The St. Louis Cardinals should bench Allen Craig and play Oscar Taveras

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The time has come.

The Cardinals announced on Monday that the club will option reliever Jorge Rondon to Triple-A Memphis and recall top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras to take the spot on the St. Louis 25-man roster left vacant by the righthander’s demotion. The promotion will mean the start of Taveras’s second stint in the big leagues Tuesday in San Francisco. The question is whether manager Mike Matheny will get Taveras enough playing time to justify having one of baseball’s top hitting prospects accruing service time while on the St. Louis roster.

When a calf injury landed first baseman Matt Adams on the disabled list last month, the Cardinals’ hand was forced. The organization had an Adams-sized hole in the lineup and no one in the majors to fill it. So the Cardinals shifted Allen Craig (the club’s primary right fielder so far in 2014) to first base (his primary position in 2013) and promoted Taveras. Craig replaced Adams on defense and Taveras replaced Big Mayo in the lineup.

This arrangement lasted about two weeks. Taveras played in 11 games and notched 40 plate appearances. The Dominican posted a .189/.225/.297 line, but the results over 37 at-bats is in no way reflective of any batters true talent. Give Taveras three more hits and he has a .270 BA. Watching Taveras play in those 11 games and imagining three more hits isn’t too difficult. His 2.5% swinging-strike rate was as ridiculously low as his 92.4% contact rate was high. To watch Taveras engage major-league pitching was to see a creature in his element, working counts and making solid contact. The process was that of a polished hitter even if the results don’t necessary reflect such a reality.

Despite Taveras demonstrating a good plate approach, the Cardinals demoted him. With an apparent focus on batting results, general manager John Mozeliak stated that Taveras could have made the club’s decision to demote him harder. Then Matheny weighed in, cribbing from the talking points he first spewed when the club demoted Kolten Wong. Taveras, you see, had a couple mechanical issues with his swing—spotted by hitting coach John Mabry—that needed fixing. One wonders how the players respond to this renowned Leader of Men spouting verbal horseshit about their swings to the press, but I digress. Primarily because I was in favor of the demotion due to my worries about Matheny's ability to get Taveras the playing time he needed, and still needs. Having read Monday’s post by Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com (which you should read in its entirety), I’m still concerned about Matheny deploying his outfielders in a way that maximizes the team’s chances at winning.

"We’re trying to generate some offense. I don’t think this is going to be exactly like we saw before when we had him up where it was, ‘Here you go, you’re going to be in there every day.’ But we’re going to have to find some considerable time for him."

[**SNIP**]

"It was already in the works. We knew that would probably be part of the plan moving forward [and] to see how we can add to our depth, which, too, strengthens our bench as well as gives us the chance to get a guy in there who has been swinging the bat well."

"We just always kept in conversation about who would be the likely fit, about who would come in and bolster our offense. And how can we find time? With the DL to [Matt] Adams [earlier this month], it was pretty simple, let’s just let [Taveras] play and see what we’ve got. After that, trying to incorporate him pushed the need for a little creativity, not a lot unlike what we did with Matt Adams a year ago. I think that proved to be really beneficial with how that did help our bench. Every day we had a real nice bat off our bench regardless of how it played out.

"A lot of this is going to come down to, we’re going to throw him in some opportunities, but he’s going to have to produce. And if he produces, just like any of the other guys, you keep swinging it right, you’re going to have the opportunities."

The comparison to last year’s roster and Adams’s role on it is an enticing one. It’s also lazy because to compare the 2013 Cardinals to this season’s incarnation is to compare an apple to orange. The Cardinals started last year with Carlos Beltran in right field, and the should-be-future Hall-of-Famer hit .296/.339/.491 with 24 homers. Allen Craig was the team’s primary first baseman and he posted a .315/.373/.457 line. Adams was a complementary luxury on that roster until Craig suffered a Lisfranc injury that ended his regular season.

In 2013, Adams started 63 games and notched 264 PAs. That’s less than half the PAs each of Holliday, Beltran, Craig, and Jay took. Had Craig not hit the DL, Adams would’ve played even less. 21 of Adams’s 63 starts (33.33%) came after Craig’s injury. The slugging first baseman also notched 96 of his 264 PAs (36.36%) during the season’s final month.

In the months of July, August, and September this year, Taveras must receive more than eight starts and 45 PAs per month—the number of starts and PAs Adams averaged per month prior to Craig hitting the DL. Unlike Adams last season, Taveras is not a complementary luxury to be stored on the bench for use at the manager’s whimsy. 2013 Beltran and Craig aren’t on the roster. Beltran is a Yankee. Craig is a shadow of his former self.

Craig’s overall numbers have deflated this season. He’s currently batting .255/.305/.368, which wouldn’t be bad if he were still playing second base for the Cardinals (but with above-average defense). Before you slice and dice Craig’s stats in some way that purportedly shows he’s been batting better, consider that the one-time slugger is hitting .176/.250/.235 in the last seven days, .222/.265/.267 in the last 14 days, and .274/.300/.337 in the last 28 days. Craig isn’t improving at the plate. Rather, he appears to have plateaued. And Craig’s punchless offense is simply unacceptable from a corner outfield spot on a team that fancies itself a postseason contender.

Of course, Craig is under contract through 2017 and will make $25.5 million from 2015 through 2017. He’s also a proven veteran of sorts who was dependable for Matheny during past seasons that culminated in October runs. But this year Craig has proven incapable of hitting for power and the time for patience is past. There is no need to creatively spread playing time around. The time has come to bench Craig and play Taveras.

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