During this past offseason, Stephen Piscotty, arguably the St. Louis Cardinals top hitting prospect coming into 2015, traveled back to California in order to work with his former hitter coach at Stanford University. During the consultation process, the two mutually agreed that tinkering with a few subtleties of his swing's mechanics would likely prove largely beneficial to his development as a professional baseball player. At the Winter Warm-Up (YoutTube video courtesy of Derrick Goold), when asked what he expects from his offseason swing adjustment, Piscotty responded, "Ideally, it will increase home runs. It's something I'm really excited about."
While more home run power is definitely a welcome addition to a corner outfield prospect like Piscotty, it left one to reasonably wonder if such an adjustment would have a detrimental impact on his already-established plus contact skills. Fortunately for the Cardinals, the adjustment has not yet significantly diminished Piscotty's ability to make solid contact on a consistent basis. Sure, he has seen an uptick in strikeout percentage this season, but at 15.3%, it is nowhere near the "danger zone." The chart below shows that he is having zero issues spraying hits all over the field, which has always been one of the most appealing aspects of Piscotty as a prospect.
One thing to notice is the fact that there are quite a few (10 to be exact) maroonish dots on Piscotty's chart. Their respective location, combined with the legend provided on the right side, shows that these represent home runs. Back in early May, Eric pondered whether "April's power surge was sustainable" or not. Based on his batted ball profile at the time, Eric concluded that the increase in power was likely here to stay. As you will see in the chart below, two months have passed, and Piscotty has indeed been able to retain this newfound power while also maintaining the high on-base percentage we had grown accustomed to seeing from him as a hitter. Thus, the end goal of this offseason's hard work seems to have been achieved, at the Triple-A level at least. In fact, Piscotty has already eclipsed his 2014 home run total (9) in 216 fewer plate appearances.
2015 Statistics at Triple-A Memphis
The statistic that stands out most is Piscotty's .201 ISO. Prior to 2015, his minor league career high was .185 in 264 plate appearances with High-A Palm Beach in 2013. Last season in Memphis, Piscotty managed an ISO of only .118 in 556 plate appearances. The increase in power is a heartening addition to Piscotty's toolbox. For perspective, the 2015 MLB league average ISOs for first basemen, right fielders, and left fielders are.182, .163, and .145, respectively. Will Piscotty be able to maintain a .200+ ISO in the big leagues? Almost certainly not, but league average numbers show that he has a pretty significant cushion before becoming anything short of average in terms of power.
Piscotty is 896 plate appearances into his Triple-A career, and honestly, his bat has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. Where will he play, though? This is the National League after all. Drafted in 2012 as a third baseman, he was quickly converted to outfield after making 22 errors in 36 games at the hot corner for Low-A Quad Cities. The current outfield configuration consists of Randal Grichuk, Peter Bourjos, Tommy Pham, and Jason Heyward, with Matt Holliday hopefully due back for this weekend's series against the Pirates. There is no timetable for the return of Jon Jay, but should his wrist recover to a state where he feels like he can start hitting effectively again, he will likely enter into the outfield rotation as well.
A congested outfield ultimately leaves Piscotty searching for consistent reps at the big league level. This opened the door to discussion about a possible move to first base which, if you recall, percolated way back in early December during the winter meetings (and before the signing of Mark Reynolds). When Matt Adams went down with a season-ending quad tear, a significant shift in the organizational depth chart occurred: Reynolds, after being pretty effective as a bench bat, immediately became the starter, Mozeliak inked 35-year-old veteran Dan Johnson to a minor league deal, and Xavier Scruggs was given a cup of coffee at the big league level.
Nope, the front office did not immediately call Ruben Amaro Jr. of the Phillies to acquire Ryan Howard. This would have been a really bad idea. Seriously, look at his current numbers, and remember that this includes a relatively hot start to 2015. Instead, they, as is customary for the Cardinals, went with the path of least resistance by inserting Reynolds into the starter role. Despite early season success off the bench, Reynolds' production has since slowed to a crawl as the holes in his swing have been exposed with everyday at bats. Scruggs has been okay in limited playing time, but he really is not an immediate or long-term answer, either. According to reports from Jenifer Langosch, it appears that the Cardinals are hoping yesterday's promotion of Johnson to the big leagues serves as a short-term burst in production while Piscotty gains valuable experience at the first base position:
So what took so long, you ask? This is the same positional realignment the team discussed seven months ago at winter meetings. Well, as I stated earlier, Piscotty is probably the organization's best bat down on the farm. Despite a demonstrated increase in power this season, he still is not considered a 25 to 30 home run guy, so his bat is better suited for one of the corner outfield positions. While all reports have him making a relatively seamless transition to the outfield, it is a long-term project and there still exists room for development, especially considering the Cardinals do not know which corner outfield spot will eventually belong to him.
By moving Piscotty to first base, even if it is just temporary, his outfield defense development is effectively frozen. To be frank, the Cardinals wanted to explore all possible options before making this decision. Piscotty's bat, combined with pretty good route running and a very strong arm, provides much more value than it does at first base (think 2.5 to 3.0 fWAR player in the outfield versus a 1.5 to 2.0 fWAR player at first; this is a very rough estimation). However, the current state of the first base position (read: bad) has forced the team to make a decision they otherwise wanted to avoid. They have exhausted all internal options, and a quick glance at the trade market reveals nothing of particular interest.
Now, regarding Piscotty's possible transition to first base, much has been said about how there is no guarantee that it will even work out. The 24-year-old Stanford product was moved off third base so quickly for a reason. However, unlike the Holliday situation (I bring this up because, for some reason, people still clamor for this), who was also moved off third base early in his career, it has been only three years since Piscotty last played in the infield (as compared to 15 years for Holliday). If Piscotty proves unable to field grounders and pick short-hopped throws on the opposite side of the diamond, then it will be business as usual for his development. Nothing gained, but certainly nothing lost, either. Move him back to the outfield, watch him hit, and hopefully an opening will soon be made available for him in St. Louis.
The Cardinals have reached a point where they have to experiment with the Piscotty Project™. If it works out, great, if it doesn't, darn. It was worth a shot. Regarding finding a spot on a full 40-man roster, I would not worry too much because even with the designation of Aledmys Diaz for assignment, there still is a handful of players that probably should not be on the 40-man roster anyway. The Cardinals have been meticulous in their handling of Piscotty as a prospect, so in no situation do I see them giving Piscotty reps at first base without a corresponding roster move already in place. Finally, if all works out defensively, is Piscotty the long-term solution at first base? That remains to be seen because I believe the organization still finds value in Adams' power potential. Either way, given the state of the offense, this is a necessary project and should everything work out (it rarely does), a short-term plan may turn into the long-term solution.