2012 Preview: Center Field

If you’d told Cardinals’ fans in March of last year that Colby Rasmus would be traded and Jon Jay would be our everyday center fielder, you would have been laughed out of the room. Even more so after Rasmus posted a line of .301/.392/.476. Finally, our stud five-tool center fielder was going to be something. However, things went south from there, as Rasmus posted a line of .221/.306/.396 from May 1 until his trade on July 27. He got even worse in Toronto, but admitted that he basically gave up on the season and was waiting for a fresh start in 2012.

Enter Jon Jay. In the 2010 season, he was stated as the reason for being able to trade away Ryan Ludwick, contrary to many fans’ wishes. Over his time in St. Louis, Ludwick had been one of the most productive #4 hitters in the major leagues. However, young Jay was hitting .383 when the team chose to trade Ludwick. It put the spotlight on Jay and it wasn’t in a good way as he struggled down the stretch, hitting just .244, but still finishing the season above .300.

In the 2011 season, Jay was penciled in as the fourth outfielder for the Cardinals. His ability to play all three outfield positions was going to be useful for Tony LaRussa. After a slow start, by mid-May Jay was again hitting over .300 and finished May with a line of .349/.408/.514. He was starting to push Colby Rasmus for playing time and slowly fans were starting to support that idea. Rasmus, despite his hot start, was struggling and Jay was outplaying him offensively and defensively.

Then came July 27, Colby Rasmus was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in an eight player trade that ultimately netted the Cardinals a World Series title, Marc Rzepczynski, and a handful of compensatory draft picks. Many decried the trade with complaints that Rasmus had incredible potential and that Jay had stumbled the last time he was given the opportunity to play everyday.

In the week after, he did, going 6-for-27, or a .222 batting average. No walks and only two extra base hits while striking out six times. Instantly grabbed onto. Once he adjusted, he was a capable .287/.335/.421 the rest of the way, including hitting over .300 in September. That doesn’t even mention that using the Defensive Runs Saved metric he was +8 in center field and a +14 in the outfield during the 2011 season, proving himself one of the better defensive center fielders.

While Jay struggled at the plate during the playoffs, he provided a critical extra innings hit off a left handed pitcher to give the Cardinals a chance in the extra innings of Game 6 of the World Series.

Going into this year, Jay has to be the favorite to keep his starting position in center field. However, I think Erik Komatsu could legitimately begin to challenge him if he gets a chance to stick around. Jay has proven that he can hit both left handed and right handed pitchers, though he is much more talented against the right handed ones. But he’s shown the skillset needed to play everyday. The question now becomes just what can we expect out of his bat?

In 2010, he got worse the more he played every day. In 2011, he got better the more he played every day, ending the season well. I’m expecting a season of .295/.350/.425 out of Jay and I really think that he is the Cardinals’ best option as leadoff hitter. However I think that Komatsu might able to be just a touch better with his batting average and OBP. His question is whether or not he can make the jump from AA to the majors without any major hiccups.

On the bench

As you could read in my horribly written preview for Left Field from last week, I summarized all the Cardinals’ outfield talent fairly clearly there. However, the guys sitting on the bench for the Cardinals that can play center field appear similar to Jay. You have Erik Komatsu, the Rule 5 draft pick, and Skip Schumaker, who is now out while dealing with an oblique tear, who are the team’s primary options playing center field. Unfortunately for them all, they are all left handed hitters.

Meanwhile, another potential option Adron Chambers, is also left handed and likely starting the season in Memphis.

Something you might see during the season is Allen Craig in center field. Craig who was MVP worthy at the plate last season may not be with the team until mid-April, but played 29 innings in center field last season. He isn’t really a center fielder though, but his bat should make up for most defensive miscues.

The injury to Schumaker might also open up a door for Shane Robinson, at least until Craig is ready. The 27 year old former fifth round pick has had two cups of coffee in the majors, once in 2009 where he made 11 appearances and last year in September where he made 9 appearances, all of them as a late-game defensive replacement. He plays center field and he hits right handed. He hit .309/.378/.495 last season in the minors, despite missing time due to injuries sustained in an outfield collision.

In the minors

Just touching on who is down there, as they were previously covered. The Cardinals have gotten rid of much of their outfield depth from the minor leagues. Andrew Brown and Alex Castellanos are gone as the guys who could have potentially made bench appearances in St. Louis this season.

There remains just a single outfielder of high potential and that’s Oscar Taveras who spent all of last season in A-ball, but looks to be an advanced hitter. He also seems to have the abilities required to play all three outfield positions. However, I still have plenty of questions about Taveras until he shows me something at another level of the minor leagues.