St. Louis Cardinals: Jeremy Hazelbaker and the Return of Tommy Pham

Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports /

As the one of the St. Louis Cardinals edges closer to finishing his stint on the DL, Jeremy Hazelbaker may have to provide the spot for his return.

Rookie outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker started his MLB career quicker than most St. Louis Cardinals’ fans could have imagined. Going from a player that only the deepest of fans had heard about, to an outfielder getting his fair share of playing time was something that nobody predicted entering spring training.

Hazelbaker, who was arguably the Cardinals’ best player in the spring, finished the month of April with a .317/.357/.683 line and five home runs. While posting these lofty numbers, it could be expected for a first-year player to cool off after a hot start such as this, but Hazelbaker has been falling fast.

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Now that we are nearly half way through the month of May, the left-handed outfielder only has four hits and his line has fallen to .282/.330/.624. This drop, coupled with the 28-year-old’s high percentage of strikeouts (34.1% of his ABs), raises questions about what type of player he can be in the long run.

Hazelbaker began the 2016 season on the end of the bench, but was called on immediately when Tommy Pham went out after only one at-bat with an oblique strain. Pham, the Cardinals’ planned starting left-fielder, has not played in a Major League game since Opening Day on April 3, but has made nine rehab starts between Springfield and Memphis. So with Pham’s return coming quickly, Cardinals’ fans have to wonder where Jeremy Hazelbaker will fit into the mix.

The answer to that question isn’t a simple one, because what the Cardinals saw from Pham in 2015 doesn’t paint the clearest of pictures. In the 52 games that Pham appeared in last season, the Las Vegas native posted a line of .268/.347/.477, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

While the .268 average is far from dazzling, when you count out the month of July (the month he was first called up and then sent down) you can see that once Pham was called up a second time, his numbers took off.

Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

From August 17 to October 4, the right-handed outfielder hit .303/.379/.532, with an OPS of .911. To add on top of that impressive stint, Pham hit an important pinch-hit home run in the Cardinals’ only win against the Cubs in the NLDS. So in this situation, it will really depend on which Tommy Pham we see.

To add another element to the mix, Pham’s injury prompted the call-up of Aledmys Diaz, who is batting .377 and has been the Cardinals’ most consistent offensive threat so far this season. This adds complication because of the roster spot that Pham will need to fill upon his return, and the most obvious spot looks to be that currently occupied by Jeremy Hazelbaker.

As much as most fans would like to see him take Ruben Tejada‘s spot, the Cardinals look to be sold on the decision to keep him as a replacement infielder, at least until the return of Jhonny Peralta.

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Though the choice is currently unclear, as we await Pham’s return, John Mozeliak and the Cardinals will have to make a decision on how to piece this puzzle together. Seeing as Pham probably has the higher upside, the Cardinals will probably lean his way, but Hazelbaker will be a great backup source of power and speed when needed. If anything, the problem of having too many outfielders is better than lacking players to man those positions.

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