Over the next few weeks, I’ll be breaking down each position/area of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, from the Majors down to the rookie levels. Sparked in part by the organization’s multiple top rankings as “best minor league” system and Major League future, as well as questions about ETA’s and “who’s next” conversations based on injuries and depth. Today, we start in the outfield…and with one of the most obvious questions of the spring…
Majors: The St. Louis outfield is a position of strength for the club entering into 2012. The lineup could potentially feature all three everyday outfielders hitting in order to start the game off, with Jon Jay leading off, followed by Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday hitting third. Both Beltran and Holliday stood in as All-Star representatives, and both topped 95 RBI and 25 homers. Jay played his best ball in the second half once he was made an everyday leadoff hitter, and for the season he notch a .303 average and .362 on-base percentage while at the top of the lineup.
Behind them, the backups are mostly situational replacements. Shane Robinson and Adron Chambers are the clear alternatives for the likely one opening for a full-time back up coming out of the camp. Matt Carpenter spent a good deal of time in right field a year ago, and Allen Craig saw time there as well. But with Carpenter in the mix for the second base job and Craig taking over full-time at first base, they likely won’t be as available for outfield duty as a year ago.
High Minors: The high minors for the Cardinals obviously yields the most intriguing part of the entire farm system, Oscar Taveras. The consensus top prospect in the organization will open up the season at Triple-A Memphis most likely, where he’ll get work in right field, but perhaps center as well. He’ll be pushing the doors of the St. Louis clubhouse; really he’s already banging on them. Eventually he’ll be let in, and it could be in the same party crashing fashion that Bryce Harper pulled off a year ago.
Outside of Taveras, non-roster invitee Justin Christian is making an interesting case in Spring Training as well. The numbers game will probably force him to Memphis as well, but there could be a chance for him to see some action in a limited role with the Cardinals this year if injuries hit the outfield. Back at Double-A, Mike McNeill hit .359 at two levels last season, including an 18-for-32 rip through Springfield. At 5’9 and around 180 pounds, he could be the next Shane Robinson-type at the upper levels of the Minors.
Low Minors: The depth of interesting prospects for the club starts in the lower rungs of the minors, especially at the center field position. There is legit athletic talent in Cardinals outfield system developing amongst its younger members. CJ McElroy stands out as a unique talent in the system, one with the ability to run up his stolen base numbers in a hurry. He swiped 24 bases in 61 games as a 19-year-old at Johnson City last season. He’s even drove in two runs on two hits in as many at-bats in big league camp this spring.
James Ramsey, the club’s second first round pick a year ago, debuted at High Class-A Palm Beach a year ago. He also manned center field, and struggled a bit at the plate, hitting only .229. But he was a very accomplished collegiate hitter at Florida State, hitting .378 last season as a senior before joining the Cardinals. He’s projected as a fast riser, who should see action at Springfield this year.
Another 2012 first rounder, Stephen Piscotty is getting some work in right field this spring despite being drafted as a third baseman and manning the position for 55 games at Quad Cities (now Peoria) last year.
Another player of note at the lower levels is Charlie Tilson, who was impressive in a brief debut stint in 2011, but missed all of 2012 due to shoulder surgery. And guess what: he’s a speedy center fielder as well.
Prognosis: In the three year picture, the starting Major League outfield projects as set. Holliday has another four guaranteed seasons under his belt, while Jay won’t be eligible for free agency until 2017. While Beltran’s contract ends this year, Taveras is already making it very hard to leave him down south as is and will inherit the right field position, uncontested, from the first day of camp next year.
However, the depth in the outfield in the organization over the next few years is questionable. While there is promising talent in the lower levels of the minors, there isn’t much else besides Taveras who projects to be a safe bet as a contributor at the Major League level. Some of this hinges on how McNeil’s impact translates over a full year in the upper minor leagues. If Ramsey fares well in his first full season, and Piscotty continues to stay in the outfield consistently and develops quickly, this could ease the need the team to add outside the organization in the next few years.