clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

For the last week, Allen Craig has been playing Center Field

During the last week of games in the KMOX 2011 replay, we’ve been treated to some Classic Tony La Russa Weirdness.

St. Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images

I’ve really been enjoying the KMOX 2011 Replays, and in-particular, the regular season games they are broadcasting right now. Sure, you could watch or listen to highlight reels, or greatest games ever, but there’s something reassuring about listening to just your average ballgame right now.

I’ve watched the 2011 World Series DVD more times than I can count. I can do the big calls right along with Joe Buck. But in some random late August or early September game, there are a million forgotten details. I did not recall Edgar Reneria played for the Reds until last night’s game. And here’s another one I had completely forgotten:

For the last week, Allen Craig has been playing Center Field.

From August 19-31, Allen Craig started five games in CF. Now, before you assume this was some roster-crunch, injury-fueled, option-of-last-resort, let me assure you it was not. Jon Jay was the primary starter before, after and even in-between this run of 5 starts in 10 games for Craig.

This was classic Tony La Russa Mad Scientist stuff. And in that final season of his managerial career, he really let his freak flag fly.

Tony had been trying to get Allen Craig and his 154 wRC+ into the lineup all season, and in fact the organization had been trying to find a position for him since 2006. He was drafted as - and I cannot emphasize this enough - a shortstop.

The Cardinals likely never projected Craig to stick at short. He would only appear in 3 minor league games at the position. Craig moved predominantly to 3rd, with some time at 1st. In 2008 - his first full season at AA - he got into 17 games as an outfielder. Then in 2009 at AAA, he split his time about equally between the corner infield and corner outfield positions.

So when Craig’s big bat pushed him into the majors in 2010, his position was basically just Some Kind of Corner. Most of his 44 games that season would come as a RF. And then that offseason, the Cardinals acquired Lance Berkman to serve as a permanent fixture in Right.

It was in 2011 that Craig really earned his nickname, “The Wrench,” appearing in games at 1st, 2nd, 3rd, RF, LF and yes, even CF. But the name was always a little bit of a misnomer. Craig was not your classic utility player who could hold his own at any position. He was a hell of a hitter with no clear defensive home.

By May 10, he was done at 2nd and 3rd base for his career. With Albert Pujols on the team, there wasn’t much need for him at 1st. So for the next month, Craig would get the occasional start in LF or RF to spell Holliday or Berkman, but aside from that his position was pinch-hitter. And then on June 7, he crashed into the wall and fractured his knee.

It would be two full months before La Russa would again have his favorite tool (the Wrench) back in his tool box. (Pun absolutely intended.) And let’s be clear, in 2011, Allen Craig was a really good hitter. The 154 wRC+ he ended the season with was tied with Matt Holliday for 2nd on the team (behind Berkman, just ahead of Pujols).

Craig came off the DL on August 10, less than two weeks after La Russa nudged the front office to trade their former Center Fielder of the Future, Colby Rasmus, because he didn’t like the cut of his jib. That left Jon Jay and (to some extent) Cory Patterson as the options in CF.

Quick aside: Jon Jay spent much of his career as a starter. But every single season, there was some other player who fans wanted to see take his place. Sometimes that other guy would get a shot, and almost without exception, Jon Jay would end the season having been the more valuable. Long Live Jon Jay.

It had to be eating Tony to see Craig riding the bench, so he did something crazy. Was it as crazy as starting Albert Pujols in LF when he couldn’t throw? Was it as crazy as starting Mark McGwire as (ostensibly) a 2nd Baseman? I’m here to tell you it was just as crazy.

Tony asked a positionally-challenged player, coming off a broken knee, who had never played a single inning of Center Field in his professional career, to do just that.

And yes, the experiment lasted for only five games - much as the Pujols and McGwire experiments were also short-lived. It probably didn’t move the needle much on the Cardinals season, and La Russa probably realized a fantasy baseball style move like that was not viable longterm. But damn if it wasn’t fun.