Following the St. Louis Cardinals’ decision to upgrade their outfield this offseason, it quickly became apparent that Randal Grichuk would be the odd man out, at least from the every day starting lineup. Grichuk expressed verbal frustration after the Cardinals openly stated they would utilize him as a fourth outfielder behind Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham, and Dexter Fowler. Nobody could be too upset at the former first-round pick by the Los Angeles Angels for being frustrated over losing a spot in the lineup he had held the majority of the past few seasons. Grichuk even publicly admitted he was still happy to oblige to the Cardinals’ role for him because of his commitment to the organization.

Just days after making these comments, the Cardinals traded Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays in a deal that many did not see coming, especially after the Cardinals had traded Stephen Piscotty earlier in the offseason as well. Suddenly, a whole new tone and attitude towards the Cardinals organization began to come out in Grichuk’s comments. Grichuk again expressed frustration over his playing time and further claimed that he never felt comfortable within his role while with the Cardinals, citing manager Mike Matheny’s preference to “play the hot hand” and not stick with young players through rough offensive stretches.

To no surprise, Matheny was promptly asked about Grichuk’s comments in an interview earlier this week on St. Louis-area radio. Matheny staunchly countered Grichuk, claiming “that’s the game we play” and that playing time in St. Louis is earned, not guaranteed. Seems like a reasonable enough response, right? In most cases, I would agree with the skipper’s take on this one. In a results-driven business like baseball, it makes a lot of sense to play the hot hand at the expense of a player mired in a slump. But does Matheny really practice what he preaches?

Simply put, the answer during Matheny’s six-year tenure thus far as manager has been no. Matheny has repeatedly shown nearly unwavering loyalty to some players, particularly some established veterans, while being extremely quick to bounce around other players, mainly young ones. I’ll be the first to admit that this sounds like a good mentality on the surface. Generally, veterans are more prone to bouncing back after a rough patch because they’ve gone through the ups and downs of a season before in their careers. Rookies and young players haven’t necessarily proven this at the Major League level. It becomes an especially tough balance when a surging young star is fighting for playing time with a veteran. But at the same time, unwavering loyalty to certain players isn’t always the right mentality either, especially if their performance is affecting the team’s chance of winning.

I’ve previously written on why I feel Randal Grichuk was generally not a great performer in the Cardinals’ lineup for a number of reasons that extend beyond lacking consistent playing time. To put it in short, I don’t think Grichuk is particularly the right guy to complain about playing time, especially when considering how many stretches he consistently underperformed at the plate prior to being sent back down to the minors. It’s arguable, in fact, that Grichuk received almost too much playing time in St. Louis when considering his erratic performance.

In 2015, Grichuk justifiably started almost every day during the summer months due to persisting injuries to Matt Holliday, and did so all the way until an injury to his own elbow that essentially shut him down until the very end of the season. During that season, Grichuk statistically posted higher numbers in almost every category, including batting average, OPS, and walk rate. But in the last two seasons, Grichuk’s performance has essentially deteriorated to the point of near-replacement level at the plate. But he still managed to average around 450 plate appearances in the last two years, putting him right in the thick of the plate appearance leaders for the team. Grichuk is not the one to make this argument, but there are other cases that make his point seem quite valid.

One example that can’t be ignored is that of the late Oscar Taveras. The story of Taveras is well known at this point, and his full potential will unfortunately never be known. But what we do know is that Mike Matheny did not give the then number one prospect in the organization a fair shot at playing time during his second call up in 2014. At the time, Matheny preferred the struggling Allen Craig in right field instead of Taveras. And although he did not perform at a level to catch the public eye, Taveras was quietly picking up multi-hit games while Craig could barely hit the ball out of the infield. But on multiple occasions, even after the Craig trade, Taveras would be benched for going hitless in individual games, with the alternative options/replacements being an equally unproven Grichuk, who was not particularly performing at a higher level, or Peter Bourjos who was even worse at the plate (and not someone who should have taken at bats away from an organization’s number one prospect). Did Matheny play the top performer in the case of Taveras? All the numbers say he used single-game outliers during mild levels of success as an excuse to keep him out of the lineup.

Then of course there are cases of veterans getting what sometimes seem like endless opportunities, even when failing repeatedly to contribute any positives at all. It’s tough to forget the historic slump from Brandon Moss in September of 2016, a slump in which Moss went 7 for 95 but batted nearly every day in the three-hole with Matt Holliday out with a broken hand. Moss hit .075 during September of 2016, the fourth-lowest batting average for this month in Major League history. It’s tougher still to forget the almost endless opportunities handed to lefty reliever Randy Choate, regardless of consistent inability to record outs near the end of his Cardinals tenure, which ultimately ended with a familiar theme: being taken away (or in Choate’s case, left off the 2015 NLDS roster) from Matheny so he can’t be utilized. In the cases of Choate, Allen Craig and many others, Matheny seems to gift playing time to certain favored players, regardless performance level. I can’t absolutely prove the favoring to be true, but it sure doesn’t seem to fit the “keep producing to produce the opportunity to get back in there” comment from Matheny in response to Grichuk.

Perhaps an argument could be made that individual cases and examples are nitpicking and that they do not prove that Matheny’s comments reflect the overall reality in St. Louis. I think it’s worth considering, however, that Matheny may be picking and choosing how much he remembers and just how far his “hot hand” mentality truly extends. It’s something to think about before this upcoming season gets underway.

 

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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