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Stephen Piscotty as an indispensable Cardinals asset

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After only 256 plate appearances, Stephen Piscotty has displayed enough potential that the Cardinals should be reluctant to include him in future trade offers.

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Stephen Piscotty, when he was drafted 36th overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, was already something of an also-ran among the upper echelon of St. Louis Cardinals outfield prospects. Thirteen spots earlier, the Cardinals drafted another outfielder, James Ramsey of Florida State, who was eventually traded to the Cleveland Indians for Justin Masterson, whose time with the Cardinals was a thing that happened.

In 2013, when Baseball Prospectus released their annual Top 101 Prospects list, eight were in the Cardinals system, and none were Stephen Piscotty. In 2014, Piscotty made the list at #66, ranking third in the Cardinals organization behind Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong, the two players ahead of Piscotty in 2013 who had not spent considerable time in the Majors during the previous season.

Because of Taveras's tragic death and Wong establishing himself as the club's everyday second baseman, Piscotty was the Cardinals' top prospect per Baseball Prospectus for 2015, but even so, the emergence of Randal Grichuk as a favored young outfielder late in 2014 obscured some of Piscotty's hype. And while Piscotty would have to wait until July 21 of last season to debut with the big club, the months-younger Grichuk trailed only Matt Holliday in wRC+ among Cardinals with more than 13 plate appearances during the first half of 2015 (apologies to Randy Choate and Greg Garcia, who hopefully do not feel I'm selecting arbitrary PA limits).

But when Piscotty did arrive, he made his presence known. While prominent members of the team's core like Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, and Kolten Wong struggled at the plate down the stretch, Stephen Piscotty had a wRC+ of 133 in the second half. And although not much should be gleaned from four postseason games, Piscotty ended 2015 on a high note: he had a team-high 1.444 OPS and hit three home runs in four postseason games, displaying power hitting which he had flashed with seven home runs in his final 40 regular season games.

With the departure of Jason Heyward (and, to a lesser extent, Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos), Stephen Piscotty will, along with Grichuk and Tommy Pham, have the opportunity to log substantial innings in the outfield and perhaps at first base. Although it took him a while to emerge from the shadows of more heralded Cardinals prospects, ZiPS projections predict that Stephen Piscotty will trail only Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina in Wins Above Replacement among position players. ZiPS believes that Piscotty will be the best outfielder on the Cardinals in 2016.

Assuming he remains a Cardinal, that is. In his blog last Saturday, ESPN's Jim Bowden suggested that it would be mutually beneficial for the Cardinals to send Stephen Piscotty and Marco Gonzales (who took a step back in 2015 but was the team's #2 prospect on Baseball Prospectus's rankings before last season) to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for 30 year-old veteran outfielder Carlos Gonzalez.

Carlos Gonzalez has played at a superstar level at points in his career. In 2010, during his age-24 season, Gonzalez tied for 10th in MLB in wRC+ (with Aubrey Huff of the Giants, who if you look at his 2009, 2011, and 2012 seasons, clearly sold his soul to the Baseball Devil in order to have a fruitful 2010). In 2013, Gonzalez tied for 15th in wRC+ with Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion and Matt Carpenter, in what has to this point been the best offensive season of the latter's career.

But in 2014, Carlos Gonzalez was below replacement level while battling injuries, which has been a problem throughout his career. In 2015, he was worth 2.37 fWAR per 600 plate appearances in a season in which he stayed healthy. This is fine and well--a 2.37 WAR player is above average. But Piscotty was worth 2.58 fWAR per 600 plate appearances, and if ZiPS (which, like most projection systems, is notoriously conservative in player prognostication) is to be believed, he should be even better in 2016. And this is for a player who is under club control for the next six seasons.

Carlos Gonzalez is the safer bet than Piscotty, who has far less of a track record, but will make $37 million over the next two seasons. Will he be worth $37 million through 2017? Perhaps. He has certainly has been that productive of a player in the past. On the free agent market, two years and $37 million is one thing. But when the cost also includes the #32 and #52 prospect in baseball from less than a year ago, the prospective trade makes less sense.

Say what you will about the Shelby Miller for Jason Heyward trade of November 2014, but with it, the Cardinals traded from a position of relative strength and depth to add a truly special player at a position of weakness. It was a move for the short term, and many have questioned if it was the wise move, but if nothing else, it did improve the Cardinals in the short term. A trade of Stephen Piscotty for Carlos Gonzalez (which isn't even factoring in Marco Gonzales, who at worst provides cost-controlled rotation depth and at best is a viable prospect) may not even do that.

As Alex Crisafulli covered last month, Piscotty had a noticeably above-average batting average on balls in play in 2015 of .372. His BABIP was considerably higher than it had been at any stop in his minor league career, save a .427 BABIP in a microscopic 100 PA sample playing for the Arizona Fall League's Salt River Rafters in 2013. But Stephen Piscotty also had very good contact quality: 37.4% of his balls in play were classified as hard hit by Baseball Info Solutions.

Even if Piscotty had played a full season, I wouldn't be inclined to buy that he is a true-talent .372 BABIP hitter. But his overall profile as a batter implies that his true-talent BABIP should still be above league average, if not that far above league average. Coupled with his emerging power--his 18 home runs in 2015 between Memphis and St. Louis doubled his 2014 output in AAA and exceeded his 15 dingers of 2013 in split time between high-A Palm Beach and AA Springfield.

Combining his AAA, MLB, and postseason statistics of 2015, Stephen Piscotty hit 21 home runs in 646 total PAs. This is the same home run total of Evan Longoria and Robinson Cano, who each had more plate appearances. Considerable time spent against AAA pitching is obviously a major consideration here, but that one could even squint at Piscotty and see the power of Longoria and Cano on any level would have been inconceivable before 2015.

Certainly, there is some point at which Stephen Piscotty is disposable. If Billy Eppler from the Angels calls and offers Mike Trout for Stephen Piscotty, then the Cardinals make that trade without thinking twice. But realistically, if the return is a Carlos Gonzalez type, a player who could improve the team but also comes with a serious risk of disappointment, the Cardinals should be more than happy to continue forward with Stephen Piscotty.