Considerations for the St. Louis Cardinals When Selecting a Free Agent Outfielder

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Carlos Beltran #15 is congratulated by Cody Ross #13 of the San Francisco Giants after he hit a two run home run in the first inning against the San Diego Padres at AT&T Park on September 12, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)


In the last week, the St. Louis Cardinals have been linked to free agent outfielders Carlos Beltran, Coco Crisp, and Cody Ross. Given the Cardinals' current roster situation, each player has his pluses and minuses as a potential signing. We must ask ourselves several questions in evaluating the course the Cardinals should take. I thought we might do this before RB publishes his main post for the Christmas holiday.

WHAT IS ALLEN CRAIG'S PROGNOSIS?

Last season, outfielder Allen Craig fractured his knee cap when he ran into the puzzingly under-padded wall the butts against the right field line in Minute Made Park. Craig returned to action for the Cardinals' World Series championship run and played very well for the club. However, he experienced problems in the knee down the stretch and, after consulting with multiple doctors, decided on surgical intervention that included two screws being use to stabilize the knee cap. Craig is very likely to miss all of Spring Training and at least the month of April.

In a perfect world, Craig would return in May and mash like Craig can mash. However, there is a chance that Craig may take longer to return than currently projected. There is also a chance that, upon returning, Craig may not be 100 percent or may simply not hit at the clip he did in 2011.

DOES THE ORGANIZATION BELIEVE IN JON JAY AS THE EVERYDAY CENTER FIELDER?

In 2010, Ryan Ludwick spent a good chunk of time on the DL, which allowed Jay to burst on the scene. His hitting tear hit its peak on July 30, 2010, at .396/.447/.604/1.051 thanks largely to a .446 BABIP. The Cardinals traded Ludwick in a three-team deal that brought them Jake Westbrook and installed Jay in the outfield. That's when the bottom fell out of his BABIP. From July 31 to season's end, Jay hit .239/.302/.307/.609 with a .289 BABIP. Jay started out slowly in 2011 as the fourth outfielder behind Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus, and Lance Berkman. Jay came on as Rasmus faded. After the Rasmus trade, Jay was installed as the primary center fielder and he finished the 2011 season with a .297/.344/.424 line, thanks largely to a .340 BABIP.

Jay is a batting average driven offensive player. He doesn't walk enough--only 6.3% in 826 big league PAs--to allow him much if any drop in his BABIP. Jay has a .344 BABIP for the Cardinals and that might be sustainable; after all, Ichiro Suzuki, for example, has a career .351 BABIP. Then again, Jay may not have a Hall-of-Fame contact skill on par with Ichiro's. As does Jay's second half of 2010, the aging Ichiro's 2011 season offers a glimpse of what a roughly league-average BABIP from Jay would do to his offensive value.

The Cardinals won Game 7 of the World Series with Skip Schumaker getting the start in center field, but Schumaker is as bad in center field for his career (-10.5) as Berkman was in right field in 2011 but with far less offense. Thus, Schumaker is far from an ideal Plan B in center field. With some question of Jay's ability to sustain his batting average-based offensive value, it is understandable that the club may want a fourth outfielder than serves as Jay insurance and Schumaker repellent for the center field position.

CAN CARLOS BELTRAN PLAY CENTER FIELD AT THIS POINT IN HIS CAREER?

For the club that played Lance Berkman in right field for most of 2011 this may seem like a silly question. The Cardinals cleverly signed Berkman for his bat and stuck him in right field (post-knee injury, no less) where Berkman was a -10.3 fielder according to Fangraphs. But Berkman hit and hit and hit which made his defensive deficiency something more than just tolerable. Beltran was also returning from a knee injury in 2011 which caused the Mets to shift him from center field to right field in favor of Angel Pagan, a poor defensive center fielder. In fact, all of Beltran's 1,153.2 defensive innings last season were as a right fielder. According to Fangraphs, he was a -7.3 fielder in right which is not a heck of a lot better than Berkman.

Berkman appears likely to shift to first base as the replacement for Albert Pujols with Craig filling in as the primary right fielder upon his return from injury. Craig is also a slightly above-average fielder in a corner outfield spot according to his UZR. (To the eye, he also looks a bit above average.) Craig's return either bumps Beltran to center field and Jay to a fourth outfielder role or simply means Craig returns to his 2011 role as utility man. The effect hinges on Beltran's physical capability of defending center field. If he can hit like 2011 (.300/.385/.525/wOBA of .389), a Berkman-esque -10 fielding performance in center is perfectly acceptable. But, what if Beltran is far worse than a -10 fielder?

WHAT IS THE ASKING PRICE IN DOLLARS & YEARS?

Additionally, there is the asking price in years and dollars for the respective free agents. Ken Rosenthal has reported that Beltran is entertaining multiple offers of two and three years in length. Three years seems a bridge too far for the Redbirds. Meanwhile, Crisp seems likely to be had on a one- or two-year contract. Lastly, it has been reported by David O'Brien that Cody Ross, who had initially been seeking a three-year deal, is now willing to talk about a contract of two years in length after he had what we can assume to be zero bidders at the desired three years in contract length.

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