Among the many revelations of last fall was that the St. Louis Cardinals had a legit player in Allen Craig. Mind you, this wasn’t breaking news of the original variety, as for a few years it was seen that he had what it took to make a play here & there, as well as be a serviceable rotation outfielder. But that was before he took the late and post seasons by the horns and made them his own. This leaves the team with an issue, albeit a rather desirable one…
What to do about Allen Craig?
It’s a question that will have a delay in being answered, due to him being likely sidelined until May after November knee surgery. But when he comes back, finding at-bats for him will be a chess match for manager Mike Matheny. And it all goes back to the last time the third year outfielder had to make his way back from leave of absence due to injury.
Craig has shown a remarkable way of making up for lost time. Last summer, after tearing the stitches out the ball as the fourth/fifth outfielder to the tune of a .336 average, a knee injury kept him out of nearly all of June & July. However, he crashed the outfield walls when he came back in August & September, hitting .327 in the season’s final month and seven homers and seven doubles in August & September. All of which set the stage for what’s put the current situation into place, October.
Craig has played his way into a lineup that has no extra space for him in 2012.
What happened in October took him to another level. Now three World Series homers and a series-sealing catch later, he’s among the most prominent members on the team going forward. Performances like that take you from “just” being a .290 career hitter that’s had limited chances to make a huge impact. It’s the type of performance that creates a hunger for more. That makes for a demand to get an opportunity to not only pick up where he left off, but to also build on that promise.
He’s not alone in the new found prominence that a championship can bring, however unlike David Freese or Jason Motte, there’s no clear spot for Craig on this year’s club. Compound that fact that All-Star Carlos Beltran was signed to spend time in the right field spot that most naturally fits Craig, and there’s a genuine conundrum of how to truly get the most from their stud in the waiting when he gets back.
The easy answer on the surface is to put him straight into the mix in right field, and move Beltran back to his historically more frequented position of right field. However, Beltran had his best & most healthy offering in years by avoiding the rigors of center field and being a full-time right fielder a year ago. In order for him to be the player that he will need to, and was signed to be, lots of time in the middle of the outfield pastures probably should be avoided.
With left field blocked off and center not an option for Craig, what to do? Will he be resolved to being a fill in that continues to have to get opportunities as they present themselves due to injury, days off needed and pinch hit chances? If anything is for certain, he’s proven himself to be capable of handling much more than that.
There are skeptics that say he’s only shown what he can do in small bits, you don’t have to go back too far in Cardinal history to pull an example of what happens when a talented player that has shown that, when given a chance to have a larger role, he can still contribute just as much full-time as he did in the lesser role. For that example, go back to 2006 and enter Ryan Ludwick. Ludwick broke into the scene in late 2007 with a strong September offering, and was then given a chance to be the everyday right fielder the next spring. Over the next three years, he turned in 73 homers, 243 RBI and an All-Star performance to boot, all after getting his first shot at age 29 to be a daily contributor.
Craig has done even more than Ludwick did before his All-Star turn, which started in similar circumstances.
Craig has a head start on Ludwick in many of those categories; he won’t turn 28 until July and he’s already played at and performed at the highest level a ballplayer can. Long before his September heroics created a big buzz for him, he had shown the promise to be able to make such a translation if given the opportunity. So is there a chance that the Cardinals are sitting on another potential All-Star caliber talent that just needs the at-bats to prove it. Whether this is true or not, it’s going to be hard to prove it as a rotational player who’s locked out of each opportunity to show what he can do by bigger names (and contracts) than his.
The question is, when will that come and how will that push the rest of not only his position mates, but the rest of the lineup as a whole if when he makes his next comeback, he actually does pickup where he left off at?
Getting in where you fit in may not have ever looked so good, while being so difficult.
In the next “12 in 12″, we take a look at the return of Adam Wainwright and both what to and not to expect from the return of the staff’s second Ace. Until that time, follow me on Twitter for up the second takes on the Spring at @CheapSeatFan.
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