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Should the Cardinals trade from their outfield surplus?

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With the emergence of Tommy Pham and the impending arrival of top prospect Stephen Piscotty, the Cardinals appear to have strong outfield depth. Could they look to move one of these players at the trade deadline this month?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Not long ago, I wrote about how the Cardinals had five good outfielders and only three starting spots, and I looked at some of the possible ways the team could distribute playing time between these players. As it turned out, Matt Holliday strained his quad just days after I wrote that article, making all decisions on outfield playing time much easier for Mike Matheny.

Since that time, there have been a few other developments that have changed the outfield mix for the Cardinals. Jon Jay went on the DL once again due to a recurring wrist injury, with no immediate timetable for his return. Tommy Pham was called up from Triple-A on July 3rd and promptly started seven games in a row before being given the night off on Thursday. Stephen Piscotty was considered for a call up earlier this week and is now working on playing first base, with a call up expected to happen sometime this month. And yet, nothing has changed for Peter Bourjos, who is still buried on the bench.

With Matt Holliday set to return any day now, the Cardinals will once again have a full group of outfielders on their roster, minus Jon Jay. (Given the way Jay's  injury has played out, I can't imagine that he'll be out for too long, but then again, this situation has already been handled pretty bizarrely, so I don't want to speculate too much.) Depending on who gets sent down once Matt Holliday returns, the Cardinals' 25-man roster could include five outfielders: Holliday, Jason Heyward, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Peter Bourjos. The return of Jay and the arrival of Piscotty could make that an even more crowded group. Given the amount of outfield depth the Cardinals have, does it make sense for them to consider trading one of these players?

First, I think it's important to point out that the outfielders the Cardinals are not all major league regulars at this point. Besides Holliday and Heyward, there are question marks surrounding every player. Randal Grichuk certainly has the talent to be a regular, perhaps even in center field, but his plate approach is concerning, to say the least. Jon Jay was the starting center fielder coming into the year, but he has struggled so far in 2015, in large part because his batting line is no longer being propped up by a ridiculously high BABIP. Many here at VEB (myself included) think that Peter Bourjos deserves more playing time because of his outstanding defense, but Mike Matheny has never given him much of an opportunity, even though he has been much closer to league average offensively this season (92 wRC+).

While we haven't seen Stephen Piscotty at the major league level yet, all indications are that he has the potential to be a league average regular in a corner outfield spot. (You can read Eric's prospect profile on him here.) While there doesn't appear to be much work left for him to do at the Triple-A level at this point, he likely won't see much time in the outfield at the major league level this season due to the other players already on the roster. His bat would be an improvement at first base, though, which is why the Cardinals are giving him experience there at the Triple-A level.

Tommy Pham is perhaps the biggest question mark of all the outfielders on the Cardinals roster. As a 27-year old who has been in the Cardinals' system since 2006, it wouldn't appear as though he has much of a future in the major leagues. He has a unique profile, though, because he has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. Some evaluators say that Pham has five average or better tools, and it's easy to see flashes of that five-tool potential in his minor league numbers over the years. His tools and his injury history suggest that he could be a very good fourth outfielder at the major league level, a sentiment shared by Eric in his prospect profile of Pham.

Even though the Cardinals' outfielders have different (and in some cases non-starting) profiles, I think there's a good case to be made for trading at least one outfielder in order to clear up the logjam the Cardinals will have once Jon Jay returns. Matt Holliday and Jason Heyward are obviously off the table in such a scenario. In addition, I think that a Piscotty trade is unlikely, especially with Heyward set to be a free agent at the end of the year. I would certainly like to see the Cardinals bring Heyward back, regardless of what they do with Piscotty, but for now, Piscotty serves as an insurance plan in case Heyward leaves in free agency. I also don't see Grichuk being traded, due to his long-term potential and his ability to stick in center field.

A Tommy Pham trade wouldn't be that interesting, as the Cardinals probably wouldn't be able to get much in return for him. In addition, I think he fits well on the Cardinals as a cheap, yet talented fourth or fifth outfielder over the next few years. Perhaps there's a team out there who really likes Pham and would be willing to give him more playing time than the Cardinals can offer, but it seems like the Cardinals would be selling low on Pham if they gave him away before he had a chance to show what he can do now that he's healthy and playing at the major league level.

Bourjos and Jay are known quantities at this point, and I could see either one of them having some value to a team looking for a veteran outfielder at the deadline. Despite his potential, Bourjos has never been given the playing time many envisioned him getting when he was first traded to the Cardinals. Even so, he managed to put up 1.7 fWAR in 294 plate appearances last year despite dealing with a hip injury and having a subpar season offensively (82 wRC+). Given that Mike Matheny continues to bury Bourjos on the bench (even with Jay on the DL), perhaps John Mozeliak will decide that Bourjos has more value to the team in a trade. I'm sure it wouldn't be too hard to find an analytically-minded team that understands Bourjos' value and could use him to upgrade their outfield.

If the Cardinals decided to trade Jon Jay, it would appear as though they were selling low on him. Then again, his value could drop even more if he is unable to return to being the player he was before this year. In many ways, the situation with Jay is looking more and more like the situation with Allen Craig last year. The smaller sample size and the nagging injury for Jay this year give us some hope that his poor performance so far has been a fluke, but the similarities to Craig's unexpected drop in performance are striking.

PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
Craig 2010-2013 1420 7.1 % 18.0 % .186 .345 .306 .358 .492 134 7.1
Craig 2014 398 6.5% 19.3% .109 .281 .237 .291 .346 81 -0.7
Jay 2010-2014 2424 6.8 % 15.8 % .102 .345 .295 .359 .396 112 11.1
Jay 2015 191 7.9% 13.6% .042 .255 .223 .311 .265 60 0.7

The Cardinals appeared to be selling low on Craig last year, but in hindsight, the Cardinals look brilliant for being able to get something in return for him at all, in addition to getting rid of the rest of his contract. Mike Matheny's insistence on playing Craig despite his struggles was clearly hurting the team, so John Mozeliak decided to take that decision away from Matheny by getting rid of Craig altogether.

Despite the fact that Jay has struggled this season while dealing with a nagging wrist issue pretty much all year, Matheny has continued to play him in center field. Jay has been on the DL twice this season, and he still has more plate appearances than Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk. The Cardinals probably wouldn't be able to get much in return for Jay, but if they are truly pessimistic about his chances of  improving, they should cash in and get whatever they can for him, even if that just means getting rid of his salary for the next year and a half (approximately $9 million total).

Another reason why the Cardinals might be inclined to move Jay or Bourjos is that such a deal would probably not have a major effect on the team's long-term plans in center field. Both players are under contract through 2016, and it seems somewhat unlikely that either player will be a desirable option as a regular center fielder beyond 2016. In an ideal scenario, Randal Grichuk develops into a good enough player to take over the position when Jay and Bourjos are gone. For now, the Cardinals can afford to trade one of Jay/Bourjos, keep the other, and play him in center field along with Grichuk and Pham.

While it would be unusual to see a buyer like the Cardinals trade away an established major league player at the deadline, the Cardinals are in a situation where they can afford to unload one of their extra outfielders. There are plenty of reasons why such a move could be desirable for the Cardinals (clear up the outfield logjam, give opportunities to younger and possible better players, save money, prevent Matheny from unintentionally sabotaging the team by continually starting an inferior player, etc.) In the past, we've seen John Mozeliak get creative and deal away from the major league roster at the trade deadline, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him do the same in 2015.