After Matt Adams put up a lackluster 2016 season, one in which he was barely above league average at the plate (an unacceptably low level of offensive production for somebody with as little defensive value as he does), the St. Louis Cardinals of 2017 were ready to move on to alternative solutions at first base.
Jedd Gyorko, initially acquired from the San Diego Padres as a second base platoon partner for Kolten Wong/general utility infielder, hit 30 home runs in 2016 despite lacking a full-time position, and the prospect of putting Gyorko in the lineup daily was too tantalizing to ignore. Matt Carpenter, entering his age-31 season, was still a great hitter, but his defense had taken a noticeable dip, and moving him from a super-utility role which saw him logging more than 300 innings at first, second, and third base to the less rigorous first base full-time was seen as a way of improving the team’s defense. Oh, and Jhonny Peralta was still around, too. Remember Jhonny Peralta? With Gyorko (or Peralta) at third and Carpenter at first, Matt Adams didn’t have a full-time job.
The Cardinals had a problem with Matt Adams in that he was a player with a somewhat narrow list of abilities, but he was too talented of a player to justify simply cutting loose. Particularly in an era of deep bullpens and thus short benches, a player who can only play first base, a position which most players can at least fake for a game or two, with such pronounced platoon splits that he isn’t much of an offensive threat against left-handed pitching (most of the time), has limited use. If the Cardinals insisted on keeping Matt Adams around, they had two choices–accept Adams for what he is and embrace his strengths (as a high-leverage pinch-hitter with potential to semi-regularly substitute, following some infield shuffling), or try to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Infamously, the Cardinals very much did the latter in 2017. Rather than trying Jose Martinez, a poor but relatively competent defensive corner outfielder, or promoting organizational mainstay Tommy Pham to the Majors as a backup left fielder for Randal Grichuk, the Cardinals decided to give Matt Adams, who had never played a position in the field other than first base in professional baseball, playing time in left field.
The infamy of Matt Adams’s left field results lingered long after he was traded to the Atlanta Braves for prospect Juan Yepez, thanks in no small part to Tommy Pham noticing how poorly it went. It wasn’t really fair. Had Matt Adams been quietly sent elsewhere for a relative non-prospect in the off-season, rather than subjected to his corner outfield adventures for the first seven weeks of the 2017 season, he could have gone the way of the quickly-forgotten Aledmys Diaz. Instead, he became a punchline.
And yesterday, he became a Cardinal.
Less than half an hour after the Washington Nationals announced with authority that they are sellers by shipping second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs, the Nationals sent Matt Adams back to the Cardinals in exchange for cash considerations. Although the total sum of money has not been announced, it is not likely to be major, nor is the remaining salary owed to Adams (he is owed $4 million for the full season, after which he will become a free agent, so a little less than $1 million for the time remaining) major in a baseball universe in which Greg Holland was paid $14 million by the Cardinals for this season. For all intents and purposes, the Cardinals added Matt Adams for free.
When last we saw Matt Adams in a Cardinals uniform, he was used in a suboptimal manner. In addition to his left field attempts, 18.4% of his plate appearances came against left-handed pitchers, against whom he had just a 59 wRC+ in 283 plate appearances. But as he joins the Cardinals on August 22, 2018, he is being put in a position to succeed. Expectations are not that he will start–he’s an injury or two away from that, at least–but that he can be a useful contributor to the Cardinals down the stretch.
The presence of Mike Shildt, who has prioritized defense (and general competence) since becoming Cardinals manager, should assure that Matt Adams receives trace, at most, outfield playing time, and sticks mostly to first base. Of course, since the current Cardinals first baseman is, like Adams, a lefty, and unlike Adams, an MVP candidate, the Cardinals probably aren’t expecting Adams to play too much at first, either. But despite the fact that Matt Adams, an everyday starter for multiple playoff teams just a few years ago, has now fallen to “afterthought post-trade deadline bench acquisition” in the hierarchy of Major League Baseball, Matt Adams is still hitting about as well as he ever has.
By wRC+, Matt Adams is having his best offensive season since 2013. But even this doesn’t tell the full story–that season, Adams (in a glorified part-time role) batted .337 on balls in play, a predictably unsustainable mark for a player whose foot speed is functional at best. In 2018, Adams is hitting for more power than he ever has, at a nearly 39 home run per 600 plate appearance pace. His walk rate of 8.7% is a career high; his strikeout rate of 19.9% is a career low. He has a career-high .253 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average, a rough estimate of total extra-base power) and a career-low .261 BABIP. In basically every meaningful way, Matt Adams has been the best he has ever been. By expected xwOBA, Statcast’s contact quality adjusted measure of offensive production, Matt Adams has hit the ball as well as Giancarlo Stanton.
The Cardinals got this guy for free.
If the Cardinals keep Adams on the bench and he remains as strong as he has been, it’s a worthwhile transaction. If he reverts to being merely a serviceable pinch-hitter, his presence will damage the flexibility of the roster…for a week and a half. Once rosters expand, there will be plenty of other options as backups at various positions, and Matt Adams, even if he reverts back to his career norms, will be a better hitter than all of them against right-handed pitching. His 123 wRC+ in total improves to 133 when looking strictly at his performance against righties. And if opponents counter with a lefty reliever, the Cardinals will have a deep enough bench to raise their bet.
The Cardinals got this guy for free.
The Washington Nationals were in a desperate situation to capture whatever salvage value they could find in their soon-to-be free agents (except for Bryce Harper, at least for now). Matt Adams in July could have garnered something–maybe not a ton, but some kind of middling prospect–at least the kind of prospect the Cardinals acquired when they traded Matt Adams the first time around. But in the meantime, the Cardinals got a potentially very valuable piece for the stretch run (and perhaps playoff roster), and even if Matt Adams turns out to only be an excuse to keep showing his more exuberant bat flips, the negligible cost will be justified.