St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak spoke with Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the club’s approach as the trade deadline nears. In the subsequent article on stltoday.com (which you should read in its entirety), Mozeliak made the following quote:
"When you look to get better it almost has to come internally," Mozeliak said this past week. "The cost of playing poker is going to be very high. And say you find that talent or make a move, then the question becomes, ‘Where do you put that?’ We don’t have an obvious place. At some point you may have to look at the situation and say, ‘This isn’t working. Somebody needs a change of scenery.’ If you decide this isn’t working, the performance isn’t there, then maybe that’s how to find a place."
This quote raised my eyebrows. Mozeliak did not indicate that he might trade a Cardinal who the organization feels needs a change of scenery. He may very well have been referencing buy-low candidates on other teams, players who the Cardinals feel would benefit from a change to the scenery of Busch Stadium and the Gateway Arch. But Mozeliak may also have been referencing players current donning the "STL" cap. I find this interesting, because it seems that the two most logical "change of scenery" candidates on the current St. Louis roster are players to whom Mozeliak and the front office gave votes of confidence, one via a contract extension and the other by trading to acquire him.
Allen Craig broke into the majors in 2010 and played an integral role in the St. Louis Cardinals’ miraculous World Series championship run in 2011. The following season, Craig took over the everyday first baseman job from an injured Lance Berkman and solidified the heart of the Cardinals order. Entering the spring of 2013, Craig was had a career batting line of .300/.348/.515, with a healthy .215 Isolated Power (or "ISO," which excludes singles from the SLG calculation and only focuses on extra-base hits). The Cardinals front office liked what it saw and inked Craig to a contract extension that guaranteed the then-27-year-old slugger $31 million over five years, from 2013 through 2017 (with an option for 2018).
In 2013—the first season of Craig’s multi-million-dollar extension—he manned first base for the Redbirds and hit for a .315/.373/.457. Craig hit for a .368 BABIP, which drove up his BA, which in turn resulted in a very good .373 OBP. This offset a noticeable power drop. Craig’s ISO fell from .215 to .142, a drop from 31st amongst MLB batters who qualified for the batting title to a tie for 90th. Craig had seemingly become a corner outfielder/first baseman who hit for power at a rate that was essentially league average (.142 for Craig versus .146 for MLB non-pitchers in 2013).
This year, Craig’s offensive production has bottomed out. In 2013, Craig hit a grounder 45.0% of the time. So far in 2014, Craig has produced a grounder on 56.4% of his balls in play. Craig’s 26.9% line-drive rate in 2013 (which was one of MLB’s best) has fallen to a below-average 19.6% this year. Not surprisingly, Craig’s batting line reflects the diminishment of his contact quality. He is batting .243/.293/.358 with a .114 ISO that is well below the MLB non-pitcher rate of .142. Craig is not hitting for average, is failing to get on base, and is generating virtually no power when he puts the bat on the ball. It’s gotten to the point where it is an uncomfortable experience to watch Craig take an at-bat. After each groundout, I want to give him a hug and tell him everything will be okay.
Because the Cardinals signed Craig to an extension before the start of the 2013 season, the team owes Craig a guaranteed $25.5 million between next season and 2017.
Early last Hot Stove, Mozeliak made a bold trade. The Cardinals sent 2011 World Series legend David Freese and righty reliever Fernando Salas to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in exchange for all-world defensive centerfielder Peter Bourjos and power-hitting prospect Randal Grichuk. The move was made after an underwhelming 2013 season from the incumbent centerfielder, Jon Jay, and Mozeliak made no bones about his view that Bourjos was the frontrunner to win the primary centerfielder job heading into 2014. Mozeliak made such statements even though Bourjos was coming off a season-ending wrist surgery and had yet to pick up a bat during the offseason.
Bourjos has played his normal, otherworldly defense in center so far this season. But he hasn’t hit a lick.
Unlike Craig, Bourjos has a healthy line-drive rate at 22.6% that is above the MLB non-pitcher rate of 20.6%. Like Craig, Bourjos is rapping grounders on more than half of his balls in play. Making matters worse is the fact that Bourjos has posted a swinging-strike rate of 12.0% (MLB non-pitchers have a 9.2% SwStr%). Given Bourjos’s trouble making contact relative to the MLB as a whole, it’s of little surprise that he has posted a 27.8% strikeout rate that eight percentage points higher than the MLB non-pitcher rate in 2014. Bourjos’s .218/.280/.335 line works out to a 73 wRC+ that makes playing him difficult even with his elite defense and good base-running.
Maybe it’s Bourjos’s wrist. Maybe it’s Bourjos’s talent. Whatever it is, Bourjos isn’t hitting at even the modest .251/.306/.398 level he did as an Angel.
Craig (the VEB writer) tiered the current Cardinals 25-man roster members based on trade-ability. In his ratings, he included both Craig (the Cardinals player) and Bourjos as likely trade candidates. He did so because both are underperforming and look lost in a morass of frustration when at the bat. Craig and Bourjos look like they need a change of scenery. If the front office trades Craig, it would be an admission that the contract extension the club gave him was a mistake. Likewise, if the Cardinals give Bourjos a change of scenery, it would indicate a recognition that the centerfielder’s acquisition has been a failure. I wonder if Mozeliak and company have the mettle to make either such confession via trade.