In a somewhat surprising move, the Cardinals promoted infielder of the future Kolten Wong to the big club Friday. The sudden ascent of the 2011 draft pick isn’t meant as a gradual intro to the majors — according to team officials, Wong is going to spell third baseman David Freese and started in his first game Friday. Here’s what John Mozeliak had to say:
I’m still hopeful he [Freese] can get things going. Right now, my responsibility for the organization is to make sure we put the best team out there that we can. I still think David could be part of that, but we are also trying to inject some new life into the club.
This of course assumes that Wong offers an upgrade over Freese (more on that in a bit). But this post isn’t to gainsay the move to bring up Wong but to point out that, if the Cardinals are doing it in order to increase their chances of winning the division, they’re majoring on the minors. (No pun intended.) That is, their effort is misplaced: They are spending time trying to fix a lesser problem, when a more significant problem remains glaring: the ineffectual Jake Westbrook continuing to get the ball every fifth game.
Westbrook has been singularly burdensome, getting shelled to the sound of a 4.35 ERA, worst among the team’s starters. We’ve been noting since April that Westbrook is an outlier for the rotation, inasmuch as his pitch-to-contact approach is unfit for this poor-fielding team. And now that his ERA has caught up with his FIP (4.40) and xFIP (4.92), the Cardinals seem unwilling to deal with reality. We take little solace in writing that we told you so.
Let’s look at the the difference between what a Wong-Freese platoon offers and what doing something with Jake Westbrook offers.
For the purpose of argument, we’ll not consider fielding, since, although Freese has been rather poor this year, he has been an average fielder in his career. Wong isn’t a straight replacement at the position, since he would play second and push Matt Carpenter to third. The consideration of the difference between Carpenter and Freese at third and Wong and Carpenter at second complicates things and when all is said and done doesn’t strike us as being a major advantage or disadvantage.
Another assumption we make is that nothing beyond the face of the situation is wrong with Freese. That is, we assume that he doesn’t have a personal problem or lingering unreported injury, though it’s certainly possible that the Cardinals know and choose not to reveal it, a respect-worthy prerogative.
But here are some weighted on-base average (wOBA) projections for the rest of the season for both Freese and Wong:
Those numbers would theoretically change if each player were to bat primarily with platoon advantage. But a Freese-Wong platoon based on pitcher handedness doesn’t offer much of an upgrade opportunity. Freese has a relatively balanced career wOBA split of .361 (vs L)/.344 (vs R), so he’s one of the last people one would target for a platoon.
In any case, it’s certainly not clear that Wong is an upgrade. But the fact that the team is benching its star third baseman less than two years removed from World Series heroism for an unproven prospect means that it is capable of making bold moves. Why not give one of its young pitching talents a chance to improve on Westbrook? Let’s compare rest-of-season projected FIP for Westbrook, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez :
Both Wacha and Martinez offer better bets than Westbrook.
How much difference would it make? With 41 games left, assuming a five-man rotation, this means that Westbrook — or a replacement — will receive eight more starts. Assuming six-inning starts, Wacha could save the Cardinals about a half a run per start. That may not seem like much, but given the number of close games that the team will play down the stretch, that could be the difference between a division and a wild card.
We applaud the team’s efforts to improve even at the margins; after all, small fixes can be the difference. But in addition to optimizing offensive output, the Cardinals cannot continue to avert their eyes to the elephant in the room, the performance of Westbrook.