On Monday, the St. Louis Cardinals made a decision that uberprospect Oscar Taveras had what the major league club needed, calling him up and promptly plugging him in to play on Tuesday. Taveras has long had a combination of plate coverage and bat speed that has made scouts drool, and after a mediocre 2013 largely lost to an ankle injury, he's put up a .318/.370/.502 line with Triple-A Memphis so far this year.
The problem? There isn't necessarily a place for Taveras to play. Oh, he's already made a cameo this season, but that came in early June, when the Cardinals played three consecutive series in AL parks. Now there's no DH for Cards manager Mike Matheny to fall back on, and Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and Matt Adams have the corner outfield and first base spots covered.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold:
"We're trying to generate some offense," Matheny said Monday afternoon from San Francisco, where the Cardinals spent their off day. "I don't think this is going to be exactly like we saw before when we had him up where it was, 'Here you go, you'll be in there every day.' But we're going to have to find some considerable time for him."
It sounds like "considerable time" means somewhat fewer starts than the average starting player. A natural right fielder, Taveras may be able to help his cause a bit by getting the occasional start at center field. MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch has more from Matheny:
"We're not ruling out an occasional day in centerfield if things line up perfectly with the right style pitcher that we think is going to produce more groundballs, depending on the field. For example, the park here in San Francisco is not very conducive to a non-centerfielder who plays centerfield. It's a big yard to cover...We're going to try and be as creative as possible to get him playing time and make sure our other guys are getting the time that they deserve as well."
The trick is that although Taveras will start almost exclusively in right field, the man he'd be displacing can play multiple positions. Ben Zobrist, Allen Craig is not; but the plain fact that Craig can still play three positions (right, left, first base) makes the call up of Taveras possible. Taveras won't just be borrowing starts from Craig and the occasional start from center fielders Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay — he'll be borrowing an occasional day from Holliday and one or two per week from Adams, by proxy.
I think you'll join me in not envying Matheny's position; Holliday wasn't signed to warm the bench, and Craig and Adams have earned starting roles the hard way. But kudos to Matheny for the thoughtfulness in getting Taveras the occasional start in center, and kudos to him for being committed to being "creative." That's what it's going to take.
If this kind of time share sounds familiar, that's because it should. At the outset of last season, Adams functioned as a backup for Holliday, Craig, and Carlos Beltran, with Craig again moving around the field. As Adams mashed right-handed pitchers more and more, he earned more and more starts, and by July, Adams was starting slightly more than half of the time. When Craig went down with a foot injury in August, the Cardinals simply closed ranks and started Adams every day.
So is wedging Taveras into a time share a good move? The Cardinals offense has been sputtering of late, but here are the top ten Cardinals hitters, ranked by wOBA according to Oliver pre-season projections (I left Mike O'Neill out, as he hasn't played in the majors so far this season):
My point is that to the extent that Taveras plate appearances come at the extent of three of the club's top four hitters, that doesn't necessarily represent an upgrade. In other words, any extra rest days that Matt Holliday gets because of Taveras could cost the team in offensive production. So how could this be a smart move?
The answer is that a big chunk of Taveras's playing time won't actually come from Holliday, Craig and Adams. And I'm not even referring to the occasional start he may get in center -- I'm referring to the playing time that Jon Jay and Shane Robinson would have gotten in the outfield corners.
What time shares like this one do better than anything else is limit the number of plate appearances that go to true backups. Jay was projected to have a .314 wOBA, but Shane Robinson's .300 wOBA projection, while great for a fifth outfielder, is still below average and well below the .341 projection for Taveras.
The value added by positional flexibility
Platoon advantages, double switches, timely rest and limiting PAs for true backups are just some of the benefits of positional flexibility like that of Allen Craig.
Robinson has had just 44 plate appearances so far this season, so it's really Jay and Bourjos who will see their playing time reduced. But if Jay's PA per team games played slips from a 2.6/G rate to, say, a 1.6/G rate, that might easily make up for the lost plate appearances for Holliday, and Taveras's projected production may be close to that of Craig and Adams anyway, making reduced playing time for Craig and Adams something of a non-issue.
But wait, there's more. Like we saw when Taveras was plugged in for Holliday on Tuesday, the four players/three spots time share need not be random. Craig gets dinged up a bit? Then maybe he wouldn't be as productive in the next game anyway, and Taveras is replacing a lesser version of the versatile 1B/OF, not the one projected for a .346 wOBA overall. Like Adams, Taveras hits from the left side, but if the Cards face a tough lefty? Adams might sit, as his career platoon split (.384 wOBA vs. right-handers, .246 wOBA vs. lefties) is profound. And Taveras might be taking the place of a lesser version of Adams.
An extra day off here or there could keep Holliday, Craig, and Adams fresher and more productive on a rate basis. But because their days off could come at particularly helpful times (matchups, injury, or just needing extra work in the cage), any increase in production from those players could be magnified. And the possibility of in-game switches opens a door to even more increased production.
In short, we aren't talking about Holliday, Craig, and Adams going from starting 100% of games to starting 75% of games with the arrival of Taveras. At worst, we're talking about the trio going from maybe 90% of starts to 75% of starts — and that lost 15% might be below-average production anyway. Sounds like gaining four or five Taveras starts per week is worth the trade-off.
. . .
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Ryan P. Morrison is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.