Number 8 as in the centerfielder. It is obvious to all that the organization made a significant decision today about the future. Whether you want to believe that La Russa ran Colby out of town, or that the front office was sick and tired of waiting for Rasmus to live up to his potential, or that someone just really liked the name Marc Rzepczynski, the equation for centerfield has changed in an important way. So I thought it would be interesting to see how the options in centerfield compare for this year, next year, and on.
So obviously we have Jon Jay as the everyday starter in CF for the rest of the year. I guess Patterson (ugh) is the back-up CF. If one of them gets hurt/is ineffective/clashes with the manager/other stupid random reason why they can't play, it appears that left-handed hitting (and throwing for those who care about that sort of thing) Adron Chambers could at least fill in in CF for a few games here and there, if not do more. Chambers has been the everyday CF for Memphis in 2011 and has put up a decent line of .273/.360/.413/.344 (AVG/OBP/SLG/wOBA) in 351 PA, which compares favorably to Jon Jay, a player who Chambers has often been compared to, who had a .281/.338/.394/.328 line in a full season in 2009. Jay then had .321/.394/.491/.407 line in 191 PA which earned him a call up to the big league club in 2010, and he has since not looked back, currently sporting a sparkly .312/.363/.438/.351 line, aided by, as we all know, a .352 BABIP. For his career, Jay has maintained a .351 BABIP over 612 PA, not quite enough to say that that is his true talent, but interesting nonetheless. Chambers' line has been produced with the benefit of .322 BABIP, almost dead on for the league average. With no reports of his centerfield defense being terrible, I don't see why he couldn't be a perfectly acceptable fill in or even regular backup.
At AA, there's Tommy Pham. A toolsy player who has started to put it together last year, the right-handed hitting Pham has a .294/.372/.519/.380 (AVG/OBP/SLG/wOBA) line this year with a solid BB rate (10.7%), a high but not astronomical K rate (24.1%) and a very helpful .378 BABIP. His numbers are impressive, however, the hitting environment at Hammons Field in Springfield tempers expectations just a little, as it is a park that greatly favors hitters, although lefties more than righties. Unfortunately for Pham, he suffered a wrist injury in late May and was put on the disabled list on June 6. His return this year is questionable, reports Kary Booher, although it appears surgery is not required. If he can get healthy there remains a chance he could become a serviceable CF, although he would not appear to be Major-League ready until at least 2013. Anybody have any word on his defense in center? I have heard it be anywhere from just average to a real asset that could play in the big leagues next year.
Below AA, There's non-prospect Adam Melker (.621 OPS) in Palm Beach and not really anything else of note. It gets somewhat interesting in Quad Cities. Perhaps the best hitting prospect currently in the system is Oscar Taveras. Only 19 years old, Taveras is destroying the Midwest League, to a line of .393/.437/.596/.456. Currently playing RF for QC, Taveras has been described as having the tools to play center, but is likely playing right this year because of multiple hamstring issues that have limited him to just 45 games and 197 PA this year. This year Quad Cities has had a sort of timeshare in CF with Nicholas Longmire and Michael Swinson. After an exciting campaign last year in Batavia, Longmire, 22, has definitely cooled off in Quad Cities. He currently sports a .640 OPS with an OBP at .290. Not very good. Swinson has been not much better, with an OPS of .681. While most of Longmire's OPS is in his slugging, Swinson has a respectable .358 OBP. Neither has hit terribly well but because CF is one of the toughest positions to play defensively, the level of offense that corresponds to league average is significantly lower than league average.
Beyond A-ball, is soon-to-be 22 year old Virgil Hill, a 6th round pick of the 09 draft. As an injury sub for QC in the early part of the year, Hill struggled offensively, except in the stolen base category, where he was 8-11. A speedy CF who the Cardinals hope can learn to hit, Hill is quickly becoming old for his level, and needs to start producing immediately if he wants to still be considered a legit prospect. He also appears to have been playing more left and right as opposed to center, which is not a good sign as the Cardinals, in general, prefer to keep players at as difficult a position they can handle until the players proves that he cannot handle it. Other longshots who could emerge as options for the future in centerfield include Nick Martini, a fringy CF/COF prospect who has yet to hit in Batavia, although he has played exclusively in CF this year, and Steven Ramos, a 21 year old centerfielder who has an .802 OPS in Johnson City. Lance Jeffries and C.J. McElroy are high draft picks in the most recent MLB draft who have signed and reported to the GCL, possibly the lowest level of organized affiliate baseball in the states. The only other ray of hope that could be in the organization is Charlie Tilson, and outfield prospect from the Chicago area, drafted by the Cardinals in the 2nd round. Opinions are generally high on Tilson, a left-handed hitting and throwing outfielder who has a committment to play college baseball at the University of Illinois. The Cardinals are trying to make an attractive enough offer to Tilson to entice him to skip college and turn pro immediately. The aggregation of scouting reports on Tilson that the always excellent futureredbirds,net put together definitely leaves a warm feeling, especially when scouts compare him to some of the past couple of year's break-out players in Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.
As currently constituted, the Cardinals minor league system is not bereft of centerfield prospects, but the pool of realistic candidates is shallow and have a very significant bust rate. Personally, I am, reluctantly, committed to Jon Jay for the rest of the season as the starting CF. In the longer term, however much I wish it could happen, I am not very confident that Adron Chambers or Tommy Pham or Oscar Taveras or anyone else currently in the system will rise up and become a better than average centerfielder. It's certainly possible, but depending on one of them becoming a 3-4 WAR or better centerfielder who starts 140 games seems foolish to me. It's one thing to expect one of Freese, Cox or Carpenter to be able to be league average or better at 3rd for the next 3-5 years for minimal salary. It's entirely another to depend on the current crop of centerfield prospect to do the same. I don't doubt that some of the prospects listed will make the major leagues; it's taking the next step and becoming a core player such as Yadier Molina, Jaime Garcia, and maybe even Jason Motte a little bit.
The other options, besides relying on the minors to produce a player, are to trade for one or sign a free agent. As we have just seen, trading for a young, talented, and big-league ready CF is very, very costly, and should be for good reason. The way the front office has jealously protected the minor league assets that have been developed the past couple of years leads me to believe that it is unlikely that they would be willing to send multiple quality (e.g., Top 10) prospects for a CF who they haven't really developed. However much I would be pleased if the team swung a reasonable deal for an up and coming young centerfielder with range a bit of pop in his bat, it seems like a path that is very much not in line with the team's track record.
Here are the 2012 free agent options with age at time of free agency and last three years WAR totals (09, 10, 11) per MLBtraderumors and Fangraphs:
Rick Ankiel (32) (0.1, 0.8, 0.2)
Carlos Beltran (35) (3.0, 0.9, 3.9)
Willie Bloomquist (34) - $1.1MM mutual option with a $150K buyout (0.0, -0.8, 0.1)
Mike Cameron (39) (-0.4, -0.1, 4.3)
Coco Crisp (32) (1.4, 3.3, 1.6
David DeJesus (32) (3.6, 2.6, 0.5)
Scott Hairston (32) (1.6, 0.1, 0.5)
Andruw Jones (35) (0.7, 1.7, 0.1)
Nate McLouth (30) - $10.65MM club option with a $1.25MM buyout (3.4, -1.2, 0.3)
Corey Patterson (32) (-0.3, 1.0, 0.6)
Cody Ross (31) (2.0, 2.3, 0.2)
Grady Sizemore (29) - $8.5MM club option with a $500K buyout (2.0, -0.3, 1.2)
And the 2013 free agents, also per MLBTR and Fangraphs:
Michael Bourn (30) (4.9, 4.8, 3.5)
Marlon Byrd (35) (1.6, 4.3, 1.8)
Melky Cabrera (28) (1.7, -1.0, 3.2)
Curtis Granderson (32) - $13MM club option with a $2MM buyout (3.0, 3.6, 4.7)
Matt Kemp (28) (5.1, 0.3, 4.8)
Angel Pagan (31) (2.9, 5.4, 0.8)
Aaron Rowand (35) (2.5, 0.2, 1.0)
B.J. Upton (28) (2.3, 3.9, 1.5)
Shane Victorino (32) (3.6, 3.7, 4.4)
The whole point of having Rasmus as the CF for the next four years was to have a well above average player at a premium position on the field, for well below his market value. Having a player like him allows the team to pay market value for players like Carpenter, Holliday, Berkman, Molina, Wainwright, Garcia, and yes the big one, Pujols. Without starters of Rasmus's (or Jay's) current caliber at multiple positions, there is no way this team can make the playoffs at its current payroll size and layout. Regarding the free agents, nobody really stands out as a cheap and effective option, a common problem when a team tries to solve a problem with free agents.
If anyone has other information (defensive ability, offensive profile, favorite ice cream flavor) about the strengths and weaknesses of the players mentioned in the Cardinals system or an intriguing trade option, please chime in. Thanks to futureredbirds.net, Fangraphs.com, MLBTraderumors.com, and the Springfield News Leader