Carlos Beltran doesn't live here anymore. Making the most of his two very good seasons in St. Louis, Beltran signed a three-year deal with the Yankees.
The Cardinals didn't screw up by letting Beltran leave as a free agent. A three-year deal worth $45 million for a player that turns 37 years old in April represented an unnecessary risk for an organization that's readying top prospect Oscar Taveras for a promotion to St. Louis.
There may be some short-term pain. It isn't so much that the Cardinals lack the pieces to replace Beltran in the lineup. Allen Craig can play right field, with young Matt Adams taking over at first base.
The larger issue is lineup construction.
Beltran not only provided 56 homers and a .493 slugging percentage over the past two seasons, but he put up strong numbers as a No. 2 hitter.
In 552 plate appearances in the No. 2 hole over the past two seasons, Beltran had a fine .355 onbase percentage with a .547 slugging percentage. That OPS of .902 was the third-best in the majors among MLB No. 2 hitters over the '12 and '13 seasons combined.
Scanning the roster, there isn't a ready-made replacement for Beltran in the No. 2 slot.
Let's take a look:
Yes, the Cardinals could put Matt Carpenter there. But that would mean moving your No. 1 hitter who ranked second in the majors with a .398 leadoff onbase percentage in 2013. Is that smart?
Granted, Carpenter would be sliding down only one spot. In theory, he would have more opportunities to drive in runs as a No. 2 hitter — and the Cardinals would still have his high OBP presence at No. 2 in the lineup. If Carpenter largely maintains his 2013 form, he could hit anywhere including at No. 2.
In 200 career plate appearances as a No. 2 hitter, Carpenter has a .375 OBP and .555 SLG. (Small sample.) He would likely do a nice job there, except …
• Who would bat leadoff? Not Peter Bourjos, with his sickly career OBP of .306. And in 219 career plate appearances as leadoff man, Bourjos has a .313 OBP. That isn't nearly good enough to put at the top of the lineup.
• What about rookie second baseman Kolten Wong as a leadoff man? Not yet. Wong needs to show he can become a productive big-league hitter before taking on the crucial responsibility of batting No. 1.
• Could Bourjos bat second? In 74 career plate appearances there, he's done very well, with a .342 OBP and .477 SLG. But the sample size is so small, it renders the numbers meaningless. With the Angels in the American League, Bourjos did most of his hitting in the No. 8 slot, and the No. 9 slot. He was a pretty good No. 8 hitter (in a non-DH league), with a solid .349 OBP and acceptable .423 SLG. He could be effective in the eighth spot for the Cardinals.
• Wong projects as a No. 2 hitter based on his minor-league stats, which featured a .365 OBP and .446 SLG … and (like Bourjos) he is a threat to steal bases. Wong comfortably hit second in the Triple A Memphis lineup last season. But again, I doubt that the Cardinals would throw Wong into the No. 2 hole right away. Maybe later.
• Allen Craig has an outstanding combined onbase-slugging percentage of .941 in his career when he bats second. But we're only talking about 119 plate appearances there; not enough to bank on. Besides, why would the Cardinals mess with a middle-lineup presence who's cashed in so many RBIs?
• Catcher Yadier Molina has a career .951 onbase-slugging as a No. 2 hitter. But that's with only 53 plate appearances; not sufficient to go on. And you'd like more speed there.
• Jon Jay has 339 career plate appearances as a No. 2 hitter. His OBP is fine (.366) but his slugging percentage there (.364) is not. And besides, the Cardinals acquired Bourjos with the goal of moving Jay to a backup role.
• Of course, there is the new shortstop, Jhonny Peralta. But he's made only 36 plate appearances as a No. 2 hitter in his career. And he isn't a good base runner. To cite an advanced metric, Peralta is about a minus 17 in Base Running Runs (BRR) over the past six years according to Baseball Prospectus. Ugh.
I wouldn't be surprised to see manager Mike Matheny use Peralta as the No. 2 hitter. Peralta bats righthanded, which would prevent having two lefthanded hitters at the very top of the lineup. (Which is only a potential problem against LH pitchers.)
I also wouldn't be surprised to see Matheny try Bourjos as the leadoff man, which would move Carpenter to the No. 2 spot. GM John Mozeliak doesn't believe it's a good idea to bat Bourjos leadoff, but the manager makes out the lineup. And the manager wants to implement more speed.
Ultimately? If Carpenter stays in the No. 1 spot, as he should, then I believe we'll see Wong or Taveras picking up a lot of plate appearances at No. 2 at some point during the 2014 season.
And if center field evolves into a Bourjos-Jay platoon, Jay could get some turns at No. 2 against RH pitching. One possible issue with any combination of Carpenter, Wong, Taveras or Jay batting first and second in any order: they all bat lefthanded. Carpenter hit lefties well in 2013, but it's not ideal to have your top-lineup set with consecutive lefthanded hitters when facing LH starters or LH relievers. Matheny would likely avoid that.
Maybe the righthanded-swinging Bourjos can factor in at No. 2 if he gets off to a good start. But again, you just can't carry a low OBP in the second spot.
Early in the season, the Cardinals' No. 1 question may be about the No. 2 hitter.
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