St. Louis Cardinals: How losing Oscar Taveras changed the team
Five years ago, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras died in a car accident, and the team’s plans shifted overnight. Since then, the team’s outfield production has been shaky. How could things have been different?
Former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras was a phenom: a can’t-miss prospect who was expected to take the major leagues by storm. But on Oct. 26, 2014, that potential was destined to go unfulfilled when he died in a car accident at the age of 22. The Cardinals’ outfield has been in a constant state of flux since then.
While Taveras’ first foray into the major leagues didn’t go quite as Cardinals fans had hoped, he showed flashes that demonstrated what kind of player he could become. In his lone season, Taveras hit .239 with three home runs, 22 RBIs and 37 strikeouts in 234 at-bats. The biggest hole in his game was his trouble catching up to a major league fastball, but if he could hone that skill, the sky was the limit.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ outfield in 2014 consisted of a still-dangerous Matt Holliday, one of the most underrated .300 hitters in recent memory in Jon Jay, and Allen Craig, a player who fell hard after a ridiculously good 2013 campaign. When Craig fell out of favor in St. Louis, it left a hole in the outfield that the Cardinals filled with Taveras.
After Taveras’ untimely death during the 2014 postseason, the front office knew it had to make some moves. The first transaction was the trade of pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to the Atlanta Braves for slick-fielding outfielder Jason Heyward.
Heyward started off rough in a Cardinals uniform in 2015: His batting average sat at .217 at the end of April. But he got warmer as the year progressed, and he ended the season with what still stands as a career-best .293 average and another career-best 13 stolen bases.
The Cardinals offered Heyward a contract extension after the season, but he decided to sign with the Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals were back to square one.
Luckily, the team had two solid young outfielders in Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty impressed in 2015, his rookie year, when he hit .305. Grichuk was less successful, but he still hit .276 with 17 long balls. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, both players backslid in 2016 and even more so in 2017. Grichuk was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in January 2018 for pitchers Conner Greene and Dominic Leone.
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Grichuk’s replacement was Dexter Fowler, whom the Cardinals acquired as a free agent in December 2017 in preparation for trading Grichuk. Fowler hit .264 in his first year in St. Louis, but he was one of the worst players in baseball in 2018, hitting an anemic .180. He bounced back somewhat in 2019, hitting .238 but went ice-cold in the postseason.
Piscotty’s struggles were often attributed to his mother, who was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in California. The Cardinals, in a show of goodwill, traded him to the Oakland Athletics for shortstop Yairo Munoz and utility player Max Schrock. It’s fair to wonder how Piscotty would have done had he stayed with the Cardinals, but as it stands, he has shown himself to be an average outfielder.
After a cup of coffee with the Cardinals in 2014, Tommy Pham played his way into a bench role with the team the following year. He hit .268 and had a similar role in 2016, albeit to less success, hitting only .226.
Lost in the shuffle was the disappointing Peter Bourjos, who was traded from the Los Angeles Angels to the Cardinals with Grichuk for David Freese and Fernando Salas.
The Cardinals were prepared for Bourjos’ departure when they acquired slugging outfielder Brandon Moss from the Cleveland Indians for pitching prospect Rob Kaminsky. Moss disappointed during his time in St. Louis, especially during the pivotal September of 2016, when the Cardinals were fighting for a Wild Card berth that they ultimately failed to get.
The Cardinals’ feel-good story in 2016 was outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker, a little-known product who impressed in Spring Training and made the roster. He only hit .235 during the season, but he became a fan favorite. Still, it was clear that he wasn’t the long-term solution. Jose Martinez also had his first crack with the team in 2016, and he impressed at the plate, getting seven hits in 16 at-bats. But it was a very small sample size.
2017 was when Pham secured a full-time role with the team, and he ran with it, hitting .306 and tying for second on the team with 23 home runs. This year was also the debut of speedy defensive wunderkind Harrison Bader.
The St. Louis Cardinals also traded pitcher Marco Gonzales to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Tyler O’Neill, who hasn’t received the playing time his numbers should allow. He was left off the postseason roster in 2019, and he could be traded.
Midway through 2018, the Cardinals made what may have been quite the mistake when they traded Pham to the Tampa Bay Rays for pitcher Genesis Cabrera and outfielder Justin Williams. It was true that Pham wasn’t replicating his 2017 season while with the Cardinals: He was hitting only .248 through July 31, when he was traded. But he turned it on once he left St. Louis, hitting a ridiculous .343 in 143 at-bats.
This brings us to the current crop of Cardinals outfielders. The team moved outfield prospect Magneuris Sierra and pitchers Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen to the Miami Marlins for slugger and former Gold Glove outfielder Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna hit .280 in his first year with the Cardinals, but the biggest concern was his defense. His glove had become subpar, and his recent shoulder surgery sapped him of his arm strength.
Ozuna hit only .241 in 2019, but he partially made up for it by hitting 29 home runs after 23 in 2018. As of now, it seems Ozuna could depart the organization despite a desire to stay. Martinez remains in the organization and has a stellar bat, but he is a liability in the field and a candidate to be traded.
Bader has shown the speed and defense to dazzle, but he has had a lot of trouble at the plate. He appeared to turn a corner late in 2019 after a demotion, but he reverted to his old habits within a couple of weeks.
The Cardinals also used the draft to try to offset the loss. Their first pick in the 2015 draft was outfielder Nick Plummer, who has not panned out. The draft did net Bader, so it wasn’t a total failure in the outfield.
The 2016 draft could be a big one for the Cardinals in terms of promising outfielders, as Dylan Carlson is now the team’s top prospect and is ready to play in the majors now. He could finally be the answer in the team’s outfield and help stop the revolving door.
With these changes, the Cardinals’ outfield hasn’t been the most consistent over the years since Taveras’ death. While Taveras could have solidified it in the years to come, he could have also been used as a trade chip for a big-time player. Giancarlo Stanton was the most popular choice among fans, and it did seem to be a fitting match.
The Cardinals were on the cusp of the World Series in 2014, and common thought among fans was that they just needed another big bopper to get over the hump. Trading Taveras to the perpetually rebuilding Marlins seemed like a logical choice. Of course, it wasn’t to be.
It’s very likely that if Taveras were still around, the Cardinals would be a better team, either because of his services or the services of a player the Cardinals acquired for him. But when the unthinkable happens, you need to make drastic decisions.
Would the Cardinals still have made changes to the outfield had Taveras remained on the team? Most likely, but the thought of having a strong pillar of consistency in the outfield is a tantalizing one and one that has been absent since Holliday left. The Cardinals’ front office has done the best it can after the all-too-short Taveras era. It’s been five years, but the hole has yet to be completely filled.