ST. LOUIS • Outside of pitching – specifically righthanded, power pitching – the spot on the Cardinals’ roster with the thickest stack of young talent was out in the outfield.
The Cardinals’ top prospect, Oscar Taveras, is an outfielder. The breakout bat from the past season, Stephen Piscotty, is an outfielder. Two of the pluckiest performers who are pushing toward the majors are outfielders – OBP monster Mike O’Neill and Arizona Fall League graduate James Ramsey. Heck, even one of the breakthrough players of the past season, shortstop Kenny Peoples-Walls, made a move this fall to learn a new position, outfield. When I submitted a list of potential Cardinals top 30 prospects for the annual Baseball America handbook, nine of the 30 were outfielders.
So naturally this winter, the Cardinals have collected outfielders.
Six new outfielders have been added to the 40-man roster since the end of the World Series. Four of them were not in the organization at the start of November. On Monday, the Cardinals landed center fielder Rafael Ortega through waivers from Texas. Ortega never took an at-bat for the Rangers, having started this offseason with the Colorado Rockies before two roster transactions. Ortega’s addition followed the moves for Peter Bourjos (trade), Randal Grichuk (trade), and Joey Butler (waivers). Both Butler and Ortega came from the Rangers. Both Bourjos and Grichuk came from the Los Angeles Angels in the David Freese trade. The other two outfielders, Taveras and O’Neill, were added to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. Those were no-brainer moves. Here are snapshots of the six (level is their highest level played):
Peter Bourjos, MLB --- R/R, age: 26 (speed, defense)
Joey Butler, MLB – R/R, age: 27 (displayed power, depth)
Randal Grichuk, AA – R/R, age: 22 (power potential, center fielder)
Rafael Ortega, MLB – L/R, age: 22 (speed, center fielder)
Mike O’Neill, AAA – L/L, age: 25 (keen eye, OBP, versatile)
Oscar Taveras, AAA – L/L, age: 21 (preternatural hitter, solid arm for RF)
All of this depth creates a logjam at Class AAA Memphis.
Bourjos is the only one of the newcomers to assured a spot in the majors, and officials with the Cardinals openly say they hope he wins the everyday role in center field. Taveras will get a chance to reach the majors out of spring training, most likely in a role like Matt Adams had at the start of the 2013 season. General manager John Mozeliak said Grichuk will be the starting centerfielder at Class AAA Memphis. Ortega is coming from a season in Class AA cut short by injury, and he could return to that level as the center fielder. Butler is viewed as depth.
But not to be lost in the newcomers is the players the Cardinals already had. Jon Jay, the incumbent in center, will challenge Bourjos. Shane Robinson is the incumbent as extra outfielder off the bench in the majors. Piscotty, who will be the top bat in the system after Taveras graduates, is a priority right fielder earmarked for Memphis. O’Neill, Ramsey and Tommy Pham are all prospect-level outfielders who will need playing time at the top two levels. For each of them, you could make an argument that they do not belong in Class AA, having already done well at that level or higher. It’s not impossible to find spots for all of them. It’s just not obvious where the at-bats will come for some of them.
Depth is always valuable, especially at three positions like outfield, but the additions also show some other traits the Cardinals are trying to acquire beyond just simple depth.
There is power potential here.
There is speed.
Bourjos and Ortega have the speed element. Grichuk, drafted one spot ahead of Mike Trout (as you’ll hear often), has power potential. Butler hit 32 home runs total the past two seasons in Class AAA. Grichuk will be ranked as the Cardinals’’ 10th-best prospect when Baseball America’s 2014 Prospect Handbook drops this month. Butler did not crack the Rangers’ top prospects a year ago despite coming off a .313/.388/.483, .871-OPS, 14-HR season in 126 games at two levels in 2011 and a 20-homer season in 2012. Butler was listed by BA as the fourth right fielder on the Rangers’ depth chart.
For Grichuk and Ortega here are some scouting reports:
GRICHUK: No. 6 in the Angels’ system entering 2013. … “Taken one pick ahead of Mike Trout (note: told ya) in the 2009 draft, Grichuk signed for $1.242 million as the 24th overall selection. He battled thumb and wrist injuries in 2010, then hurt both knees in 2011. His ability to stay healthy for a full season in 2012 was a step in the right direction, and he nearly double his career at-bat total. Grichuk has strong wrists, a quick bat and above-average raw power. His swing can get complicated. … He hits breaking balls when he maintains a gap-to-gap approach, but he’s vulnerable to them when he flies open with his swing. He doesn’t strike out excessively but needs more discipline at the plate after putting up just a .355 (OBP) in 2012. Grichuk is coachable and has made huge strikes with his defense.”
ORTEGA: No. 15 in Colorado’s system entering 2013. … “After completing the 2012 season in Modesto, Ortega was in instructional league when the Rockies, their outfield corps depleted by injuries, called him to Colorado. He had two hits and reached base three times in his first major-league debut Sept. 30 and made one other pinch-hitting appearance. He returned to instructional league to work on bunting, reading pitches and getting better leads, and he showed improvement. Those will be big factors in Ortega’s success because he’s an energetic leadoff hitter with good speed. He has a short swing and stays inside the ball well, and he’ll maximize his value with better strike-zone awareness and plate discipline. … Despite his size (note: 5-11, 160), he has surprising power but needs to guard against falling in love with his power stroke…. His speed plays on the bases. Ortega is a true center fielder and fearless when it comes to outfield walls.”
There are some similarities between Ortega and Bourjos, and the prospect the Cardinals believe Grichuk could be from the right side sounds like the power element to match Piscotty’s BA and OBP strengths.
There are complementary traits here. Shared traits, too.
It’s clear that the Cardinals have added depth, and they will probably talk about the added competition too as spring training approaches. They have also added athleticism, a point of emphasis recently. They are working to fill the donut hole that some evaluators saw in the system after Kolten Wong, Matt Adams, and Taveras and before that deeper wave of talent starts reaching Class AA. The 40-man roster is now at 39. Spring is 36 days away.
HALL OF A VOTE
On Wednesday afternoon, the 2014 Class for the National Baseball Hall of Fame will be announced. Pitchfork wielding and torch brandishing started weeks ago. If you haven't yet flambe'd a baseball writer yet then you, my friend, are tragically behind the times. There is the annual parade of columns and articles about individual ballots, and many of them help reveal the process that writers go through before submitting their 10 or fewer names. Critics salivate at the chance to tear these missives apart. Red meat for the Statlers and Waldorfs.
The caterwauling is always, always easier than the voting.
But beyond that noise there are many articles that don't slam the process, and instead at to it. Some notable ones from recent days:
- New York Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner makes the case for expanding the ballot, something echoed by others like SI.com's Jay Jaffe and under consideration by the BBWAA.
- Aside: I agree with him, but would like to see two additional alterations -- a change of the percentage to stay on the ballot then (makes sense mathematically) and the end of punitive blank ballots. If a voter doesn't think any player belongs in the Hall of Fame then the voter should abstain. A blank ballot should not have the same power to erase a two- or nine-person ballot. Many of my friends and peers don't agree with me, but I'm standing by this one. On Election Day, "no president" isn't an option. Abstaining is.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution baseball writer David O'Brienspoke to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine about their Hall cred and expectations. Candid comments, of course.
- MLB.com's Brian McTaggart visits with Jeff Bagwell for a rare interview, during which he talks about the Hall of Fame, the trade that took him to Houston and, in the part readers here will particularly enjoy, the pointers he got on defense from Ozzie Smith during a pitching change.
- NBC Sports and baseball blogging behemoth Joe Posnanski has his curiously long post on the Hall.
- And, then there's Baseball Think Factory, a irreplaceable resource as the the announcement approaches.
What Baseball Think Factory does is genius. It takes all of the ballots that have gone public and tabulates them like the vote to get a feel for where the ballot trends are headed. It's updated often.
This morning held this interesting kernel for me -- Mark McGwire may survive to see another ballot. The fallout from ballot bind that Kepner and others have mentioned, I thought would be the fringe/PED candidates dropping completely off the ballot of some supporters just because of space. I could easily see many voters who have hung with McGwire through the years abandoning him to fit newcomers like Frank Thomas and others on.
BTF has McGwire running at about 10 percent with a quarter of the voters known. That's enough to at least continue the conversation about PEDs and the Steroid Era and everything else for another year.