The acquisition of center fielder Peter Bourjos and the anticipated MLB arrival of top prospect Oscar Taveras raises an obvious question as we take an overview of the potential Cardinals' roster for 2014:
What will become of incumbent CF Jon Jay?
It's a tricky question to answer. There are many layers to this, so let's go through them:
* To retain Jay for 2014, Cards management will have to pay Jay between $3 million and $3.5 million next season. (The price is pumped up by the traditional, institutional, arbitration-years salary boost.) That's good money for a player that might be a fourth or even fifth oufielder. And after all, GM John Mozeliak was reluctant to pay 3B David Freese $4 million-plus for a part-time role in 2014, and moved him to Anaheim in the Bourjos deal.
Is Mozeliak looking to trade Jay? Don't rule it out. But that's based on other variables, including Taveras' status as he rehabs from ankle surgery. More on that later.
* Then we have manager Mike Matheny warning reporters that it would be unwise to assume that Bourjos will start in center. This would qualify as major news to Mozeliak, who made the trade for a reason: to significantly enhance this team's dreadful outfield defense. And Bourjos, when healthy, arguably has the best CF glove in baseball. Jay was among the worst center fielders in the majors last season, with minus 10 defensive runs saved according to Bill James online. The Cardinals need a rangy sweeper in center to cover for the limited defensive range in left and right.
* Matheny's pledge to throw the job open to competition is a contradiction. He increasingly benched Jay in favor of Shane Robinson when the Cardinals encountered LH starting pitching late in the season. From Aug. 1 through the end of the World Series, Jay had 60 plate appearances vs. lefties; Robinson had 47. And their number of PA vs. lefties was the same from Sept. 1 until the conclusion of the postseason. I think Matheny is being a nice guy here.
* Unless, of course, the Cardinals are strongly considering a platoon in center field. That would mean the LH-swinging Jay vs. RH pitchers, and the RH-swinging Bourjos vs. lefthanded pitching. But again, that's highly unlikely for multiple reasons including these two: (1) there are many more RH pitchers than LH pitchers. As a point of reference the 2013 Cardinals had 4,589 plate appearances vs. RHP and 1,613 vs. LHP. It makes no sense to trade for Bourjos and have him parked on the bench as a nominal platoon piece. You don't improve your outfield defense with Bourjos in the dugout. And (2) Bourjous hasn't hit LHP very well, anyway. That's another reason why it makes little sense to go with a platoon-heavy arrangement.
* And if the Cardinals wish to give a LH-hitting outfielder at-bats against RH pitching, I'd imagine they'd be inclined to distribute them to Taveras. The Cardinals say Taveras will be healthy and ready to go when the spring-training games begin. (They'll be able to reaffirm that after giving Taveras an extensive inspection later this month.) So if Taveras is ready to roll, wouldn't it make sense to give him his share of at-bats as a center fielder? You wouldn't have Taveras on the big club unless you can give him enough plate appearances to expedite his development. I talked to Mozeliak about this, and he said the club's preference is to have Taveras on the opening-day roster — but the team can't rule out a return to the minors, at least for the start of the season.
* If Taveras sticks at the start, I would think the goal would be to get Taveras as much playing time as the Cardinals gave rookie 1B Matt Adams in 2013. We're talking 350 plate appearances or so. And that can be done by (A) playing Taveras in center when Bourjos is scheduled for days off, is slumping, or banged up; (B) playing Taveras in RF when Allen Craig needs a day off or is nursing a minor injury; (C ) playing Taveras in RF when Adams sits, with Craig starting at first base; (D) playing Taveras in LF on Matt Holliday's off days. If you don't think this is likely, please consider: the Cardinals managed to get 382 plate appearances for Adams last season, and Adams plays only one position. Taveras can play all three OF spots, so getting him 350+ PA shouldn't be an issue.
* Before we write Jay off, let's remember that he does have some offensive value. In 1,491 career plate appearances vs. righthanded pitching Jay has batted .300 with a .360 onbase percentage and .417 slugging percentage. Jay was in the range of that career standard in 2013 when he hit .291 with a .363 onbase percentage and a .386 SLG vs. righthanders. You don't get much home-run wattage from Jay, which is a minus. But he does get on base against RH pitchers, and that could be useful as the Cardinals strive to have a deeper more versatile bench in 2014.
* Jay also would provide potentially valuable insurance. And that's a key consideration for several reasons. Bourjos has a history of injury problems. So does Craig. And not only is Taveras is coming off ankle surgery, but he's unproven as a center fielder. Taveras projects, long-term as a corner outfielder.
* If Bourjos gets hurt, would the Cardinals be willing to go all-in with Taveras in center? Would they be willing to commit to Shane Robinson in center? I'm not sure how Mozeliak feels about that. But if Bourjos is sidelined, you certainly could envision a scenario that has Taveras starting in center, with Robinson starting some games or being used extensively as a defensive replacement when the Cardinals want to protect late-inning leads.
It's difficult to find an easy, snap-into-place answer to the Jon Jay query.
The Cardinals also have other young outfielders on the way to the majors, though at the moment there's no compelling reason to rush Stephen Piscotty, James Ramsey or Randal Grichuk here in '14.
The possibilities are all over the outfield map.
Make no mistake: The GM traded for a player with the clear goal of going in a different direction in center field. But the manager says Jay still has a chance to be a starter. Depending on who you believe, Jay could play a lot, or hardly at all.
Jay's presence, at $3 million or so, could be an unnecessary extravagance. But his presence could be vital in the event of injuries; after all this team has won two NL pennants, a World Series and made it to the postseason with Jay as its starting center fielder from 2011-2013. Or Jay could be relocated in a trade.
My best guess is that the Cardinals will hedge their bet on Bourjos and keep Jay around. But how he'd be used is undetermined, and largely dependent on the injury factor and the prominence of the Taveras role in 2014.
We have solved nothing here today, but this does make for a good baseball discussion. As always, your comments and suggestions are welcome.