Although it is not really a position in the traditional sense of the term, a baseball team’s fourth outfielder can be a valuable commodity. Players are going to need days off, and particularly in an era with more extensive bullpens and therefore thinner benches, it is simply more efficient for a team to employ a player capable of handling all three spots in the outfield without too significant of a drop in quality. For the very successful St. Louis Cardinals teams of the mid-2000s, for one example, So Taguchi fit the mold—he was a slightly below-average MLB hitter but he could handle all three outfield positions competently.
In the 2010s, the Cardinals had a better version of So Taguchi. A much better version, in fact. By Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), he was a slightly above-average defensive center fielder, and he could slide over to a corner for spot starts or as a defensive replacement for players such offense-first outfielders as Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, or Allen Craig. At the plate, in 2669 plate appearances with the Cardinals, he had a wRC+ of 107.
Of course, Jon Jay was never considered a fourth outfielder for an extraordinarily obvious reason—he wasn’t one. At least for most of his time in St. Louis, he wasn’t. He was for a while in 2010 before inheriting Ryan Ludwick’s starting spot following the latter’s departure via trade. The same went for Colby Rasmus in 2011. And from 2012 through 2014, aside from a month or so of Peter Bourjos, Jay was the everyday starting center fielder. And following 2015, after Randal Grichuk had supplanted Jon Jay as the first-choice center fielder, Jay was traded to the San Diego Padres, establishing once again that he would not be the fourth outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals.
I’ve noted before that Randal Grichuk and Jon Jay are, in a very abstract sense, similar players. Each is a player who is good enough to start on some teams, but each is a player flawed enough that superior players will occasionally matriculate through his organization. But both have played all three outfield positions with non-disastrous results.
Grichuk, who is currently playing for AAA Memphis, has 1125 career plate appearances in Major League Baseball, all of which have come with the St. Louis Cardinals. His .298 on-base percentage is undeniably mediocre, but thanks to his well above-average home run power—Grichuk hits at a twenty-six home run pace per 600 plate appearances—he sports a .476 slugging percentage. Randal Grichuk has a career wRC+ of 106, he has been above-average by UZR in left and center field while playing only a hair below average in right field, and he has been a plus base-runner by FanGraphs’s Base Running Runs. Per 600 plate appearances, Grichuk has been worth 2.9 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement and 3.0 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement.
Randal Grichuk has been an above-average outfielder to this point in his career. Whether or not this is sustainable, particularly defensively, is impossible to know, but when the expectation of him is shifted from “good starting outfielder” to “good backup utility outfielder”, it is easier to imagine that Grichuk can fulfill that expectation.
And based on the performances in 2017 from outfielders Dexter Fowler, Stephen Piscotty, and particularly Tommy Pham, and with his own struggles at the plate, Randal Grichuk may be finding himself in a position where fourth outfielder is all he can hope to be. Fowler and Piscotty, likely more solidly part of the everyday lineup than Grichuk in the first place, have found their offensive form after some struggles to begin the season, and Tommy Pham has pushed his wRC+ to 132 after seeing a bump in his playing time.
While ZiPS rest-of-season projections have soured a bit on Grichuk, due in part to his slow start, his offensive projections remain higher than those of current fourth outfielder Jose Martinez. But Grichuk remains below the projected wOBA of Fowler, Piscotty, and Pham. Although he had struggled mightily facing MLB pitching, which led to his demotion to the minors, Grichuk has recently gone on a tear, hitting his fourth home run in as many games last night for the Memphis Redbirds while extending his hitting streak to six games. Since Grichuk is a more complete fielder than Jose Martinez (i.e. he can play in center), and on the surface, he seems to be the stronger candidate for a fourth outfield spot, all due respect to Martinez’s current, slightly above-average wRC+ of 101 (in a world where the Cardinals do not carry thirteen pitchers, both could very easily be on the active roster).
And yet, because of the way Randal Grichuk has been handled to this point in his career, it is difficult to imagine him in the role of fourth outfielder, a spot in which he should be able to not only survive, but thrive.
Randal Grichuk’s experience as a Major League fourth outfielder has been minimal. Following the departure of Allen Craig at the 2014 deadline, Randal Grichuk became the Cardinals’ regular starting right fielder. Although Grichuk opened 2015 as a bench player, he was a semi-regular starter by his ninth game of the season, first due to injuries and later due to his increased effectiveness. In 2016, he began and ended the season receiving regular starts in St. Louis; in the middle, even as Grichuk was demoted twice to Memphis, he started in 114 of his 132 MLB games.
And in 2017, in the twelve games before Randal Grichuk was demoted all the way down to Class A Palm Beach, he played in all twelve, starting in ten. The Cardinals seem to operate under the supposition that Grichuk must start, and that he is incapable of anything else. One theory is that Grichuk has been given priority for his purported upside, but Grichuk turns 26 in less than two months. He is hardly ancient, and he can certainly continue to improve facets of his game incrementally, but planning around Randal Grichuk’s triumphant emergence as a superstar, an outcome which is unlikely, when a perfectly cromulent MLB player is going to waste in Memphis, is a waste of resources.
If the Cardinals were to promote Randal Grichuk in the next few days, and he were to immediately supplant somebody, likely Tommy Pham, in the starting lineup, this would be a mistake. And just as Tommy Pham was able to improve his game while not being handed an MLB starting position, so too can Grichuk. But unlike with Pham, whom the Cardinals mistakenly left in the minor leagues to start 2017, the Cardinals should be willing to hand Randal Grichuk a spot on their Major League bench—not as a token of gratitude nor any sense of obligation, but because he is very qualified for the job.