Carpenter likely returning to leadoff spot in '16

Third baseman has been among most effective hitters at top of order since '13

Carpenter likely returning to leadoff spot in '16

JUPITER, Fla. -- Though open to the possibility that a new leadoff hitter could emerge in Spring Training, the Cardinals appear set to open the season with no change at all.

The same player who has been the team's primary leadoff man for the past three years is expected to see the first pitch of the 2016 season in Pittsburgh on Sunday. That'll be Matt Carpenter, who welcomes his static spot in the lineup even though he profiles as one of the more versatile hitters in the game.

For a club that has been offensively challenged the last two years, there was appeal in moving Carpenter, who led the team with 28 homers and 84 RBIs in 2015, into more of a run-production spot. That is trumped, however, by Carpenter's knack for getting on base and the absence of any such equal alternative.

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Manager Mike Matheny, though not willing to explicitly name Carpenter his leadoff choice again, has all but telegraphed it with his Spring Training lineups. Every time Carpenter starts, he does so from that familiar batting order spot.

"The significance of it is he looks good there and seems to fit alright," Matheny said. "We always keep our eyes open for different options but also try to get him right, and at this point, it's about getting our team ready to go. I think the best way to get him ready to go is in the spot where he looks the best."

Carpenter's RBI double

Carpenter's on-base percentage since moving to the leadoff position in 2013 is .386, second-highest among all Major League leadoff batters in that span. Ahead of him is Shin-Soo Choo, who has appeared in 105 fewer games from that spot than Carpenter. Add in the fact that he has more doubles (111) and RBIs (178) than any other leadoff hitter over the last three years and Carpenter's impact is obvious.

His patient approach has served him well, too. Carpenter averaged 4.22 pitches per plate appearance last season.

The Cardinals gave Kolten Wong multiple starts from the leadoff spot this spring after he publically pushed for a look. The club hasn't ruled him out as a future fit but would first need to see an uptick in on-base percentage. Wong's career OBP of .303 isn't good enough.

Carpenter is expected to be followed in the lineup by Stephen Piscotty and Matt Holliday. Behind them, things will likely be fluid, especially since the Cardinals do not have set plans for the first-base and shortstop positions.

Matheny said he is not opposed to stacking several right-handed hitters consecutively, which would suggest that Randal Grichuk will get consideration as a four-hole option.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.