Buffa: Center field fix crucial for Cardinals improvement

Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts. It's time to switch gears and officially click into the hot stove session of the year. Where players take a break and general managers put on the caps and pick up the bats. GM's compete against one another in fixing the holes and leaks in their baseball team, and St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak knows what this team needs to be better in 2017. Can he make it happen?

Defense. Athleticism. More sound fundamentals. High average hitters. Overall, higher team IQ. 

In a nutshell, Mozeliak needs to find a centerfielder to bring the talent together.  A legit leader in the outfield.

Every other position on the field is covered in 2017 right now. Let's take a look. 

Third base-Jhonny Peralta, unless he is traded or goes missing looking for another "h" to insert into his first name, is playing third base predominantly. With a healthy hand, Peralta can finish out his contract in fine fashion by getting back clsoer to the .750-.775 OPS range or prep his skills for a midseason trade. 

Aledmys Diaz is your shortstop. After a bumpy first half defensively, Diaz righted the ship and finished with a positive dWAR. His bat is lethal enough, and should make a complete return to elite with a healthy hand. It was an attack of the thumbs last year for the Cardinals, and Diaz suffered a big blow that robbed him of a big season. He is young, athletic, and will anchor short for 2017 at least. 

Kotlen Wong and Jedd Gyorko will cover second base. Wong is a better defensive second baseman than Gyorko, but Jedd showed the more power and consistency at the plate. A 30 home run season and plenty of big hits, Gyorko surprised many in 2016. Wong got better after a Memphis deployment and didn't get the playing time when Gyorko's bat deflated in September. They'll battle in 2017 again.

Matt Carpenter may not be the smoothest first baseman, but he will play there by default in 2017 due to the overcrowded infield. He is better at second base than third base, but first is where the most at bats will lie for the team's best overall hitter. 

Yadier Molina, Brayan Pena, and Carson Kelly will split time at catcher. By split, I mean hopefully Molina doesn't have to squat for over 1,300 innings again. With Pena and especially Kelly, keep the aging owner of eight consecutive gold gloves healthy. 

Randal Grichuk was turned loose by the Cards towards the latter part of 2016 and his bat was a huge lift. He's good for 25 home runs, 70 RBI, and a .460+ SLUG if the team lets him play consistently. He made adjustments midseason, learned a few things at Memphis, and should become the team's everyday left fielder. His defense will translate even better over there in a less stressful position. 

Stephen Piscotty has right field covered. No further words required.

Center field is the problem. The Cards need to get sharper up the middle. More Wong at second and Gyorko filling in at third for a probably slumping Peralta will help the defense on the infield as well as a year wiser version of Diaz. The outfield needs to rise above mediocrity. Grichuk and Piscotty make fine bookends out there, but the middle needs help. 

Instead of bunching all the candidates into one column, I am going to break it down over a series of pieces this next week. Head to head showdowns. That way, there's some suspense and some fun can be had with a process that produces more heartburn than good vibes most of the winter. 

The free agent market isn't too flashy. Ian Desmond will most likely stay in Texas unless an offer blows him away. Dexter Fowler is the cream of the crop. Charlie Blackmon is coming off a huge year, and will cost. There are dark horse trade candidates like Lorenzo Cain and A.J. Pollock. Bigger gems like Kevin Kiermaier and defensive stalwarts like Jarrod Dyson. 

If you go for Blackmon, it will cost you in players. Colorado has control over him for a couple years and has no real reason to cut him loose. Cain has a year left, is 30 like Blackmon, but is coming off a troublesome wrist injury. However, his defensive skills are what the Cards need and his bat is a plus. Fowler has improved defensively in center field in Wrigley and has the tools of a great leadoff bat, but he will cost. 

Mozeliak has to ask himself this. Does he want to give up players to upgrade center or simply put forth the cash to make it happen? With the TV money kicking in during 2018, spending the cash may be wiser. The crowd awaits. 

I'll break down the matchups. 

Dexter Fowler or Ian Desmond?

Charlie Blackmon or Lorenzo Cain?

A.J. Pollock or Kevin Kiermaier?

Carlos Gomez?

Over the next week, I'll plug into this center field search. In the mean time, tell me who you like and why in the comments. 

The Cubs may be World Series champions, but it's a brand new day in St. Louis. The goal now is to dethrone the once small now mighty bears and do it as fast as possible. Learn from the 2016 deficiencies and get better. Forget straight up power and get more dual faceted. 

Welcome to the Hot Stove, folks.


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