Versatility, youth bring optimism to NL Central champions
By Richard Justice
JUPITER, Fla. -- As a matter of fact, Matt Holliday can play first base. He might just be there on Opening Day, and who saw that coming?
"It's been fun to learn something new," Holliday said.
After 1,614 games in the outfield, Holliday approached this experiment with the attitude of a consummate pro. He told Cardinals manager Mike Matheny that if it was the right thing for the team, then it was the right thing for him.
So three months ago, Holliday and Cards coach Jose Oquendo stepped onto a practice field at the team's spring complex and got after it.
"It was about understanding the footwork and other stuff," Holliday said. "I think having played third base for a few seasons in the Minor Leagues definitely helped. That's been 16 years ago. There's definitely a little bit of an adjustment period being that close in. But I feel like I've played a long time and I'm athletic enough that with the proper training and work, I can do it."
Holliday is still likely to get the vast majority of his playing time in left field, where he has made the National League All-Star team seven times in a 12-year career. But the option of playing him at first base has been a significant development for St. Louis this spring.
This camp has seen the emergence of a new generation of Cardinals, and playing Holliday at first would give Matheny the flexibility to put another one of them -- Tommy Pham -- in his Opening Day lineup.
Two other young outfielders, 24-year-old Randal Grichuk and 25-year-old Stephen Piscotty, have had huge springs and are penciled in to play center and right field every day. To play all three kids at once would give the Cards youth, speed and athleticism in the outfield.
"These are very talented guys," Holliday said. "It's exciting when you've got young guys that work really hard and want to be great. It'll be fun watch to see how they develop."
Matheny has also used veteran Brandon Moss, acquired last season, at both first base and the outfield this spring. He'll play both positions during the regular season.
This is the kind of thing the Cardinals hoped to see when Spring Training began, and maybe that's the larger story for the only team in baseball that has made five straight playoff appearances.
"I'm watching the flexibility we have maybe never had before," Matheny said. "It just helps widen some things out for us. Overall, I'm happy with what I'm seeing. Now it's just going to be doing it on an everyday basis."
And this is one of dozens of reasons St. Louis is optimistic about this new season.
"We're pretty bullish on what we have," general manager John Mozeliak said.
This franchise might just be the most respected in baseball. The Cards win big. They spend smartly. They exhibit organizational discipline at every level.
Since Opening Day 2011, the Cardinals have won more games than any team in the game. Slice it to two years or three years, and the Cards are still on top.
In these five seasons, the Cardinals have played 61 postseason games, 23 more than any other team (Tigers).
That history matters.
"It's very cool to be part of this," Piscotty said. "You can have a tough day at the plate and make a play in the field that helps us win. That's all that matters. You have that confidence going into the next day knowing you helped your team win the previous night. I love being in that sort of environment."
This wasn't the offseason the Cardinals intended to have, and it hasn't been a smooth spring, either. They went hard for two free agents -- outfielder Jason Heyward and pitcher David Price -- and got neither.
During the offseason, they lost right-hander Lance Lynn for the season to Tommy John surgery. This spring, shortstop Jhonny Peralta torn a ligament in his left thumb and will miss at least half the regular season.
Mozeliak signed veteran right-hander Mike Leake to shore up what was baseball's best rotation in 2015 and acquired infielder Jedd Gyorko from the Padres to provide depth at both second and short.
Now the Cardinals are debating whether to open the season with Gyorko at short or fast-track 25-year-old Aledmys Diaz to the Majors to replace Peralta. They might also make a run at veteran Ruben Tejada, who was let go by the Mets this week.
Regardless, the Cards will begin the season with three everyday position players 25 or younger. Three of their top six starting pitchers are 24 years old.
"I think there's a lot of public perception that we're an aging team and that we're a club that has had its time," Mozeliak said. "I feel -- and I think the guys in our clubhouse feel -- that's not the case. Some of these guys are young. You put them with our core, and we're excited about it."
The NL Central was the only division to produce three playoff teams last season. The Cubs are solid favorites to win in 2016, but the Pirates and Cardinals will be back in the mix. The Cards say it's important not to get caught up in the noise.
"All we can control is what goes on in this room and the atmosphere we create, the effort we go out and play with and the chemistry that we create," Holliday said. "That's what will ultimately decide what kind of season we have.
"Sometimes, you get too worried about other things. You get sidetracked with who's doing what. What the Cubs are doing. What the Pirates are doing, the Mets, all these teams. We can't control what they're doing. All we can control is the effort and intensity that we play with and going out and winning games."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.