When I think of baseball careers, I always envision an iceberg. The surface of the water is major-league level, and only the tip of the iceberg juts above. The iceberg is not uniform. There are peaks and valleys, though it generally rises to its highest point somewhere in the middle. How much of the iceberg manages to rise above the surface of the water? That varies by player.
I thought about the iceberg this weekend when I heard that the Red Sox optioned Allen Craig to Pawtucket. "The Wrench" was already a unique player - a bit of a late-bloomer who rose to an All-Star level peak. But his drop-off over the past two seasons has been just as spectacular, to the point he has now slipped below the surface.
Allen Craig was selected by the Cardinals in the 8th round of the 2006 draft as a shortstop. He was eventually moved to third base and then the outfield, when the Cardinals acquired David Freese, because Allen Craig was never the kind of prospect a team plans its future around. He never cracked Baseball America's Top 100. But he hit at every level of the minor leagues, and by 2010 he had risen high enough to tally 124 plate appearances in the majors.
Despite Craig's steady rise, the Cardinals signed Lance Berkman before the 2011 season. Craig began the year serving primarily as a 4th outfielder, but he hit so well, by May he got eight starts at second base, in a classic example of Tony being Tony. What was shaping up to be his breakout season was cut short when he shattered his kneecap trying to make a sliding catch against the wall in Houston.
And then came the 2011 postseason, when Craig truly announced his presence with authority. I'm sure I don't have to remind readers here of his exploits. In nine states and the territory of Puerto Rico, Alexi Ogando is still legally the property of Allen Craig.
His 2011 playoff heroics were followed up with two solid seasons, which earned him an All-Star appearance, a handful of MVP votes, and a 5-year, $31 million contract. For a player who never earned more than 500 major league PAs in a season until the age of 27, it was an impressive peak.
But one thing about the iceberg of a player's career - the ones that are late to poke through the surface are often quick to slip back underwater. Still, it would be hard for even the most pessimistic projection to predict the collapse that was Allen Craig's 2014 season.
Through April and May, the rational side of my brain kept reminding me that Craig's numbers were still drawn on a small sample size. But my eyes told me he looked like a man who had lost his way and would not find it again. After Oscar Taveras was promoted for the first time on May 30, and Craig still continued to earn the bulk of the starts, I found myself growing resentful.
In many ways, Taveras was the anti-Craig - a highly touted prospect throughout the pipeline, who had a roster spot carved out for maybe the next decade. And such is the nature of fandom, at least for me, that I found myself rooting against Allen Craig. Here was a World Series hero of just a few years before, an 8th round draftee who made himself into an All-Star, and I was ready to see him cast aside.
I went on rooting against Allen Craig when he was traded to the Red Sox - maybe not on the surface, but in some dark, schadenfreude-fueled corner of my heart, where the players are just cogs in this machine of the Cardinals, and I want to always see my favorite machine functioning at maximum efficiency. Craig's failure in Boston was the mark of superior gamesmanship by the front office. Allen Craig was dead. Long live the Cardinals.
Now Allen Craig has been sent back to the minors and may be on his way out of baseball. Could he regain his form? Sure. Icebergs are unpredictable. They come in all shapes and sizes. But for the most part, once they've hit their peak, they don't rise so high again. And when they dip below the water, they rarely come back to the surface.