JUPITER, Fla. — With Carlos Beltran leading the way, the Cardinals led the National League in offense from the second spot in the batting order last year.
But Beltran now is wearing Yankees pinstripes and the Cardinals must figure out who will take his place in the order. The decision is the most intriguing one manager Mike Matheny must make about his batting order.
It’s also one he’s in no hurry to make.
"I know that’s been a hot topic all winter," he said Saturday before the Cardinals lost their second exhibition of the spring to the same team, the Marlins, by the same score, 5-4, as their opener. "Everybody wants to get to the end of it. We do ourselves a favor by continuing to watch how this unfolds, how guys take their at-bats.
"If we go into spring training and saying this is our guy for batting second, we’re not open to see what could possibly be best for our club. I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it."
While he would like a two-hole hitter with Beltran-like power, hitting home runs is not the No. 1 consideration.
"We need those first two guys (in the order) to get on base," Matheny said. "Now the second guy may have some more opportunities to drive in runs, so that’s a criteria. It’s guys who are grinding out those at-bats to get on base for three, four and five. That’s going to be what it comes down to."
Another reason he will take his time is because he has an abundance of candidates, though there are hitches with all of them.
The most likely is new shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who hit .303 with a .358 OBP for the Tigers last season. Peralta, however, hasn’t had a plate appearance out of the two-hole in five seasons and has batted there in only 36 of 1,383 career games. In his spring debut with his new team Saturday, Peralta went 0 for 2 out of the cleanup spot and said afterward he doesn’t care where he hits.
New second baseman Mark Ellis went 1 for 2 out of the two-hole in his first spring game with the Cardinals and has taken more at-bats hitting second than any other spot in the order during 11 seasons in the big leagues. But his numbers are mediocre at best — .257/.326/.370 — and besides, he was signed mainly as insurance in case rookie Kolten Wong shows he’s not ready for regular duty.
Give everybody the opportunity to go out and show what they can do and trust the fact that we’re going to try to do what’s right.
Wong projects as an ideal leadoff or No. 2 hitter, but unless he has a monster March (so far, he’s 0 for 4 with three strikeouts), he figures to be eased into his career by hitting in the bottom third of the order.
Another newcomer, center fielder Peter Bourjos, doesn’t fit Matheny’s job description because of a subpar .306 career OBP. That general manager John Mozeliak has said he sees Bourjos as an ideal No. 8 hitter doesn’t help his chances of hitting second, either.
Jon Jay has enjoyed his share of success batting second (.296/.354/.388), but his days of playing regularly are all but over. The Cardinals traded for Bourjos because they wanted an upgrade over Jay in center field.
The guy who might be the ideal candidate is a long shot at this point to make the roster. That would be top prospect Oscar Taveras, who has power, plate discipline and some speed. But Taveras could be at least a week from playing in an exhibition considering he hasn’t been cleared to return, according to Matheny. More significantly, there’s no open position for Taveras at this point.
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It’s not like whoever emerges in the two-hole on Opening Day in Cincinnati on March 31 will be there all season. As Matheny pointed out, the job could evolve.
"We’re just going to keep our eyes open," he said. "Give everybody the opportunity to go out and show what they can do and trust the fact that we’re going to try to do what’s right."
— If you don’t believe that new shortstop Jhonny Peralta left Detroit on good terms, this should convince you: When the Cardinals make the 2 1/2-hour trip to Lakeland to play the Tigers on Monday, Peralta will be on the bus.
"He won’t be making a lot of far trips, but that’s one I figured he’d be pretty good about going on," Matheny said.
"It will feel good to go there and say hi to everybody," Peralta said. "They’re good friends."
— Ozzie Smith is tired of the brutal winter, too. After finishing his annual stint at spring training, the Cardinals figured he was finished with Florida and shipped his gear back to St. Louis. But Saturday morning, there was the Hall of Famer pulling into the parking lot at Roger Dean Stadium for a second visit. After lamenting another approaching winter storm at home, he said he decided he could use a few more days of sunshine.
— When the Red Sox visit Jupiter to play the Cardinals on Wednesday, their ace, Jon Lester, is on turn to pitch but will stay in Ft. Myers and throw a side session rather than make the long trip across the state. The Cardinals aren’t operating that way with their ace, Adam Wainwright. On Thursday, when they travel to Ft. Myers to face the Twins, Wainwright is scheduled to make the trek across Alligator Alley to get in his 40 or so pitches.
— Randal Grichuk powered a ball over the center fielder’s head with what essentially was a one-handed swing that drove in the Cardinals’ first run.