How the Cardinals turned a strength into a weakness in four easy steps

Step 1: Waive Peter Bourjos
Step 2: Trade Jon Jay
Step 3: Lose Jason Heyward in free agency
Step 4: Have Randal Grichuk undergo sports hernia surgery

Easy peasy, right?

When the 2015 season wrapped up a month and a half ago, the Cardinals had five players on the roster that you could be comfortable with playing center field everyday. Now a week before Christmas and the only one that could go out there and play center field today is Tommy Pham. Which is ironic, considering injuries have basically defined his minor league career.

For the Cardinals, that should probably mean that there is shopping to be done, but this really shouldn’t be a simple window shopping expedition. This is a 2 am trip to Walmart.

I’ve already mentioned Pham. In addition to him, the Cardinals have two other center fielders on their 40 man roster: Randal Grichuk and Charlie Tilson.

As we learned earlier this week, Grichuk had sports hernia surgery and should be ready for spring training. But let’s be honest here. We’ve heard that story before. “Oh, he had surgery, but he’ll be good to go for spring training,” means a delayed start to spring workouts which means still waiting to get approval to see game action three weeks into March. Then the player struggles into May because they’re a month behind everyone else in preparation for the season.

Insurance against that is what the club needs right now. And with Grichuk’s own injury history, perhaps it would be a wise move even if both he and Pham were healthy.

Pham is a dynamic talent and excelled last year when given opportunities. He amazed in spring training and was likely pushing Grichuk out of a roster spot until a quad injury dropped him on the DL for over two months.

He made it back for a great September run that ended with many calling for him to be the club’s regular center fielder in the playoff series against the Cubs. They didn’t get their wish, but he did hit a pinch hit home run in Game 1 of the NL Divisional Series.

Pham’s spring training injury wasn’t a one off. While his 2014 season was about the only season he’d been able to remain injury free, it gave him an opportunity to show off the type of talent he has. We got a glimpse, but staying healthy–perhaps a much overlooked sixth tool–has always been a question for him.

The “internal option,” is Charlie Tilson.

For those unfamiliar with Tilson, he is a 23-year-old former second round pick of the Cardinals from 2011. Viva el Birdos described him as a “veritable toolbox of talent” last spring during their top prospect series. He makes a lot of contact, has a lot of speed, plays good outfield defense, and is very capable of sticking in center field.

The question with him is that his bat probably isn’t ready for the big leagues. Last season he hit .295/.351/.388 with 4 home runs over 134 games in Double-A Springfield. Considering Hammons Field is generally hitter friendly, those power numbers are disappointing. But the things that I like to use to gauge a hitter’s development and abilities have improved season-to-season every year he’s spent in the minors, though he still has work to do.

And as we learned the past couple seasons, getting a prospect the right development time in the minors is really critical to them sticking in the Majors out of the gate. Both Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk struggled in their first trips to the Majors. Meanwhile Stephen Piscotty hit from the get go. The difference? Piscotty got that second year in Triple-A.

So the Cardinals’ center field situation includes the oft-injured Grichuk and Pham as well as a not quite yet ready Tilson. They need someone who can play center field should both options go down. And even you want another option just in case one goes down or you’ll be looking at a Kolten Wong-esque overuse situation.

The Cardinals have been linked to Carlos Gonzalez from Colorado. And though I’m not totally convinced that it isn’t just national sports writers looking to fill inches (like all those Troy Tulowitzki rumors were), it would still be a good fit.

There is a lot to like about Gonzalez. He did hit 40 home runs last season and 16 of them came in his 76 road games. But he also failed to post a .300 on base percentage. Like Matt Holliday before him, his home/road splits scare me, but I was wrong about Holliday. I’d like to be wrong about Gonzalez too.

He isn’t really a center fielder, but he could probably fill the job in a pinch.

More recently, the Cardinals have been linked to the Rays for starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi. They’ve also got a few solid outfielders pushing their Major League roster, which might make a guy like Kevin Kiermaier availabile. He is, at best, a league average bat, but his defense in center field would make St. Louis fans’ hearts sing.

Mozeliak does like all in one trades that fill all his needs too.

On the free agent market, a great candidate would have been Justin Ruggiano. I’ve liked Ruggiano ever since I saw him playing in Triple-A for the Durham Bulls. He has since put together a couple good seasons off the bench in a reserve outfielder role. But he just signed with the Texas Rangers.

You have Yoenis Cespedes and Denard Span out there too, but neither really fit what the Cardinals need.

As you can see, the options are few, especially for guys who can play center field. Mozeliak isn’t the kind of GM who likes to cross his fingers and hope for the best. He’s a risk manager. He hedges on young players and gets insurance for the oft injured. Hopefully Mozeliak can find a way to eliminate some of the team’s risk in center field.