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If Shut Out at 3rd Base, the Cardinals Should Explore a 1st Base Platoon Option

On Wednesday’s Bernie Show, we had a voice mail from a listener who offered a sensible opinion.

Go with a platoon at first base.

Yep, this is worth exploring.

Instead of obsessing over the third-base market and overpaying in risky trades for Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson, or gambling significant free-agent money on an inconsistent Mike Moustakas, the Cardinals have another option in their attempt to pump up the lineup.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak has said the team wants to get more at -bats for Jose Martinez in 2018. And that makes a lot of sense because of his excellent plate performance. And based on what we’ve seen from him, it leaves us wanting to see a lot more.

The body of work is limited, so beware of tricky sample sizes …

But in his 325 MLB plate appearances, all with the Cardinals, Martinez has been a towering and productive presence. We are talking about a .316 batting average … and a .386 onbase percentage … a big .517 slugging percentage … a .903 OPS. He’s hit for more power than expected, launching a home run every 20.5 at-bats.

Offensively Martinez has thrived at a rate of 38 percent above the league average in park-adjusted runs created (also known as wRC+).

His numbers against left handed pitchers are ridiculous. Insane. Preposterous. It’s just a mini sample of 81 plate appearances, so keep that in mind, but Martinez has rocked lefties for a .423 average, .494 OBP, .803 slug, and an OPS of 1.297. He has 7 homers in only 71 at-bats against LH pitching.

That isn’t sustainable … but as I mentioned earlier, it leaves us wanting to see more of Martinez.

Of course, Martinez bats right.

The target, then, would be a left-handed hitter to pair with Martinez at first base. With Matt Carpenter resettling at third base. Carpenter’s best position defensively is first base, but he isn’t a stiff at third base. Carpenter basically had one bad year there, ranking 32nd among third basemen majors with a negative 10 Defensive Runs Saved in 2015. But Carpenter also turned in slightly above average defense at third base in three other seasons including a +2 DRS in 2016. Without that minus 10 outlier, Carpenter is a +3 third baseman in the majors. Not great … but not as lousy as many assume because of the one poor season with the glove.

Let’s get to the fun part.

The free-agent market is popping with LH platoon bats who play first base. I have no idea what these guys are looking for. But based on everything I’ve read so far this offseason, only one, Logan Morrison, seems to be setting a high price for a contract. Here’s a brief review of the left-swinging platoon candidates available for purchase:

— Logan Morrison: Had a career year in 2017, erupting for 38 homers and a .522 slugging for the Rays. He punished right-handed pitching for a 32 homers and a .548 slug. For his career Morrison has a .455 slug against RH but seems to have made swing adjustments to boost his power. His defense has been below average over the past four seasons. He had 3.3 WAR last season, the most among the other hitters we have on this list. He’ll also be the most expensive.

— Lucas Duda: He bashed 30 homers and slugged .496 in 491 plate appearance for the Mets and Rays. He damaged RH pitching for 25 homers and a .525 slug. Has done well against RHP during his career with a .356 OBP and .486 slug. Cannot hit lefties, period. He’s been a plus defender at 1B during his career.

–Adam Lind: I have to say, I’ve been watching Lind pummel RH pitching for years now, and he’s never failed to impress. What a specialist. And among established platoon bats, Lind has been consistently harmful to righthanders since coming to the bigs in 2006. And just look at what he did for the Nationals this past season: 14 homers in only 267 at-bats, a .303 average, a .362 OBP, and a .513 slug. He walloped the RH pitchers for all 14 of his homers, and a .534 slugging percentage. In his career, Lind has battered RH pitching for a .348 OBP and .504 slug. Lind is also one of the best pinch-hitters in the game with a career slash line of .324 / .391 / .568 … last season, in 48 pinch-hit ABs for the Nationals, Lind went off for a .356 average, .396 OBP and crazy .644 slug. He topped it off with four pinch homers. Lind is 34. He doesn’t run well. He’s adequate at best defensively. But this dude could literally be asleep — and blind-folded — in the batter’s box and he’d still slash a RH pitcher for a double in the gap.

* Yonder Alonso: He cranked 28 homers and struck for a .501 slugging percentage in 521 plate appearances for the A’s and Mariners. Alonso was especially nasty to RH pitchers, launching 23 homers with a .383 OBP and .517 slug. He hasn’t had awe-inspiring numbers vs. right handers during his career (.349 OBP,  .422 slug). But Alonso can hit. He’s awful at first base, though … a minus 12 in Defensive Runs Saved over the last two seasons.

UPDATE: Wednesday night, Alonso signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Indians. 

* Matt Adams: Hey,  BIG CITY is up for adoption! I have to include the former Cardinal on this list, simply because his platoon splits warrant inclusion. And unless Mike Matheny wants to put Adams in left field again, the big fella would be fine in a platoon role at first base. Last season Adams did just about all of his power hitting after the trade to the Braves. He had a 20-homer campaign, slugging .522 overall. But Adams really hammered RH pitchers — 17 homers, and a .554 slug — and that’s when we know he’s at his best. After the Cardinals messed up Adams’ stroke by trying to transform him into a hit-to-all-fields dinker and dunker  — sadly, such a stupid idea — the Braves hitting coaches got him fixed by encouraging Adams to do what comes naturally: get back to being a pull hitter. And he found that effective power stroke again. For his career, Adams has a .333 OBP and .495 slug against right handers. He’s been terrific at first base, with +14 Defensive Runs Saved over the last four seasons.

UPDATE: Hours after I filed this post, Adams agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal with the Nationals. 

— Adrian Gonzalez: He’s old (36) and is coming off a season torn apart by problems with his lower back. Gonzalez was traded from the Dodgers to the Braves in a salary-dump move, with the understanding that the Braves would release him after the deal went through. (Don’t ask me to explain this, thank you.) Limited to only 252 plate appearances last season, Gonzalez hit 3 homers and slugged a weak .355. Until being compromised by the creaky back, Gonzalez was a force against RH pitching, with a career .298 average, .374 OBP and .524 slug against them through 2016. A good fielder as well. But the combination of age and his recent misery with back pain obviously make Gonzalez a risky proposition. What does he have left? Could this be a Lance Berkman scenario for some team?

There’s also free-agent John Jaso … but other than his acumen draw walks there isn’t anything to recommend there … so I’ll just stop writing now.

If the Cardinals decide to go in this direction, they have several appealing LH platoon bats to look at. Most could be had on a short-term deal for reasonable money. But they won’t be on the market all winter. They’ll be scooped up soon enough … Alonso and Adams are off the list already.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: If the Cubs Sign Yu Darvish, the Cardinals’ Rotation Will Look Even Thinner