<
>

Will the Cardinals' infield support a ground ball-inducing pitching staff?

JUPITER, Fla. -- Matt Carpenter was a below-average third baseman by both DRS and UZR last season. Kolten Wong was a slightly above-average second baseman by the same measures, but far from elite.

Now, the St. Louis Cardinals have lost All-Star shortstop Jhonny Peralta for the first couple of months of the season. And, when they are facing left-handed pitchers, Matt Holliday, could be playing first base. Holliday has never been known for his fielding and now he’s trying to play a new position.

On the face of it, the Cardinals could be more porous on the infield than they are accustomed to being, which might prove an issue since they have a ground ball-oriented pitching staff. Only seven major-league pitchers got a higher percentage of ground balls than Carlos Martinez (54.5 percent) last season. Only 14 got a higher percentage than Mike Leake (51.8). In their last healthy seasons, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright both finished in the top 50 in baseball for ground-ball percentage.

“We’ve got to make plays,” manager Mike Matheny said.

So far, the Cardinals have managed to play serviceable defense for the most part this spring. Leake made it somewhat irrelevant Monday by taking advantage of an eager Minnesota Twins lineup to get six strikeouts in four scoreless innings. In the fifth inning, Holliday got eaten up by a high hop off the bat of Jorge Polanco, with the ball ricocheting off his right pectoral muscle. The scorer ruled it a hit.

“It was a tough play. He did a nice job keeping it in front of him and stayed with it,” Matheny said.

Holliday has been here since January taking ground balls at first with infield coach Jose Oquendo, who thinks his hands are supple enough to handle the position. Holliday has been in the major leagues since 2004, but has never played first base. It’s possible he could be out there on Opening Day, with the Pittsburgh Pirates having said they’ll start left-hander Francisco Liriano in the game.

Whether Leake benefits from the Cardinals’ defense remains to be seen, but he certainly does his part to help out. He is a deft fielder at his position and he works fast.

“I don’t like to waste time. Being the center of attention isn’t always the funnest,” Leake said.

He does figure to benefit from working with catcher Yadier Molina. On Monday, Leake thought Molina got him a few strikes, including a one pitch that struck out Trevor Plouffe that Leake admits “was probably a touch off.”

Molina has typically rated highly in pitch framing, the ability to get strikes called strikes and, sometimes, balls called strikes by how the ball is presented to an umpire.