It seems a little gauche to talk about fast-moving prospects so soon after the Cardinals rode Michael Wacha to the National League pennant; at some point you just have to accept your good fortune and try very hard to look like you aren't asking for more of it. But this is about the time of year when we always talk about who hit especially well or badly at the Arizona Fall League, and Stephen Piscotty has certainly done everything possible to earn his stint as presumptive spring training hero.
In case you weren't following along, he finished things up with a .371/.430/.506 line, hitting three triples and stealing seven bases so as to confuse his readymade reputation as a third-base butcher turned adequate right fielder. For a 22-year-old in his first full professional season—well, it would be really impressive if it weren't for what last year's spring training hero did.
Being a part of Michael Wacha's draft class certainly limits Stephen Piscotty's ability to astound or captivate us, at least in the short term. But he's become newsworthy, anyway—even among fans who spend most Novembers blissfully unaware that there's a slow drip of baseball methadone being doled out in Arizona—because of some serendipitous Hot Stove League timing. Stephen Piscotty is not just Stephen Piscotty, this year. He's not even just an Allen Craig rerun, their next great almost-great hitter. He's the surprise plot twist in the Carlos Beltran and Troy Tulowitzki soap operas. He's the replacement right fielder.
Well, is he?
The Carlos Beltran Saga
Carlos Beltran is already out the door. I love him—he is my sleeper pick for the team's finest Twitter account—but it just doesn't make sense to shuffle Beltran back into a deck that already includes Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Matt Adams, and Oscar Taveras. Four hitters for three corner positions makes perfect sense; it's how you maximize the value of a Lance Berkman or a Beltran or an Allen Craig. Five is where your well-stocked pantry brushes up against your neighbor's depleted-uranium Y2K bunker.
Of course, it's certainly possible that two of those four players will be injured or ineffective at the same time, and Stephen Piscotty is the perfect insurance for this kind of fear—the one you can't justify ignoring or spending money to fix. His AFL performance all but insures he'll open 2014 in Memphis after jumping from high-A Palm Beach to AA Springfield last season, and from Memphis he can keep the Cardinals from having to slot a minor league free agent into their major league depth chart at first base.
The Not-Extremely Plausible Matt Adams Trades
But if you're counting on Piscotty to have raised his stock enough to make a bat available as part of the bounty for a big-name shortstop—well, the resemblance to Allen Craig and Matt Holliday is still primarily a superficial one. Piscotty was a year younger than Craig was in AA, which is good news. His OPS was somewhat lower than sleeper shortstop candidate Greg Garcia's in AA, which is the bad news.
Piscotty's .295/.355/.464 mark between A+ and AA was good enough to justify the promotion, and his AFL line did nothing to slow his momentum. But none of it's a sign that he's ready to deliver 200 or 250 average corner-outfielder at-bats out of spring training. (Matt Adams, in his own age-22 date with the Texas League, hit .300/.357/.566; Allen Craig, 23, hit .304/.373/.494.)
Which is not to say that the Tulowitzki and Elvis Andrus trades that feature hitters as a key ingredient are impossible, or that Stephen Piscotty won't contribute in the major leagues in 2013—only that his emergence hasn't offered the Cardinals a Get Out of Sacrificing Depth Free card in the event that they do trade one of their emerging designated hitters for Pete Kozma's replacement.