One of the questions that is difficult for us as fans to know the answer to is exactly how Mike Matheny will use his bench. Assuming Allen Craig is on the bench, Matheny will have at least one potent bat to rely on as a pinch hitter and someone to keep in the outfield shuffle. Craig, of course, wasn't always an outfielder.
Drafted in the 8th round of the 2006 draft, Allen Craig was drafted as a shortstop out of the University of California in Berkeley. Craig had featured good not great isolated power in college along with solid walk rates and high batting averages. His senior year was a breakthrough where he hit .344/.403/.561 during 54 games. Craig would sign in 2006 for a measly $15,000.
He would play out the remainder of his 2006 season with the Cardinals' then New York Penn League affiliate State College. Craig didn't hit well at State College posting just a .725 OPS. It would also be the last level he would play shortstop at before converting to third base.
In 2007, Craig's first full season in the big leagues, he would skip low-A Quad Cities and head directly to Palm Beach. At this stop, Craig would make a name for himself. The Florida State League is a pitcher's league; it does not, generally, favor hitters with its large ballparks and more humid air. Allen Craig would show exceptional power hitting for a .200+ ISO with 21 homeruns.
It would be the first offseason that Craig would find himself as a ranked member of Baseball America's top prospects coming in at #15. They wrote:
[Allen Craig] may also have found a defensive home at third base. Craig generates great speed and leverage with his swing and has pop to all fields. His power numbers were deflated by the bigger ballparks in the FSL, but he continued to make consistent contact without reducing his aggressive approach at the plate.
In the winter of that year, the Cardinals traded Jim Edmonds to the San Diego Padres acquiring David Freese. Reaching back into the archives of Future Redbirds, you'll find this post from erik comparing the two players. This, to a large extent, reflects the conventional wisdom of the time:
Yep, these guys are basically the same. The only big difference I find, and that’s if you want to call it a big difference, is that Craig is one year younger.
David Freese was a year older than Craig and while Craig was not considered a wizard with the glove, he was thought to be passable. David Freese was regarded as an above average fielder. In terms of their hitting, it was almost the reverse. Freese would turn that notion on it's head with a fluky 26 HR season in 2008 but this is the story of Allen Craig. And while Freese would go to Memphis in 2008, Craig still had a stop to make in Springfield.
Craig didn't slow at Springfield. He again posted a batting average over .300, 20+ HRs, an ISO near .200 and a high OBP. With the emergence of Freese in Memphis, what had formerly been minor concerns about Craig's fielding crept into the prospect discussion more regularly. The decision to move Allen Caig to the outfield would begin it's experimentation in Springfield where he played 17 games in left field. Allen Craig hadn't demonstrably changed as a fielder but the composition of the Cardinals minor league system had.
In 2008, erik also corresponded with Allen to do a brief Q&A:
You’ve hit over 20 homers in the past two seasons, in A ball and now AA. Would you describe yourself as a power hitter?
I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as being only a power hitter. I really strive to become a well rounded hitter that can hit for average, drive the ball to all fields, and hit some homeruns in the process. Hitting homeruns is great, but its something that I definitely don’t try to do every time I come up to the plate.
2009 was the first season in his professional career where Allen Craig spent more innings in the outfield than the infield. Despite the defensive transition, his offense never waivered with another high output offensive season. With his conversion to the outfield underway and no obvious impact on his offensive output, the question about Craig had become one of when rather than if. 2010 saw Craig ride the Memphis shuttle spending about half his year in Memphis before 2011 where he became a key component of the major league squad -- along with his tortoise, of course.
If there's one take away from the minors, I would argue that Craig is one of the most consistent players to pass through the Cardinals minor league system in a long time. There is no obvious season that was a lost year. Craig was never regarded as a slow starter. He simply hit the ball: hard, regularly and to great effect.
The discussion around Craig won't really change much this year if Albert Pujols signs. He will still be the player waiting in line for an outfield starter's position in a post-Lance Berkman environment. Any possibility of a return to third base is surely a catastrophe only situation with Matt Carpenter and Zach Cox in the minors and David Freese's World Series MVP trophy still yet to collect dust. Regardless, Craig has carved out nice niche that, while different from his early professional career looks to have staying power.