Yesterday, Allen Craig signed a minor league deal with the Padres, including an invitation to Spring Training. Former Cardinals always interest me to some extent, but I've long been fascinated by Allen Craig.
His rise from C+ prospect to World Series hero and All-Star would be interesting enough on its own. When Grant Brisbee wrote of last year's Dexter Fowler signing that "Dexter Fowler is the kind of player the Cardinals usually invent out of sticks and sand," Allen Craig was the kind of player he was talking about.
But for me, Craig has always been a tragic figure, and his sudden decline has fascinated me much more than his rise.
Up through the moment he tripped the Cardinals into a win in Game 3 of the 2013 World Series, Craig's line as a Cardinal was .306 / .358 / .492. That would have put him inside the franchise Top 10 OPS in the integration era.
2013 was also Craig's first year playing under a five-year, $34 million contract, which bought out his remaining years of team control and one season of free agency. In that first year of the deal, when Craig was an All-Star with a 129 OPS+, he made just $1.75 million.
But in 2014, whatever talent Craig had bartered for at The Crossroads seemed to vanish as abruptly as it had arrived. He was dreadful in April, just slightly better in May, and spent most of June and July as a chip in a seeming power struggle between Mike Matheny and John Mozeliak.
The GM clearly wanted to see top prospect Oscar Taveras getting the starts that were still regularly going to the slumping Craig. Despite Craig's poor numbers across the board, and the pained look on his face as he took the field each day, Matheny kept writing his name on the lineup card.
On the day of the trade deadline, Craig and Joe Kelly were flipped to the Boston Red Sox for Angry Pitcher John Lackey.
For the Red Sox, the $30ish million remaining on Craig's deal must have seemed worth a chance that the slugger would return to form. After all, it had only been a bad half-season at that point. Perhaps a change of scenery, etc. etc.
But watching Craig that season, it sure looked like more than just a bad season. It was more than just frustration. It bordered on misery. And for whatever reason, that's the thing that has always haunted me about Allen Craig.
Craig never looked to me like he was having a lot of fun. Certainly not at the end, but even when his career was soaring... he always looked to me like his drive to do better made him wear the shortcomings more than most. Maybe that's not true at all. I don't know any of these guys. But that's the sense that I got.
Despite the hard look on his face, I always hoped that Allen Craig had some fun. He didn't have a gentle downward slope to his career, with time to adjust to the idea that it was nearing its end. He seemingly woke up one morning and was simply a fraction of the player he had been.
I'm talking about his career in the past tense because that's what it seemed to be, pretty much since the day he left St. Louis. He spent most of the rest of 2014 in the majors, as well as a little time in 2015, but he spent most of the remainder of that contract he signed with the Cardinals in the minor leagues. For the last two seasons, he wasn't even on the 40-man roster.
For Craig, I imagined playing out the string of that contract to be like the actor's nightmare: Finding yourself onstage without knowing any of your lines. But there was that contract, so Craig played on and the Red Sox kept paying, both perhaps harboring some small hope that he would regain form, but both understanding the reality of what was going on.
On June 30 of last year, the Red Sox finally cut bait and released Craig, even though they continued to pay him the $11 million he was owed last season. Craig did not sign with another team, and I assumed his career was over.
I see fans who say they "wish a player well" when they leave the Cardinals. Maybe I'm more driven by schadenfreude than most, but I don't. I don't wish them injury or hope they get stock tips from Lenny Dykstra, but I just generally want the Cardinals to prevail in all transactions. So when a player leaves, I don't want to see the Cardinals missed out on anything.
Allen Craig is an exception, for all the reasons I've noted above. And that's why I was genuinely happy to hear that he signed even a minor league deal with the Padres. It contradicts my imagined narrative of Craig as the man trapped in baseball purgatory.
If playing baseball had become miserable for Allen Craig, he could easily walk away. He achieved great success in his short window as a big leaguer, and earned enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life.
But Allen Craig still wants to play, and I hope that means there's still a little joy in it for him. And I hope he finds success and peace of mind in San Diego.