COMMENTARY | For a team leading the National League with a .644 winning percentage through May 22, an underperforming right-handed bench bat is of little concern -- but time is running out for Ty Wigginton to show the St. Louis Cardinals he can be a valuable piece in a stretch playoff run.
Brought in as a right-handed option off the bench, Wigginton's exact role on the Cardinals' roster appears to be fluid. The inclusion of Matt Carpenter and David Freese means Wigginton won't see many games at third base. The same is true of first base as long as Matt Adams and Allen Craig are healthy. That limits the Cardinals' free agent signing to pinch-hit duty off the bench, a role he seems to be filling adequately after an encouraging May.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, Wigginton has 16 pinch-hit plate appearances as a Cardinal with four base hits and a walk, including a key double and a mad dash to the plate to score the winning run on May 13. Those small-sample-size totals are good enough for a .267 average, easily better than his career .237 batting average in 140 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter.
But they are in sharp contrast to his numbers as a starter.
In five games as a member of the starting lineup, the veteran corner infielder is hitting an atrocious .143 in 14 at-bats. The only bright spot seems to be three walks to inflate his on-base percentage to a small yet deceptive .294. Those are jarring numbers considering Wigginton is a career .263/.324/.439 hitter for his career when he starts a game.
On another team, those offensive statistics could inch closer to his career line over time -- but not on a roster that currently ranks four players ahead of him in the battle for playing time at the corner infield positions.
Failure to Hit Left-Handed Pitching
When Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak signed Ty Wigginton to a two-year, $5 million contract over the winter, his ability to play first and third in a pinch was certainly a consideration, but even more attractive was his right-handed power off the bench. In other words, the Cardinals wanted a veteran, late-inning RBI threat with extra base hit ability against left-handed pitching.
Through May 22, Ty Wigginton is currently sitting on one hit with one walk and six strikeouts in 11 plate appearances against lefties. That one hit was a double -- his only extra base hit of the season.
Failure of that magnitude especially stands out for a team currently hitting .224 against left-handed pitching (No. 28 in MLB).
Most reasonable fans would expect Wigginton's performance against left-handers to improve as the season progresses. He is, after all, a .269/.353/.454 hitter with 52 home runs against left-handed pitchers over a 12-season career. But how long do the Cardinals wait on a hitter signed specifically to face lefties in meaningful at-bats yet failing to actually hit left-handed pitching?
Wigginton's Future with the Cardinals
When asked about Ty Wigginton's future with the Cardinals at the annual United Cardinal Bloggers conference in late April, Mozeliak pointed to the value of allowing younger hitters to further develop in Triple-A while delaying the start of their major league service time clock. To put it another way -- as Mozeliak did -- no one cares if Ty Wigginton gets regular at-bats, but nobody wants to see the development of premium prospects stunted while they eat clock time sitting on the bench.
For now, that answer will suffice.
The Cardinals are 29-16 and atop the NL Central in late May with a relatively healthy and intact lineup. Carrying an under-performing pinch-hitter is clearly not dramatically restricting the offense. But in another month, when teams are looking to improve their roster for a stretch run at the playoffs, Mozeliak can't afford to sit on his hands and ignore poor production. As I wrote this week, he has too many enticing options waiting for a shot in Triple-A.
"If he's still hitting .150 at the end of the season," Mozeliak said, lowering his head and spreading his hands, "Then I'll wear that."
Waiting until the end of the season is an optimistic outlook for Wigginton and the Cardinals' GM. If his power numbers and at-bats against lefties don't improve by July, Mozeliak must cut ties with the veteran to make room for the ascendance of more productive, high-upside players from Triple-A.
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast every Sunday evening at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
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