What Should The Cardinals Do With Craig?

At one point during the World Series, Fox broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were discussing Allen Craig’s breakout performance in the postseason, and one of them said, “He’ll be starting somewhere next season.” I remember thinking at the time: “Really? Where?”

The Cardinals have $120 million invested in left fielder, Matt Holliday, who is under contract through 2016. So he’s not going anywhere. Lance Berkman was named the 2011 Comeback Player of the Year and St. Louis rewarded him with a 1-year, $12 million contract extension to play right field (note: Berkman could move to 1st base if Albert Pujols leaves, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume #5 re-signs with St. Louis). In center field, you have Jon Jay, who quietly led the team with appearances in 159 games this season, hitting .297 with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs. He also has the best defensive range of all the outfielders on the team, so center field is out of the question for Craig as well. Craig’s natural position (at least the one he played through the Cardinals’ minor league system) is 3rd base, but that’s monopolized by a guy you may have heard of – World Series MVP, David Freese. Tony La Russa tried playing Craig at 2nd base about a half-dozen times last season, but was quick to take him out for a defensive replacement in the middle-to-late innings. That’s mostly based on Craig’s reputation he built up in the minors as a lousy fielder (it’s why he was moved from 3rd to the outfield to begin with) and though he’s only made 1 error in over 100 big league games, he likely won’t be considered as a legitimate starter at 2nd base.

In other words: there’s no room at the inn for the Cardinals’ hottest young bat. So that brings us back to the original statement that Craig would be starting “somewhere” next season. The Cardinals know he can be an everyday player in this league, and they know that likely within the next 12 months they’ll have an open spot to play him (either in 2012 if Pujols leaves, or 2013 when the Cardinals can let go of the aging Lance Berkman). No matter what scenario plays out, the Cardinals have a very valuable commodity in Craig and they also have a decision to make: Keep him as a long-term piece of the franchise’s future… or trade him and bolster and already potent championship team in hopes of repeating in 2012.

Why They Should Keep Him
Allen Craig has enormous potential. In 200 at-bats last season (roughly 1/3 of a full-season), the 27-year-old batted .315 with 11 HRs and 40 RBIs. That, in theory, could translate to 33 HRs and 120 RBIs over a full season… which would have made him 2nd best behind Albert Pujols in HRs on the Cardinals last season and the team leader in RBIs by a wide margin.

Craig would also provide big insurance for the Cardinals should Pujols, Holliday, or Berkman go down with an injury. Those three impact players missed a combined 70 games due to injury last season, so obviously having a player like Craig ready to fill in for injured players while being one of the most dangerous pinch-hitters in the game would be a huge plus for the Red Birds.

Why They Should Trade Him
There’s really only a couple of reasons the Cardinals would consider trading him. Thanks to his clutch postseason performance and his potential we just talked about, his value is through the roof. If the Cardinals keep Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright returns to form, the team will once again be World Series contenders. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have some holes to fill. Since the outfield is pretty much in place without Craig, the team could trade him to bolster some weak spots like the middle infield or the bullpen. It’s not that the Cardinals “need” another lights-out starting pitcher with Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Jaime Garcia lined up, but it never hurts to have another great arm on the team. So that would be one reason to trade him: trade a strength to create improve a weakness.

The other reason the Cardinals might consider a trade is if they’re afraid Craig won’t pan out and be the type of hitter many think he can be. Living in Springfield, Missouri over the past 5 years has given me a chance to see the Cardinals’ AA team in person. I probably saw Allen Craig play 15-20 times over the 2 seasons he played in Springfield and I honestly never envisioned him being an impact player in the big leagues. Obviously, he’s already proven me wrong… even if he retires right now. But let’s say he doesn’t pan out. If he is a one hit wonder so to speak, his value will never be greater than it is right now. Cardinals fans might remember a pitcher by the name of Kent Bottenfield. In 1999, the journeyman pitcher had a breakout season, going 18-7 with an ERA of 3.97. Heading into the spring of 2000, the Cardinals’ starting rotation was viewed as a strong point, so the team traded Bottenfield when his value was highest and landed center fielder Jim Edmonds in a trade with the Angels. Edmonds went on to win numerous Gold Gloves with St. Louis, leading the team to 5 playoff appearances, 2 NL Pennants, and a World Series championship in 2006. Kent Bottenfield won a total of ten games the rest of his career.

As things stand right not, it appears to be in the Cardinals’ best interest to keep Allen Craig. Whether Pujols leaves or not, Craig could have a big impact once again for the Cardinals in 2012. He could platoon with Berkman, fill-in for injured players, try to learn how to play 2nd base, or just be the deadliest weapon coming off the bench in all of baseball until he finds a starting role in 2013. He’s currently the lowest paid player on the roster at $414,000… and with a pay raise still a couple years away, that makes his bat that much more valuable to the Cardinals moving forward (especially if they give Pujols a payroll-shattering deal). All things considered, it appears to Craig’s jersey would make a nice stocking-stuffer for the Cardinals fan in your life… though I’m sure Cardinals’ General Manager John Mozeliak knows that Craig’s status as perhaps the most sought after outfielder in the game is too compelling to completely ignore. It should be a very interesting offseason.

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