Behind his desk in his office at Busch Stadium on Sunday morning, Cardinals manager Oli Marmol politely but firmly cut off a reporter in mid-question with a half smile.
“Are you asking if I like (outfielder Alec) Burleson or (second baseman Nolan) Gorman?”
When it was put to him that, with the Cardinals’ current roster construction, there was perhaps room for only one of those rookie left-handed bats on a postseason roster, he said, “it’ll come down to that competition of who takes a better at bat.”
And then, as the next question was being asked: “Couldn’t agree more.”
Late Tuesday night, the ground underneath the competition shifted.
Gorman, who’s hit 14 homers in the majors and 29 combined between MLB and Triple-A, was optioned to Memphis for the last week of their season. He was replaced on the roster by Juan Yepez, who injured himself in mid-July on a throw to the plate from right field and hasn’t made it back to the big leagues since, save a one-day cameo in late August when Nolan Arenado was placed on the paternity list.
The decision to send out Gorman wasn’t one made in a roster vacuum, though he certainly has not helped his case in recent weeks. This month, entering play Tuesday, he’s a mere 4-for-29 with 15 strikeouts. Several at bats over the weekend against mediocre Cincinnati pitching — some including a chance to tie or take the lead — seemed non-competitive.
On Sunday, hours after the discussion with Marmol, Gorman came to the plate with two on and two out in the bottom of the seventh and St. Louis trailing by three. Reds righty reliever Joel Kuhnel — he of the 5.75 ERA over 48 relief appearances — whiffed Gorman on three pitches.
Cardinals’ pop from right side takes hit
Kuhnel’s handedness — and Gorman’s, and Yepez’s — are relevant factors to the discussion given how strongly Gorman has been sheltered in his rookie season. Just 23 of his 313 plate appearances have come against lefty pitchers, though neither his batting average nor strikeout rate are appreciably worse with the unfavorable split.
With Tyler O’Neill back on the injured list with another strained hamstring, though, the Cardinals’ potential pop from the right side of the plate has taken a substantial hit. Yepez helps in that department, especially heading into a week in which the Cardinals will likely face at least four lefty starters.
Where Yepez doesn’t help, though, is on the defensive side of the ball. That’s an area where Gorman is also being squeezed, though not in the way many assumed at the start of the season. He’s acquitted himself as a passable defender at second, if somewhat shaky on hard hit grounders on which he has to move laterally.
Indeed, Marmol has expressed a preference for Gorman’s defense at second ahead of super utility player Brendan Donovan, who would now seemingly be in line to take over that position on an everyday basis in an effort to keep his bat in the lineup. With a third baseman’s arm and a fearless willingness to stand in at the bag, Gorman’s double play turns have helped maximize Nolan Arenado’s prodigious skill at third base.
The squeeze, instead, comes from two other right-handed bats who the Cardinals nonetheless are seeking to keep away from the plate at all costs. Ben DeLuzio was recalled ahead of Yepez on Sept. 1 as a defensive replacement in centerfield and an option as a pinch runner. Marmol said the organization graded out DeLuzio earlier in the season as their best defender in center other than ex-Cardinal Harrison Bader; to date, he’s validated that opinion.
Paul DeJong, since being recalled from Memphis just ahead of the trade deadline, has gone into a flat offensive spin. After a brief resurgence, since August 10, DeJong is 11-for-74 with just one home run and 29 strikeouts. For the season, his OPS+ is 60, making him 40% worse than a league-average hitter.
A piece without a fit
DeJong, however, has surpassed the necessary service time barrier to prevent the Cardinals from returning him to Memphis without his consent. And whatever his struggles at the plate, he remains an outstanding defensive shortstop. In his last 16 appearances, DeJong has entered the game in the sixth inning or later 11 times; he’s taken either one or zero at bats in 10 of those games.
Therein lies the rub for Gorman. He hits from the wrong side of the plate to be given space to work through his struggles there, given that Corey Dickerson (7-for-33) and Lars Nootbaar (4-for-42) have also taken a nosedive. He’s not a good enough defender to force his way into the late game. And he doesn’t provide productive outs, especially in comparison to Burleson, who has only three hits (one of which was a bunt single) but only a single strikeout in his first 22 plate appearances in the big leagues.
Gorman will not lack for opportunities come spring, and still figures to be a major factor in the Cardinals’ future. But for now, today, with the playoffs on the horizon, he’s simply a piece without a fit, and the easiest to squeeze out.