The question that confronted the Cardinals this past spring as rookie Matt Adams slugged his way onto the roster was whether the first baseman would benefit more from playing every day in Class AAA or being used sporadically at the big-league level as a power hitter off the bench.
It’s a classic quandary, true for young starters who could shine as relievers and young hitters who earn at-bats.
As the Cardinals embark on an eight-game interleague jaunt this week and everyday play will be available for young Adams, manager Mike Matheny said he’s not looking for the answer.
He already has it.
“I’ll stand by 100 percent that Matt Adams has improved as a player here considerably more than just going out and playing every day’’ for Triple-A Memphis, Matheny said. “I don’t know if he recognizes it as that. But seeing the different things he’s doing … there are just certain things that you need to learn on the job, and he’s getting that fed to him fast.”
Starting tonight with their first visit to Houston since the Astros relocated to the American League, the Cardinals will have the designated hitter at their disposal and a ready-made spot in the lineup — and sometimes in the field — for Adams. The Cardinals play their next eight games at American League ballparks, and one of the questions they don’t take on the road with them is what hitter to add to the lineup.
The Rangers unplugged the Cardinals’ offense this past weekend during a three-game sweep at Busch Stadium. Sellout crowds saw the first two games of the series, and more than 25,000 came through the turnstiles Sunday night despite a 2-hour, 59-minute rain delay.
Early Monday morning, after a 2-1 loss, frustration bubbled in the Cardinals’ clubhouse when ace Adam Wainwright expressed his objection to being pulled from the game in the middle of the seventh inning with one out to get. An error by Pete Kozma and Ian Kinsler’s base hit led to a loss that Wainwright took, though he did not make the pitch that decided it.
Matheny said after the game that Wainwright had “labored” and the bullpen gave the Cards a better chance to hold a tie game. A rally in the ninth fell short despite getting the tying run to second with one out. Adams started it.
The rookie slugger pinch-hit in the ninth inning and roped a single to right field off Rangers closer Joe Nathan. The hit was Adams’ seventh as a pinch-hitter this season, which ties him for the third-most in the majors.
“He’s a good hitter, and like anything the more you do the more you’re going to benefit,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “I think it’s nice that he’s going to get that opportunity during this stretch for everyday at-bats. Clearly when you think of how effective he was in the early part of April, I think there is no coincidence that playing everyday in spring training benefited him.”
When they agreed that Adams had earned a spot on the big-league roster — he had “proven everything he needed to in Memphis,” Matheny said — that came with a plan. The intent was to get Adams several starts a week, about two or three. In April, they did.
He had six starts in the first three weeks and had a .542 average, three homers and eight RBIs. Adams strained his side taking swings before a game in Washington and went on the disabled list because of the muscle injury.
Since returning, Adams’ playing time has been less regular and so has his production. He’s made 10 starts and hit .226 (14 for 62) with one home run and 16 strikeouts since May 7.
Matheny agreed Sunday about how Adams and veteran Ty Wigginton are coming from different directions to learn bench roles. Wigginton, 35, is in the autumn of his career and adjusting to being a rarely used pinch hitter, while Adams, 24, is a rising hitter cast in a part-time role at the start of his career. Wigginton, Matheny illustrated, has helped Adams adjust. And it’s the work that Adams has done off the field, preparing away from the batter’s box, that Matheny mentioned was more beneficial than repeating a grade in Class AAA.
Adams has established a game-day routine in the majors that includes his workouts, batting practice and scouring video. On days he’s not starting, Adams makes it a habit to watch all of the opposing team’s relievers. He wants to build a mental Rolodex of the pitchers he’ll see in a pinch-hit role, and making that a daily habit helps. If he serves as a designated hitter in the coming days, Adams expects to interrogate assistant hitting coach Bengie Molina between at-bats to help gather information.
“I’ve got to make sure I’m still prepared,” Adams said. He smiled as he said: “I like every position as long as it means I’m in the lineup. Whether you hit and come back or hit and take the field … DH is tough because you’ve got to find a way to stay loose from at-bat to at-bat. I liked it the times I did it (in the minors). You just have to stay ready for everything.”
Matheny said the benefit for a National League team at AL parks is to use the DH to “get guys rest who need rest.”
In the past, the Cardinals have done that regularly. Albert Pujols, an everyday player for 11 years, has the most at-bats at DH for the Cardinals in their history. Other players to appear at DH have included Larry Walker, Chris Duncan and, in nine games, current No. 3 hitter Matt Holliday. Whether he appears at DH or in the field as a result of a regular being the DH, Adams brings bonus power to the lineup that the Cardinals have always had for AL parks.
Matheny declined to detail who he’ll use at DH in the coming days, but said it is possible veterans such as Carlos Beltran and Holliday will get the call to get a break from the field. Most lineups then would put Adams at first base and move Allen Craig to the outfield.
Whatever the permutations, Adams is earmarked for an increase in playing time as a lefthanded option that breaks up the run of righthanders in the middle of the Cardinals’ lineup. As a starter this season, Adams has hit .308 (20 for 65) with nine extra-base hits and 12 RBIs, and his .535 slugging percentage leads the team though in fewer at-bats than the regulars. He never has started at DH.
That that helps get him in the lineup isn’t a question.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” Matheny said. “I love getting him out there. Every time he plays I don’t think that we sacrifice a lot. That’s saying a lot about a lineup like ours with how it’s been producing. When our guys take a day (off) — and he’s going to take his lumps — but I know he has the potential to be a difference-maker offensively.”
By Derrick Goold