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Leading man: Cardinals' search for offensive spark starts at the top, auditioning for new No. 1

Leading man: Cardinals' search for offensive spark starts at the top, auditioning for new No. 1

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Tommy Edman, from left, Dylan Carlson and Matt Carpenter are among contenders to lead off for the Cardinals.

JUPITER, Fla. — Behind in the count, 1-2, after the first three pitches any Cardinal had seen in weeks, the leadoff hitter clipped two 95-mph fastballs to stay at the plate and calibrate his vision. He then judiciously ignored a series of changeups, all of them outside of the zone, to earn an eight-pitch walk.

As the opening hitter the club sent to the plate after its 17-day COVID-19 outbreak last summer, Kolten Wong’s scrappy recovery to take first was the catalyst for a doubleheader sweep, teammates said later.

He “set the tone of who we are,” manager Mike Shildt agreed. “What we are.”

The No. 1 spot in the order is only guaranteed to come up first once, to start a game. And yet it is certain to bat at least as much as any other hitter, so it can always spark a rally or prolong one. For a Cardinals team still craving offense, rediscovering that ignition and Wong’s heir leading off is not the lone improvement necessary.

But it is a start.

“What we’re looking for out of the leadoff spot …” manager Mike Shildt began an answer on a Zoom conference Saturday morning. “The game has evolved. Effectively you want somebody who is going to get on base. If you get damage out of that spot, that’s wonderful. A lot of the game has gone to (the philosophy that) you really want somebody up there who can consistently get on and allow them to be driven in by the middle-of-the-lineup guys who get paid to do that.”

Getting going

The Cardinals open their 24-game Grapefruit League schedule Sunday against Washington at Roger Dean Stadium, and with an off day Monday, Shildt has advertised a lineup that could be regular-season ready. Newcomer Nolan Arenado will make his Cardinals game debut by starting at third and possibly hitting cleanup, right behind Paul Goldschmidt, a fixture at first base and batting third. Shildt invited people to “read anything they want into the lineup — some of it may be actually in the thought process.”

One of the leading questions of spring is right there at the top of Shildt’s order: Who will replace Wong and revive one of the least productive leadoff spots in the majors?

Shildt did not reveal who will bat No. 1 in the Grapefruit opener, but his comments and the Cardinals’ actions this spring clearly hint who has first dibs.

Tommy Edman, step right up.

“Definitely a fit,” Shildt said. “I can’t disqualify Tommy Edman out of that opportunity. He’s done it for us. A lot of skillsets that elicit that spot in the lineup. Switch hitter. Effective from both sides of the plate. A little more effective against lefties. Becoming more consistent against righties. Zone discipline has improved. Tommy has a lot of positive things that allow him to take over a spot like that, be an everyday player.”

In the past two seasons, Edman has the highest slugging percentage (.358) and OPS (.674) at leadoff of any returning Cardinal, though in the majors he has not had the walk rate traditionally expected of the role. Edman hit .304 in his rookie season and followed that with a .250 average but a team-high 26 RBIs in 2020 as a utility fielder but constant in the lineup. In 576 big-league plate appearances, he’s walked 32 times.

That is a number he’s explored — and can explain — and sought to improve. He identified how his head was moving too much as he started his swing, and that was jarring his view of the strike zone. He’s steadied himself and his head position from both sides of the plate through winter workouts. This spring, he and many teammates are using virtual reality to scout opposing pitchers and further sharpen their strike-zone judgment.

“The most important thing as a leadoff hitter is getting on base, especially with the guys we have in the middle of our lineup,” Edman said. “I think for me, that first season that I came up I didn’t walk too much — just as a rookie, pitchers really tend to attack you. This past year, I was approached a little bit differently. Didn’t quite make the adjustments I needed to. Hopefully I’m able to combine a little bit of what I learned those first two years.

“I’ve been pretty successful at that in the past,” he continued. “Hasn’t quite carried over to the major leagues as well as I expected (of) myself. So, I hope I can put it together this year.”

More contenders

Other candidates include rookie Dylan Carlson, center fielder Harrison Bader, or Matt Carpenter, who helped reinvent leadoff several years ago. Or, a mix of them all.

Bader’s success against lefties (.825 OPS since 2018) could get him a look at No. 1 if the matchup is right. Like Edman, Carlson is a switch-hitter, and he has a strike-zone savvy beyond his years. Carpenter has the most experience of any player on the roster in the leadoff slot, and it was only three years ago that the Cardinals’ 136 runs from the top spot led the National League. The drop in production since those salsa days of 2018 has been precipitous.

Only the Cardinals and Brewers have qualified for the playoffs the past two seasons and had a meager OPS less than .700 from the leadoff spot. The Cardinals’ .226 average from the leadoff spot the past two years ranks 29th out of 30 teams. The .345 slugging percentage ranks 30th, and the .664 OPS is the lowest in the majors outside of Seattle’s .663. If on-base percentage is the metric of choice to measure leadoff success, then the Cardinals have been the seventh worst, at .319 since 2019. Wong buoyed that in 2020 up to the ninth highest, at .351, in the shortened season.

With Wong and Dexter Fowler — two sub-leasers to the No. 1 spot — elsewhere as 2021 opens, the Cardinals no longer have players who took 48% of the 999 plate appearances at leadoff since 2019.

The opening is there for a new name to try for familiar results.

“I just think more than anything as a good leadoff hitter (it is) setting the tone for the offense and being a catalyst as far as getting on base,” said Carpenter, whose .885 OPS at leadoff from 2013-2018 was third in the majors to Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. “Anybody who is really good just being on base for that middle of that lineup — and he can do it in a lot of different ways.”

That describes how Carlson handled leading off as he zoomed toward the majors. During his Texas League MVP season in 2018, Carlson had more at-bats at leadoff than anywhere else for Class AA Springfield. He hit .282 atop the S-Cards’ order with an .883 OPS. He had almost as many extra-base hits (25) in 202 at-bats at leadoff as he had walks (26) to forge a .373 on-base percentage. Shildt said leadoff was “not the No. 1 place — no pun intended — for Dylan in our thoughts at the moment.”

He clarified Saturday that he could not rule it out as a “possibility.”

A 'great' start

“Hitting leadoff is always great — getting the first crack at the pitcher and being able to help the team out,” Carlson said. “First and foremost, getting on base would be the most important thing if you’re hitting leadoff. Just a guy who is able to see some pitches, obviously get on base a lot. Someone who can run a little bit. Someone who is good at relaying information to hitters behind him because, you know, you’re the first tone to see it. Just a guy who competes. That pretty much goes for every position, but leadoff especially.”

As anecdotal evidence, Carlson can point back to his big-league debut. He was on-deck as Carpenter was hit by a pitch that forced home Wong. That leadoff walk Wong worked against the White Sox had become a run as All-Star pitcher Lucas Giolito went from ahead in the count to all over the place in the inning. The Cardinals scored four runs in that first inning, won 5-1, and quickly found their footing coming out of quarantine. It is one handpicked example in a game just as leadoff is once in a game, but an offense idling on average for years kindles improvement wherever it can.

The Cardinals aim to change their lineup’s production.

That begins right from the top.

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

dgoold@post-dispatch.com

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