Yesterday, I postured about Jon Jay‘s chances of remaining the full-time center fielder for the Cardinals in 2012. Allen Craig‘s name came up a bunch of times because he is a big hinge in whether or not Jay receives enough starts in center to be considered “full-time”. I noted that Jay becoming, or remaining, a part-time starter should not affect his performance on the field. With Craig, I feel that he will be better off if he can accumulate more plate appearances over the course of the season. What he has been able to do in his minimal amount of time with the Cardinals has been impressive. If he is able to come back from knee surgery completely healthy, the prospects of him receiving a minimum of 350 plate appearances seems feasible. My hope is that he gets more.
He’ll need some help from Carlos Beltran. Beltran can “help” Craig in two ways. First, by finding his legs and showing he can handle significant time in center field. Or, he can miss a large chunk of games due to injury. I’m not willing injury on anyone, but the truth of the matter is Beltran will probably get hurt this season at some point. Even if he doesn’t, expect manager Mike Matheny to give Beltran rest periodically in an effort to prevent injury. I previously wrote about the cluster of players in the outfield and projected the number of games and plate appearances each would receive. My estimates had Craig getting 288 plate appearances based on the construction of the outfield and assuming relative health among all the players involved.
Along with those projections here is my best guess for Craig with 288 PA, 350 PA and 500 PA. The initial projection based on the 288 plate appearances is used as the base and the next two scenarios are proportional to the base. The resulting WAR is also provided using the simple WAR calculator.
Obviously this is taking things very literal. There are chances that prolonged time in the lineup works in Craig’s favor or against him. We can only assume averages at this time because of the small sample size he has provided to date. Personally I would expect that Craig gets better with more chances at the plate, than the opposite.
He has plenty of power, which could also increase more as he is hitting his peak age right now (he turns 28 in July). He has an OPS of .842 in 343 plate appearance and an isolated power number (ISO) of .213 (SLG% – BA). In 910 AAA plate appearances, he had slash line of .320/.379/.545 and an ISO of .225. The man has the ability to hit the ball over the fence, plain and simple.
Back to the question at hand. Will he take the next step? Unfortunately this is not a simple question, because it brings about another. Will he be given the chance? There are many factors here as I’ve mentioned before. There is Beltran’s health and Jon Jay’s performance. Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman have had health issues in the past too, which would certainly affect Craig’s playing time.
If they are all healthy and performing to their abilities, it will be tough to get Craig more than the 288 plate appearances. He’ll be productive, but does that allow him to elevate his game? I suggest that he would need to approach the 425 PA mark in order to see what his full potential could be. If he gets to 500 PA as entered in the chart, this may be good for Craig, but also probably signals poor health for one or more of the other players.
As I stated in my review of Jay, if Beltran is healthy and nimble, maybe he pushes Jay out of the lineup more giving Craig some extra at-bats. This is a far-fetched scenario in my opinion, but it is one which Matheny may take a look at if both Jay is under performing and Beltran looks like he did a few years ago in the field. With Berkman signed for only one season, the Cardinals may give Craig an extended look at first base to spell Berkman, in the hopes of keeping him fresh should they reach the postseason.
Another issue is Craig’s own health. Coming back from a knee surgery is no small feat. According, FoxSportsMidwest.com writer, B.J. Rains, the Cardinals estimate he will miss the entire month of April, while Craig is hopeful he can return by opening day. Here, expect the Cardinals to be cautious in their approach, whether or not Craig feels he is ready by opening day. With so many resources available to them there is no rush to get him back on the field. There is no reason to put him in harm’s way. A balky knee can affect all facets of a players’ performance. Ask Beltran.
The more we visit the outfield mix, the more we should realize that this is going to be a very fluid aspect of Matheny’s lineup card. He’ll mix and match when he can, he’ll have plenty of options in case of an injury and he should get good results from virtually any arrangement he comes up with. That being said, the signing of Beltran could have put a strain on Craig’s development. Or, Beltran’s signing ensures Craig’s development. It could go either way.