhouse.

No, I’m referring to the St. Louis Cardinals.

And there’s no way to massage this: they’re horrendous offensively. Through Wednesday the Cardinals ranked 30th in runs, 30th in batting average, 30th in slugging, 30th in onbase percentage, and 29th in extra-base hits.

Seeing that there are only 30 MLB teams, it’s a bit disappointing to see the Cardinals coming in 30th in so many meaningful categories for measuring offense. Giddy optimists would point out that the Cards are tied for 25th in home runs … so there!

Usually I’d pause to deliver a lecture and remind everyone that the Cardinals’ struggle to plate a couple of crummy runs is no big deal, nothing to worry about.

You know, because spring training is irrelevant. With a bunch of no-names taking a lot of at-bats in games. And with the lineup-fixture hitters working and tinkering to get calibrated for the regular season.

And with the Cardinals’ home base in Florida — Roger Dean Stadium — being such a notorious graveyard for home runs and doubles that are choked out by swirling winds. Pitchers love it. Hitters hate it.

Over the past five spring training years, the Cardinals ranked no better than 20th in runs scored, 21st in OPS, 24th in slugging, and 25th in homers. You see, there’s no reason to sweat over a bunch of meaningless statistics.

It’s the ballpark.

Well, there’s a large volume of truth in that … but not the entire truth.

The Cardinals are down to a murmur on offense for reasons that go deeper than the hitter-hostile environment of Ol’ Roger Dean. After all, this team ranks 25th in runs and 24th in OPS among the 30 big-league teams in spring training games played on the road.

Let’s look at the reasons behind the Cardinals’ latest spring-training famine:

1. The roster. This team added Paul Goldschmidt over the offseason, and Goldy is a big get. I don’t minimize it this at all. Kudos. But … that was it for position-player upgrades — unless you were ecstatic over the additions of Drew Robinson and Matt Wieters.

2. Ownership-management kept the powder dry. As always. That powder is really dry. If the Cardinals’ bosses wanted an impactful left-handed bat for the bench, they could have spent some money to come up with a more appealing candidate than Drew Robinson.

3. And there was an inevitable downside to adding Goldy: fewer at-bats for Jose Martinez. That isn’t helpful. And in 897 plate appearances over the past two seasons, Martinez batted .306 with a .369 OBP and .478 slug. Martinez had the team’s second-best OPS (.847) over the last two seasons. He performed 29 percent above league average offensively in park-adjusted runs created over 2017-2018. The only Cardinal to top that was Matt Carpenter at 31 percent above league average offensively.

4. Not that anybody wanted to see Jose Martinez play first base anymore … including Jose himself. But that isn’t the point. A really good hitter has been removed from the starting lineup. And Martinez could still be in the lineup fairly regularly in right field, or even left field — but won’t be … all because of the team’s desire to start Dexter Fowler in right.

5. Look, by now I’m basically fried by the nonstop Fowler propaganda. No, sorry, but he isn’t having a great spring, and I don’t care how many media peeps in Jupiter continue to warble the company line on Fowler. He did have a terrific day Thursday, homering twice against the Yankees. A sign of putting things together, perhaps? We’ll see. But  in his 42 plate appearances before Thursday Fowler was batting .200, had one extra-base hit, and had posted an anemic .463 OPS. Maybe Fowler will produce more offense when the season starts. Or maybe he won’t. I have to believe that he isn’t finished; I just don’t know what’s there. The point is, we can’t ASSUME that he will have a robust bounce-back season. So his weak spring-training numbers could be indicative of something more ominous — and can’t be finessed away right now. We’ll learn much more once the regular season gets underway.

6. That’s one troubling corner outfielder; the other is left fielder Marcell Ozuna. He wasn’t in shape at the start of spring training, his surgically repaired shoulder isn’t delivering many line-drive thunderbolts. Through Wednesday Ozuna had one extra-base hit in 36 plate appearances with a .188 slugging percentage. (Ozuna homered Thursday; about time.) Until Ozuna begins hitting with authority — and the sooner the better — then this is a concern. It isn’t just some false spring-training sample.

7. Starting center fielder Harrison Bader is batting .171 with a .261 OBP and .171 slug. There are no extra-base hits next to his name. Bader is hitting more fly balls this spring. (More on that in a second.) Here’s the interesting thing about that: Bader did a lot of damage when hitting ground balls last season. His .387 batting average on ground balls — an outlier — ranked second among MLB hitters that had at least 241 plate appearances in 2018. The MLB average on ground balls was only .247. He’s probably due for a period of regression.

8. The Cardinals have made the most “air outs” by an MLB team this spring. (The same was true in 2018 spring training.) There’s a new hitting approach on the house; batting instructor Jeff Albert wants the Cardinals to focus on more consistent contact and launching more airborne baseballs. That makes sense, long term. But two things about that: (A) balls hit in the air at Roger Dean Stadium are as dangerous to a pitcher as a wind-blown hot dog wrapper; and (B) this transition will take time.

9. And as I mentioned in this space Wednesday, it could be a frustrating transition to a new way of hitting considering the amount of good pitching the Cards’ hitters will see in the first six, seven weeks of the regular season.

10. The projected regular lineup hasn’t played one game, intact, this spring. Not one, with injuries being a part of that. It doesn’t mean everything about this offense will be cured once the starting eight position players are written into the lineup every day. Heck, no. But the mad-scribble Grapefruit League lineups should be noted. It’s been a mess.

11. As the new season begins a week from today, Thursday in Milwaukee, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Cardinals start their most capable lineup offensively. Such a lineup would have Jose Martinez in left field, and Tyler O’Neill in right field. But the Cardinals will ride with Ozuna, even if he’s considerably less than 100 percent physically. And they will ride with Fowler, no matter what the statistics tell us.

The only question is: if this lineup wheezes once the real games begin, then how long will the Cardinals stay with the plan?

All of these questions and concerns should be put on hold for a little while.

Why?

Because the 2019 Cardinals will play their first four regular-season games in a comfortable, inviting, hitter-chummy ballpark in Milwaukee. If the stadium roof is closed, there will be no windy, cold, weather-related, concerns.

If this anemic St. Louis spring-training showing on offense is meaningless, then we’ll be presented with some immediate rebuttal evidence. It’s as simple as that.

It’s happened before. The 2016 Cardinals were dreadful offensively during spring training, only to go on and finish second in the majors in homers, third in slugging, and fourth in runs.

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie