For The St. Louis Cardinals, The Future Is Now At First Base

June 23, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals first basemen Allen Craig (21) singles in a run against the Kansas City Royals during the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE

For eight years, Albert Pujols was a fixture at first base for the St. Louis Cardinals. Pujols electing to sign with the Angels of Anaheim thrust Position No. 3 into question for the first time since the club was wondering what to do with disappointing veteran Tino Martinez. The 2012 solution was quite clear. Veteran Lance Berkman had signed a one-year extension during the twilight of the 2011 season. A less-than-stellar right fielder, Puma would move to first, a joyful, self-deprecating replacement capable of approximating the excellent production Pujols provided for so long.

Then Berkman knocked knees with Justin Sellers.

What was reported by Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch as a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) wound up being less severe. What was a feared a season- and perhaps career-ending knee surgery will likely be neither. Nonetheless, the injury pushed rapidly forward the Cards' timetable for filling the first base position.

The roster move which coincided with Berkman being placed on the disabled list (DL) was the promotion of top-shelf first-base prospect Matt Adams. At 6-foot-3 and something more than the listed 230 pounds, Adams lacks the grace of a puma at first. Unfortunately, his free-swinging ways saw his offensive production fade as his plate appearances grew. After a solid start, his numbers trailed off. A respectable .826 OPS on June 8 plummeted to a Schumakiavellian .669 on June 21, his last game in the majors before being demoted to Triple A Memphis.

The cause of the swoon in Adams's numbers is not easily explained away by bad luck. Over the roughly two weeks it encompassed, his BABIP was low at .273 but not outrageously so. Nonetheless, Adams now owns a big-league slash line of .244/.286/.384, with a .292 wOBA and a .317 BABIP. The call-up did not go as one would hope and the man with a .317/.365/.556 career minor-league line has returned to the farm to further hone his craft in the hitting Shangri-La that is the Pacific Coast League.

The Adams experience likely would not have happened had Allen Craig not been on the disabled list at the time of Berkman's injury. The right-handed slugger who had mashed at every stop in his ascent through the Cardinals farm system obliterated big-league pitching during the 2011 season while being deployed in that singular La Russan way. Craig, by and large a third baseman and corner outfielder in the minors, logged innings in center field and at second base in addition to spelling Holliday and Berkman in the outfield. Such was La Russa's desire to get his bat in the lineup.

The Craig train was derailed when he cracked his kneecap on the idiotically unpadded wall along the right-field foul line in the abomination that is Minute Maid Park. The fracture caused Craig to miss a large chunk of the season. Upon reactivation, Craig cemented a place for himself (and his pet tortoise) in his Cardinals fans' hearts during the Cardinals' miraculous run down the home stretch of the season. Craig went 4-for-8 with two homers, five runs batted in, and five walks in the Cardinals' final two games of the season--both must-wins.

In the postseason, Craig was relegated largely to pinch-hitting status. In the World Series, Craig's pinch-hit single gave the Cardinals the lead and the win behind ace Chris Carpenter. In Game 2, a pinch-hit Craig RBI gave the Cardinals their only run and a 1-0 lead that was painstakingly blown by the bullpen in the ninth. In Texas, La Russa penciled Craig in as the designated hitter. In the Game 3 blowout, Craig homered and walked. In Game 6, his homer pulled the Cards within just two runs before David Freese took care of the rest. In Game 7, filling in for an injured Matt Holliday, Craig homered and robbed a homer at the wall with a leaping catch. He finished the postseason with a .241/.391/.622/1.013 slash line.

After recovering from surgical intervention that placed two screws in his injured kneecap to help stabilize it, Craig returned without missing a beat. A hamstring injury in chilly San Francisco saw him go to the DL for a second time. Since returning, Craig has continued to hit even with a slump during the club's trip to the Motor City.

By my eye, Craig has become more selective as a hitter, which is likely a combination of opposing pitchers being more careful when pitching to him, Craig working counts and fouling off tough pitches. This is shown in Craig's stats. Last season, Craig walked in only 6.8% of his PAs, a rate well below the league average of 8.1%. In 2011, Craig saw 3.90 pitches per plate appearance (P/PA), a total that would have placed him in the top 50 for all of MLB (along with Holliday at 3.93 P/PA) if Craig had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting crown. In 2012, Craig's P/PA has risen to 4.13, a rate that would place him in the top 20, if it continues. Craig's walk rate has risen correspondingly, from well below average to a well above average 11.2% this season. Craig's offensive profile seems to have evolved from a high-average hitter with good power who doesn't walk that often to a player who hits for average, draws walks, and hits for power.

Craig

PA

LD%

XBH%

HR%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

2011

219

19.1%

11.9%

5.0%

.344

.315

.362

.555

.917

.240

.399

2012

143

20.6%

12.6%

6.3%

.341

.315

.392

.605

.996

.290

.420

Craig is putting together a season with a Hamilton-esque BABIP, Holliday-esque walk rate, and Votto-esuqe ISO. Craig's wOBA ranks tenth in all of baseball for players with 130 PAs or more. Therein lies the rub, of course. While we may be witnessing the breakout of a truly elite offensive talent, Craig has never posted a walk rate greater than 9.7% in his professional career and has never tallied more than 219 PAs in a MLB season.

The caveats are clear. Craig has had more than his fair share of injury problems, which has kept him from accumulating even a season's worth of PAs for his big-league career. Right now, his numbers are truly elite, but they could fall back to earth. Even so, the future at first base for the Cardinals is right now and his name is Allen Craig.

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