The Cardinals have a ton of pitchers. So many that they are slotting would-be starters as relievers and leaving replacement level pitchers in the minors as insurance. It's a nice problem to have, particularly at an injury prone position. They're about to have a very similar problem in the outfield.
Part of the reason that the Cardinals were able to let Carlos Beltran walk, besides his contract desires, was the immediacy of his replacement. With Beltran in New York, Allen Craig assumes a full time role in right field and Matt Adams takes over at 1st base. Craig is no great shakes as an outfielder but his hitting prowess goes a long way to making up for that. The Cardinals imported Peter Borjous to take over centerfield and Matt Holliday remains a stalwart in left. (Seriously, Matt Holliday wRC+ since his contract extension: 149, 154, 142, 148.)
That still leaves the Cardinals with a league average centerfielder, Jon Jay, on the bench and a replacement-esque centerfielder, Shane Robinson, possibly slated for AAA or the bench. That is called depth.
I've talked about depth a lot and it's hard to approach it from a WAR framework. What value is added by having a 1 WAR centerfielder like Robinson in the minors? From a utilization perspective, he adds nothing in that regard but clearly, the moment he's needed, he provides value beyond whatever the Cardinals could theoretically pick up off the scrap heap. Quantifying the "lost" contributions of depth is easy. Determining it's value as an unused mitigation tool is more of a challenge.
That depth in the outfield is part of what makes the Memphis club so interesting -- and something that should make Shane Robinson worry a bit. The following players also have a legit shot at making the Memphis ball club:
- Oscar Taveras - sometime centerfielder, eventual corner outfielder
- Randal Grichuk - sometime centerfielder, strong right fielder
- Stephen Piscotty - right fielder
- Mike O'Neill - left fielder
- Thomas Pham - sometime centerfielder, habitual DL attendee
- James Ramsey - centerfielder
- Joey Butler - veteran minor leaguer, corner outfielder
That's seven players that could be assigned to Memphis. Some of those assignments, notably Piscotty, would be a touch aggressive but none of them would be outlandish. (This also speaks to the inopportune timing of Oscar Taveras' injury last year. Ideally, he'd be a lock for the majors and Robinson would be traded.) The Cardinals will have to find a way to wedge those players into 3 outfield spots, first base and some DH. Of course, I've not mentioned guys like Xavier Scruggs who will be restricted to 1B but further complicate Pop Warner's assignment of Memphis at bats.
The Cardinals pitching depth gets a lot of attention at the moment because of the imminent logjam. The outfield is only a year away from the same problem. Matt Holliday still has three years on his contract. Allen Craig has four years. Peter Bourjous is under team control for four more years. Where do the Cardinals put all of the outfielders?
It's this kind of scenario that means the Cardinals will continue to be in all the big name trade rumors for quite some time. Taveras, Piscotty and Ramsey all have projections as full time players in the MLB. (I'd also value them in that way.) Randal Grichuk looks like a nice fourth outfielder with some upside. Mike O'Neill is one of those intriguing experiments that could wind up in a wide array of outcomes. Only Butler and Pham look like obvious non-MLB players and Pham mainly earns that tag because of health.
Trading Jon Jay and Matt Adams seems like the most likely route to relieve this logjam. Given the Cardinals recent track record, they'll be holding onto all of these players until the last possible moment. The Cardinals have shown that they value depth and that depth can mean a lot over the course of 162 games. You may not like that if you're Mike O'Neill trapped in AAA for the next three years until your options run out but that's the reality. Depth is clearly something the Cardinals are holding onto right now.
Nonetheless, this is a fun group of players to dream on. Can Oscar Taveras go from top prospect to MLB regular? Can he win rookie of the year? Can James Ramsey's production match his reported leadership characteristics? Will Stephen Piscotty be Allen Craig 2.0 -- from 3B to line drive hitting outfielder? Can Mike O'Neill be Mike O'Neill in the majors?
Maybe the Cardinals won't trade Jon Jay or Matt Adams. Maybe they'll trade Ramsey or Grichuk. Maybe someone will be badly injured opening up a roster spot. It's impossible to know. That's part of what makes it fun -- and exactly the reason why the Cardinals value depth.