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The St. Louis Cardinals need to bench Randal Grichuk

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After hitting well for a few weeks in September, Randal Grichuk looks out of his depth in October.

David Banks

The St. Louis Cardinals first had eyes for Randal Grichuk before manager Mike Matheny was a member of management. As the 2009 amateur draft drew near, the Cardinals brought Grichuk to Busch Stadium for a workout as the club was eyeing him for a pick. But the Cardinals wound up drafting Shelby Miller with the 19th pick and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim selected Grichuk with the 24th pick in the first round, one pick before they took a guy named Mike Trout. But the powerful righthanded batsmen stayed on the Cardinals' radar.

In 2013 as a farmhand with the Angels Double-A Texas League affiliate, Grichuk caught the eye of Springfield Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, as reported by Derrick Goold for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in March:

The cozy eight-team Texas League, with so many games against so few teams, is a hard place to hide a hole in a swing. It didn’t take long for the Cardinals’ Class AA affiliate to exploit a young slugger in the middle of Arkansas’ lineup. The Springfield club worked Angels prospect Randal Grichuk over with breaking pitches he couldn’t time. They had his rhythm and turned it against him, often.

Grichuk went hitless in his first 18 at-bats against the Double-A Cardinals, and he went two-for-28 in his first eight games of 30 vs. the S-Cards last season.

The approach wasn’t going to change unless he did.

He caught up.

"He was able to get to balls better and eliminate pitches off the plate and it was like, OK, he’s become a real nuisance," said Cardinals’ Class AA manager Mike Shildt. "You saw glimpses of it with Randal. Man, this guy has some ability. He’s got toughness. I think between his ability and his potential — that gap started to close."

The Cardinals front office targeted Grichuk during Hot Stove trade talks that ultimately resulted in St. Louis sending David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels in exchange for Peter Bourjos and Grichuk. In an interview with MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak revealed that St. Louis wouldn't have gone through with the deal without Grichuk's inclusion:

MLB.com: When you made a four-player trade with Anaheim in November 2013, what were your short-term goals in that deal and how vital a piece Randal Grichuk was in getting that deal done?

Mozeliak: We wouldn't have done the deal without Grichuk. That was something that was a critical part. Obviously, we thought [Peter] Bourjos was someone who would come in, compete for center-field playing time and be a part of our club. Grichuk was somebody that we thought with the raw power would be a nice complement to our system. Without him, there is no deal.

Grichuk turned heads during spring training—per Goold, Matheny's in particular.

"He’s showing a reason a lot of people have been excited about him," Matheny said after the 5-4 loss to the Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium. He added: "Watching how he moves, how he works, the way he carries himself, consistently taking nice approaches, at-bats — he’s a baseball player. He’s got some real talent."

At spring training's end, Matheny had given Grichuk 42 plate appearances. The outfield prospect struck out in 15 of them. Grichuk's spring strikeout rate was 35.7%. The consistently nice approach to at-bats lauded by Matheny in early March gave way to a rather large pile of Ks.

Grichuk started the season with Triple-A Memphis and lit the Pacific Coast League ablaze. I was in attendance for the Redbirds' first several games, with temperatures in the high-30s and low-40s and the scouting report descriptions of his game—both good and bad—were readily apparent. Grichuk's bat speed was very good, his style of play was hard-nosed, and the ball jumped off his bat—when he made contact. There were a lot of breaking balls that Grichuk, with a swing as all-out as his baserunning and outfield play, looked rather bad on. But it was tough to quibble with the whiffs given his overall early-season production.

Grichuk batted .298/.337/.500 in April for Memphis. With the St. Louis offense sputtering, the Cardinals decided to attempt a jumpstart by demoting Kolten Wong and Shane Robinson because their high-paid veteran teammates weren't hitting. Grichuk and Greg Garcia were promoted from Triple-A to replace them. After 48 big-league PAs, Grichuk was batting .136/.191/.273 (.208 wOBA, 28 wRC+) with a 31.3% strikeout rate and the Cardinals demoted him to Memphis.

On August 25, Grichuk's hot Triple-A start had given way to a chilly summer. His Memphis seasonal batting line was .259/.311/.493 (.345 wOBA, 102 wRC+)—fair to middlin'. But Shane Robinson injured his shoulder and the Cardinals needed an outfielder, so they recalled Grichuk, who was on the St. Louis 40-man roster.

Matheny used Grichuk along with Oscar Taveras and Bourjos in a mix-and-match fashion, playing match-ups and the illusory hot hand. Ultimately, Matheny settled on Grichuk as the primary right fielder thanks to a .318/.338/.485 (.361 wOBA, 132 wRC+) line over 68 post-recall PAs and his style of play. Goold reported on Matheny crowning Grichuk with The Right Way halo and handing him the everyday right-field job in the postseason:

"Randal’s taken advantage," manager Mike Matheny said. "Randal’s one of those players that I don’t think many people have heard much about. I think they’re going to continue to hear about him, one, because of his skill set he has, but, two, just the makeup. This guy’s relentless already. He goes about it the right way. Mix that with what he does on the talent side, both offensively and defensively, and on the bases and he’s going to be an exciting player to watch."

Grichuk is undoubtedly exciting to watch. His baserunning is the stuff of instructional videos. (Not that you can teach scoring from second on a passed ball.) Against the Dodgers in Game 4, Grichuk executed a perfect secondary lead and perceptively read a Clayton Kershaw pitch in the dirt that allowed him to swipe second base. Grichuk was the personification of fundamentals on the play. Little Leaguers should be shown video of it so that they can learn how to execute a secondary lead and when to take off for second on a low pitch. But to be a factor on the bases, a player has to reach safely. And Grichuk's free-swinging approach and hole-ladent swing has made that difficult for the rookie.

In October, Grichuk's batting line has sagged to .150/.190/.300 (.219 wOBA, 36 wRC+). Grichuk has struck out eight times in 21 PAs, for an October K rate of 38.1%. That simply doesn't cut it in the postseason, especially given Grichuk's short but uninspiring MLB performance to date—his overall 2014 batting line was .245/.278/.400 (.299 wOBA, 90 wRC+). Now isn't the time to give Grichuk on-the-job training. It's win or go home and Grichuk doesn't give the Cardinals the best chance to win. The Cardinals need to bench Grichuk.

This is especially true given the fact that the Giants will send Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy, and Ryan Vogelsong to the mound in each of the next three games. All are righties, which bodes ill for Grichuk's batting fortuntes despite his reverse platoon split during a meaninglessly small total of MLB PAs. During just over 1,800 PAs of Grichuk's most recent minor-league seasons, he's hit much worse against righthanders than portsiders. According to Minor League Central, here are Grichuk's minor-league splits against righties and lefties from 2011 (the earliest year for which the site has splits data) to present:

Split

PA

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

vs. LHP

464

16.2

5.6

.314

.356

.598

.954

.284

Total

1805

18.7

4.8

.270

.314

.477

.791

.207

vs. RHP

1341

19.6

4.5

.254

.300

.436

.736

.182

Grichuk may play the game The Right Way in Matheny's eyes, but that doesn't justify starting the strikeout-prone rookie against righthanders. Matheny needs to change his lineup for NLCS games two, three, and four so that Grichuk isn't starting. Whether that means going with an alignment of Peter Bourjos in center and Jon Jay in right or Oscar Taveras in right and Jay in center in Game 2, I don't care—either outfield composition gives the Cardinals a better outfield than one that includes Grichuk. In San Francisco, with its expansive outfield, Matheny should go with the defensively stronger alignment of Bourjos in center and Jay in right. Down 1-0 in the NLCS, Matheny shouldn't play favorites. He needs to give the Cards the best chance of winning and that means benching Grichuk.