Descalso's first priority is winning job at second
Defensive-minded infielder has worked hard to make improvements at plate
JUPITER, Fla. -- There is an outside expectation that the Cardinals' decision on a second baseman will come down to whether the organization prioritizes defensive stability or offensive potential at the position.
Should the Cardinals lean defensively, Daniel Descalso is viewed as the favorite. If there is a desire for more plate production, Matt Carpenter would seemingly have the edge.
Yet for all the attention Carpenter has received during his crash-course defensive work at second base, he's hardly the only one trying to close a gap. So, too, is Descalso, whose renewed focus on the offensive side of his game can be traced back to last July, when he committed himself to making adjustments that, despite a short-term setback, he believes will have a long-term payoff.
The conversation Descalso had with hitting coaches Mark McGwire and John Mabry last summer was preempted by a first half in which Descalso hit .223 with 47 strikeouts in 184 at-bats. His playing time had been unbalanced, as the Cardinals were relying on a committee approach to cover them at second base. But Descalso didn't peg that as the root of his struggles.
The fix, he and the coaches agreed, was tied much more to mechanics.
"Basically, we broke it down from the basics," Descalso recalled. "That's not the easiest time and place to try and make adjustments, but I knew that it was something that I had to do if I wanted to get better down the road. It had been a constant mental battle for me."
What the three found was that Descalso's positioning at the plate was compromising his ability to hit to the left side of the field. Descalso embraced the suggestions made by the pair of hitting coaches, but he had no other place to implement the changes but in regular-season games.
It took several weeks for the improvement to show in the box scores. Descalso hit just .169 in August.
"That's why you have to tip your hat to him even more," said Mabry, now the team's top hitting coach. "To do that during the regular season and not panicking throughout the process, he understood that the team had a chance to go to October, and for him to be better on that stage, he knew he had to do the work. He took what we were telling him, and it takes a big leap of faith to do that."
The payoff started in September, when Descalso hit .251. It was a mark much closer to the .264 batting average he posted in 2011, when Descalso played in 148 games.
He continued to produce in October, too, tallying 11 hits in 13 postseason games -- including a two-run, game-tying single when the Cardinals were down to their final out in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Nationals. He drove in six runs during the series.
"It had been a constant mental battle for me -- what are my hands doing, what are my feet doing?" Descalso said. "I was able to then finally get to a spot where all I was thinking about was trusting my mechanics and looking for a good pitch to hit."
With their lineup constructed as it is, the Cardinals don't appear to need substantial offensive contributions from the second-base spot. Descalso is hopeful, though, that some improvement on his 2012 numbers will make him a more appealing option for the starting job.
Descalso entered camp last spring competing for playing time against Skip Schumaker and Tyler Greene. This year, Carpenter is the one on his trail. Descalso is aiding Carpenter in the defensive drills but is also cognizant that Carpenter could steal his playing time if he doesn't take his own steps forward.
"They said to come in and compete for second base, so that's what I'm going to do," Descalso said. "I feel like I did a good job last year down the stretch and then into the playoffs -- I was playing good defense and taking good at-bats. That allowed me to be more productive than I had been early in the season. I feel like if I can do that at the plate, I know I can play defense out there."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.