In 2014, after playing 108 games with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, outfielder Randal Grichuk slashed .245/.278/.400 in 116 regular-season plate appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals. Largely due to his above-average outfield defense, Grichuk was able to produce a respectable 0.6 fWAR during his first MLB stint. Earning the respect of his manager, Grichuk started (and completed) all nine of the team's postseason games, but he managed to collect only six hits in 35 at bats (for a slash line of .171/.194/.343), with two of those six leaving the yard—one versus Clayton Kershaw in the NLDS and the other versus Tim Hudson in the NLCS.
At 23 years of age, with only 116 MLB plate appearances under his belt, a postseason performance such as the one we saw in 2014 is not necessarily unexpected. However, even prior to the postseason, it was clear there was room for improvement and further development, particularly at the plate. Keeping in mind the sample size (not enough to qualify for FanGraphs' leaderboards), his 26.7% strike out rate would rank near the top ten of baseball (not really a laudable leaderboard), and his 70.7% contact rate would rank in the bottom ten (again, not a leaderboard in which Grichuk would like to see his name).
While he experienced good results against fastballs during his rookie season (SSS, but .341 BA/.477 SLG in 44 ABs), breaking balls carved him up as he had a 45% swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone and whiffed on 36% of these swings. Even with good results on fastballs in play, he whiffed on 30% of his swings which is especially high for facing a fastball. Now, was this a pitch recognition issue or should it be chalked up as adjusting to big-league pitching? To be honest, I think both can be considered contributing factors (at varying degrees), and frankly, one at bat every other game (or less) as the team's fifth outfielder and second right-handed bat off the bench will go nowhere in helping him improve this aspect of his game.
Would Grichuk play a valuable role as a defensive substitution and bench bat for the big-league Cardinals? Absolutely, but he is still 23 years old, and many prospect evaluators still rate him fairly well, so is the bench necessarily the best spot for him as he is still clearly developing? For the time being, I strongly believe Grichuk would benefit from getting four or more at bats per game as a starting outfielder for the Memphis Redbirds. If an injury occurs at the big-league level, one phone call will make him readily available. If his development stalls and he is unable to measurably improve on his plate discipline or contact skills, they can call him up and plug him into a bench role immediately.
So, who is a beneficiary of Grichuk starting 2015 in Triple-A?
First and foremost, Grichuk, but I have already explained why above. Thus, who else would be positively affected by such a roster decision out of spring?
As we all know by now, Pete Kozma is out of options, and while it is believed Dean Anna can provide adequate shortstop defense, it likely doesn't compare to what we've already seen from Kozma at the position (career shortstop UZR of 10.4). Sure, Jhonny Peralta proved his reliability by making 151 starts at shortstop last year, but, entering his age-33 season, he is not getting any younger, so it would not be all that surprising if he was given more rest in 2015, or at least more starts as the designated hitter in American League parks. Plus, with Kozma open to learning other positions, such as emergency catcher, the club may want to avoid leaving him unprotected on waivers (as they already did once last season).
There is a portion of the fan base that believes it is time for Tommy Pham, a 16th round pick in the 2006 MLB Draft, to get his MLB shot. On-field performance has never been too much of an issue for the nearly 27-year-old minor league outfielder, but he has struggled mightily with injuries that have dampened his career flight. However, Pham played in 108 Triple-A games last season and mashed his way to a .324/.395/.491 slash line in 390 plate appearances. While it is believed that Grichuk can defend well enough in center field, there is absolutely no doubt in Pham's defensive capability, and he is a natural center fielder (but can play left and right as well). Given the volatility of Pham's health and the fact that he finally received his MLB "cup of Joe" last September, one could make a strong case for starting his 2015 season in the majors should he make it through spring training without injury.
Despite having solid minor league numbers for two different organizations (Baltimore and Seattle), utility man Ty Kelly has yet to receive a single at bat in the major leagues. Set to turn 27 years of age this season, it is safe to say his developmental days are winding down if not already complete. Unfortunately, Kelly has very little experience playing shortstop, but he can play second or third and has experience in both corner outfield spots. As a switch hitter with a little bit of pop (15 home runs in AAA last season) and a whole lot of patience (14.9 BB%), Kelly has his fair share of supporters backing him for the 25th spot on the Opening Day roster.
Relegating 23-year-old Grichuk to a spot at the end of the bench behind Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Jason Heyward, and Mark Reynolds (as the primary right-handed pinch-hitter) essentially signifies that the Cardinals have given up on his overall development. According to John Sickels of Minor League Ball, Grichuk is the organization's sixth best prospect (with a B-/borderline B grade), so this may not be the best idea at this point. If there were no other competent options available, the spot would absolutely belong to Grichuk, but this just is not the case with the 2015 Cardinals.
Last night on Twitter, I took an informal poll on the topic, but please provide your answer in the poll below so that we can get a better look at the percentages.