Rotating the Cardinals outfielders

As expected, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is drawing heat in some quarters for his first-week deployment of his four outfielders. Yet the skipper is doing exactly what he said down in Florida he would do when the regular season began – rotate at-bats among his four “starters”.

Of course, the four are incumbents Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel and Chris Duncan along with rookie Colby Rasmus. Ludwick is coming off a rough spring, while Ankiel and Duncan each missed the end of the 2008 season due to surgeries and though he remains one of the top prospects in baseball, Rasmus is unproven at the major league level.

The simple math says that to share playing time equally, one outfielder is going to sit every fourth day. Coming into Sunday’s final game of the Houston Astros series which ended the initial seven-game homestand, Ankiel led the group with 20 at-bats. Guess which one of the four didn’t start on Easter?

Through the first two series, here is how the at-bats have been distributed:

Ankiel 20

Duncan 20

Ludwick 18

Rasmus 18

With three middle infield reserves on the roster, Skip Schumaker has been serving as the defacto fifth outfielder. The starting second baseman has been moved to the outfield late in games as the manager puts in a more experienced defender at the second base position while trying to protect a lead.

No matter which outfielder’s name is not written in the starting lineup on any given day, there is going to be a segment of fans in disagreement.

Some want to see Ankiel as an every-day regular, always positioned in centerfield. Many believe Ludwick’s right-handed RBI bat has to be written on the lineup card in ink. Others point to a rejuvenated Duncan and want his power production in left while a vocal group view Rasmus as the club’s best and most athletic option in center.

Each of them has a good case, but so far, La Russa is sticking to his plan. With the Cardinals enjoying a 5-2 break out of the gate that represents the best record in the National League Central Division, it seems to be working for now.

Right field footnote
: Coming off his All-Star, Silver Slugger Award 2008 campaign, right fielder Ludwick’s presence in the outfield rotation may be the one of the four drawing the most criticism of La Russa’s approach.

As a point of reference, Tom Orf recently sent me the following, which documents the Cardinals opening day right fielder over the last quarter century and concludes it is a position of high turnover.

2009 Mon, Apr 6 vs PIT L 4-6 Ludwick
2008 Tue, Apr 1 vs COL L 1-2 Schumaker
2007 Sun, Apr 1 vs NYM L 1-6 Wilson
2006 Mon, Apr 3 at PHI W 13-5 Encarnacion
2005 Tue, Apr 5 at HOU W 7-3 Walker
2004 Mon, Apr 5 vs MIL L 6-8 Sanders
2003 Mon, Mar 31 vs MIL W 11-9 Marrero
2002 Mon, Apr 1 vs COL W 10-2 Drew
2001 Mon, Apr 2 at COL L 0-8 Drew
2000 Mon, Apr 3 vs CHC W 7-1 Davis
1999 Mon, Apr 5 vs MIL L 8-10 Davis
1998 Tue, Mar 31 vs LAD W 6-0 Jordan
1997 Tue, Apr 1 at MON L 1-2 McGee
1996 Mon, Apr 1 at NYM L 6-7 McGee
1995 Wed, Apr 2 6 vs PHL W 7-6 Jordan
1994 Sun, Apr 3 at CIN W 6-4 Whiten
1993 Tue, Apr 6 vs SFG L 1-2) Whiten
1992 Mon, Apr 6 vs NYM L 2-4 Thompson
1991 Tue, Apr 9 at CHC W 4-1 Jose
1990 Mon, Apr 9 vs MON W 6-5 Brunansky
1989 Mon, Apr 3 at NYM L 4-8 Brunansky
1988 Mon, Apr 4 at CIN L 4-5 Lindeman
1987 Tue, Apr 7 at CHC W 9-3 Lindeman
1986 Tue, Apr 8 vs CHC W 2-1 Van Slyke
1985 Tue, Apr 9 at NYM L 5-6 Braun

Since George Hendrick started five straight opening days (1980-84), no one has started more than two opening days with 19 total different players in the 25 years starting opening day in right field.

Even if you go back 50 years, the next most opening day starts in right field is just three, by Reggie Smith (1974-76) and Joe Cunningham (1959-61).