There's a Logjam in the Cardinals Outfield
I was watching Sunday's ballgame, watching as Brian Barton was having one of his best games yet as a major leaguer, and I couldn't help but get excited. And why not? I'm a big fan of the super-athletic type of player; the Upton brother types and guys like that. With Barton's combination of speed and power potential, it's easy to dream on what the guy could do down the road.
Of course, he then ended up getting hurt later in the game, and we have no idea when he'll be able to play again. Que sera, I suppose, but you also have to be a little disappointed.
But in watching Barton and following the Cardinal farm system, I've also been struck this season by just how much outfield depth the Cards have right now.
The Cardinals currently have, like most of the other major league teams, three outfield spots available both for the rest of this season and going into 2009. This year isn't a huge deal; what they have now is pretty much what they'll finish up with, and that's just fine. But when you look forward to next year and beyond, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that some decisions are going to have to be made, and relatively soon at that.
There are currently six players who have taken at bats for the Cardinals this year while playing the outfield whom I think could represent a solid solution going forward. In no particular order, they are:
That alone is a pretty solid group. Ludwick is a viable MVP candidate this season, Ankiel has proven himself an above-average outfielder and has plenty of power to cover for his still somewhat suspect plate discipline, and Schumaker has been surprisingly good. Personally, I still see Skip as best fit for a fourth outfielder role or a defensive specialist, but he's certainly proven that he's capable of, at the very least, making a real contribution to a team.
The other three in that group are a little more problematic, at least as far as prognostication goes. Chris Duncan, despite his offensive contributions when he first came into the league, now has a disc condition in his neck which looks as if it could very well be a chronic issue, even after his recent radical surgery. Even when he's healthy, there are significant questions about Duncan's overall game, most notably in terms of his glove.
Mather looks as if he'll have great power as he goes forward and has proven to be quite capable in the field, but it's fair to question whether or not his swing, which does have some length, will allow him to make the necessary adjustments to be a successful major leaguer long-term. Barton has electric athleticism and looks to have an idea up there, but his power is mostly still potential at the moment, and La Russa seems a little hesitant to put him out there every day.
That's only six players for five spots, right? That's not too very much of a logjam. Ah, but as Billy Mays would tell you, that's not all!
Down on the Farm!
In the Cardinals' farm system, they have a lot of depth, but very little impact talent. The one place they really have both is, as luck would have it, in the outfield. There are a ton of likely suspects. Just to list a few:
Colby Rasmus: We all know the story on Rasmus by now. Huge talent, came in to spring training and played extremely well, got sent out, got disappointed, slid into a funk, finally began to recover, then got hurt. That old chestnut. Still, despite his less than stellar numbers this year, Rasmus remains hugely talented, and an excellent bet to reach his considerable ceiling. It looks now as if Colby isn't going to get a September callup, unfortunately, though, so it's tough to really say how management views him. He'll be playing winter ball somewhere this year, looking to make up for the time he lost this season, and we'll see him again next year in March.
Daryl Jones: Coming into this season, Jones, a third round pick of the Cardinals in the 2005 draft, was as tantalizing as he was frustrating. Huge talent, all tools, but very little production. Well, that's all changed this year, as Jones has conducted his very own campaign of terror against minor league pitching. He began the year in High A ball and hit .326. Considering that Roger Dean Stadium, where the Palm Beach Cardinals play, is a huge pitcher's park, those are absolutely outstanding numbers. Jones was then promoted to Double A Springfield, where he's been, if anything, even better. His batting average is only .305, but his on-base percentage is an almost absurd .427. His slugging, as you would expect from a hitter going from a run suppressing park to one that is a moderate hitters’ park, has shot up to .533. That’s a .960 OPS, for those of you keeping score at home. What’s really exciting is that his walk rate and his strikeout rate are exactly the same in Double A, at 17.9 percent. A player who can walk as often as he strikes out is a truly rare commodity. He’s also hitting 22 percent of his batted balls for line drives, while only putting 38 percent on the ground, a sure sign that a player is driving the ball consistently.
Jones looks like he’s finally turned the corner this season, turning those always prodigious tools into real production. He profiles currently a little bit along the lines of Curtis Granderson of the Tigers or even, dare I say it, Carl Crawford. That’s some awfully heady company, I know, but then, Jones is an awfully heady player.
Jon Jay: A 2006 draftee out of Miami University, Jay has moved quickly since entering the Cards’ system, advancing all the way to Triple A in just his second full professional season. Somewhat less toolsy than some of the other players on this list, Jay nonetheless brings an advanced feel for hitting to go along with a solid all around defensive game. After a season mostly lost to injury in 2007, Jay has been healthy for the better part of the season this year, and has put himself back in good standing.
The problem with Jay is that he’s a little like Skip Schumaker, although he’s probably a better overall hitter. He doesn’t have an outstanding tool, but he’s solid across the board. Whether or not that will be enough to eventually start in the majors remains to be seen, but Jay has a lot going for him. He’s only a single step from the majors, he’ll be cheap for several years, and he can definitely hit. He even showed some real power this season in Springfield, clubbing eleven home runs in 372 at-bats. Jay finds himself currently on the disabled list again, which is unfortunate, as he was hitting .345 in Triple A when he went down. At the very least, he should get a long look as an extra outfielder in the next year or two.
Tyler Henley: When Henley was taken out of Rice University last year in the eighth round, the comparison you most often heard was Lenny Dykstra. A little over a year later, not much has changed. Henley still draws praise for his speed, all out style of play, and defensive prowess. He’s also hit very well since being drafted. This year he’s posted a .782 OPS in 311 at bats at Palm Beach. Not elite, no, but plenty good for a player in his first full pro year. He doesn’t have quite the bat of Jay, but has slightly more impressive raw physical tools.
Brett Wallace: Oh, I know, he’s a third baseman. Trust me, no one is hoping more devoutly than I that the Walrus can stick at third. The bat this kid carries would be unreal if he can play even slightly below average defense at the hot corner. But, when you have a bat without a position, they end up one of two places in the NL: first base or left field. First is taken for a while, so that leaves left field.
Now, I have no idea what Wallace would look like in the outfield. He hasn’t played there at all as far as I know, ever. Still, the Cards stuck Chris Duncan in left field to keep his bat in the lineup, so I don’t doubt they would do the same with Wallace if it came to that. His bat alone would, again, make him a productive player, so that’s not much of a question. Personally, just from watching Wallace play third in the College World Series, I think he has a good a chance of sticking at third as he would of making the transition to the outfield.
There are plenty of others, of course, but those are some of the players who could force their way into the picture soon, beginning next season in fact. Rasmus will be ready some time next year, if not out of the gates then in June I would have to imagine. Jones and Wallace will both most likely begin next year in Double A, and either one could quickly move up with a hot start. Jay is already knocking on the door, though his injury issues cloud that picture a tad. Henley is a little further off but hasn’t had any real setbacks so far. He’s quite mature, and could end up moving quickly next season.
What does all this mean? What it means is that the Cardinals have essentially about eleven players who will all be vying for the same five spots in the next year or two. What will be interesting to see is just how Mr. Mozeliak handles such a bumper crop. Injury insurance is one thing, but not all of these players are going to have a spot. On the other hand, the middle infield is dreadfully bare, both at the ML level and in the minors. The pitching depth has improved markedly, but is still a little thin on true impact talent.
This off-season will present some truly intriguing scenarios involving this group of players. Personally, I think that both Skip Schumaker and Chris Duncan need to be moved. The unfortunate thing, of course, is that Duncan has played himself completely out of any value he previously possessed. I imagine we’ll see him begin the season with the Cardinals next year, if for no other reason than to try and rebuild some of that value.
Mozeliak certainly has his work cut out for him over the next few years, as he attempts to build a team with a bright future. This outfield surplus is going to play a big role in determining how successful he is, one way or the other.