Tony La Russa, center, discussing Allen Craig's future with John Mozeliak, left. Craig is shown far right.
It's been an interesting season, to say the least, for the Cardinals
so far in 2011. Between injuries to top players, one of the most fraught, complex slumps in major league history, and plenty of surprising performances, both good and bad, there has been a sense of the unexpected constantly cropping up.
Currently, the single most intriguing storyline for the team and its future just might be Allen Craig. Specifically of interest is what position he may be playing long-term for the Cards. Take a hitter with a plus bat, no defensive home, and a minimum of service time, stir in one mad scientist manager in the mood to experiment, and voila! You've got the Allen Craig Experiment, which will finally answer one of the great cosmic questions in the great game of baseball:
Can just anyone really play second base?
It all started out so innocently; due to a combination of players on the disabled list, a need for some extra oomph from the offense, and Jaime Garcia's
tendency to throw more grounders to third than second, Allen Craig got a start at second base. Harmless. The coaching staff got his bat into the lineup, and managed to protect him from (in theory, at least), having to make a ton of plays. It sort of worked, too; Craig got a few at-bats, didn't embarrass himself in the field and come crunch time late in the game he was swapped out for a defensive replacement. It all seemed to make so much sense.
Now, though, things have suddenly become much more complicated. Over the weekend, Tony La Russa said some rather nice things
about his current utility infielder's possible future position
. Seems he actually believes Craig just might be able to hold down the keystone on a more permanent basis. The pertinent comments:
"He could be a second baseman and with his offense be a big benefit to the club, which would be a big benefit to him as far as playing time and money. It's not a wacky thing where there's nothing to gain."
"We've done this formula, and we've been successful with it. I think the routine play at second base is more routine than it is at short and third. You can catch it, you can knock it down and throw somebody out, and that's what I'm banking on."
So there you have it. Tony La Russa -- and by extension, the Cardinals -- seem to be honestly contemplating moving Allen Craig, who just two years ago was moved permanently off third base because the organization didn't believe in his glove, to second base (usually thought of as a more demanding position), on a more-or-less full-time basis.
And I, for one, could not be more excited.
It's not as if this move is unprecedented, of course. As La Russa himself noted, the Cardinals have been just filling in at the keystone for years now, really ever since Fernando Vina's body went to hell. And as for defensively questionable outfield types being converted to second base? Well, we all know the Cardinals are pretty familiar with that plan.
So how would a potential Craig conversion compare to the team's current transplant, Skip Schumaker? Personally, I think Craig is a vastly superior candidate for conversion. Skip hadn't played any infield at all since his first season in college (something like eight years prior to the move, I believe); Craig was an infielder as recently as 2009. Plus, while Schumaker's offensive output, combined with his butcherish defense at second, combined to essentially put his ceiling at just a shade better than league average, Craig's offensive ceiling is much, much higher, giving him a larger margin for error to be an asset to the team.
As for Craig's specific talents, I think he has the hands and the feet to make the conversion work. In fact, I've been pleasantly surprised so far at how well he seems to have played in the very early stages of the move. It shouldn't really be a surprise, though; Craig was noted as having solid hands and good footwork when he was playing at the hot corner as well.
The one stumbling block -- and the reason it seems Craig was moved off third in the first place -- is his arm. Or, rather, not his arm strength, but his throwing motion. Craig has a very awkward release, and it makes him slow in throwing. His arm strength itself seems adequate, but his mechanics seem to limit his ability to throw effectively. (Think Tim Tebow, only with a baseball.) And therein lies a potentially brilliant aspect to this move: if he can catch the ball, but just can't throw particularly well, moving him into generally the shortest throw on the field may well mitigate his main defensive lack.
It still remains to be seen if Craig can turn the double play effectively or not. He's started a few, but we have yet to see very much of him as the pivot, and that's the one area I remain concerned. With a staff as heavily groundball oriented as the Cardinals', they need potential double plays to turn into actual double plays with a fairly high success rate. Still, if he can be coached up enough to be even just adequate on the pivot, he should make enough plays otherwise to actually come out as a fairly decent defender.
So what sort of value could Craig actually present as a second baseman? Well, I'm going to make a monstrously unfair comparison. The shape of Craig's value at second is probably going to look quite a bit like Jeff Kent. And yes, as I said, I'm fully aware comparing a guy in his second year of pro ball to a Hall of Famer is unfair. Still, they're not exactly dissimilar players.
Kent at the end of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Physically, both Craig and Kent are listed at 6'2", 210 lbs. They have similar builds, in terms of proportions. Kent's career wOBA (weighted on-base average), is .366; Craig's for 2011 is .397, and ZiPS projects him for a .357 the rest of the way. Craig hasn't really had enough time in the majors yet for the projection systems to have a great bead on him, but something in the .355-.370 range feels about right.
Craig does strike out a bit more often than Kent did in his career, but his walk rate is very similar. (And, actually, Craig is walking more this season than he has to this point in his career. Whether it will continue or not is less clear, but he seems to have taken to the philosophy of patience Mark McGwire has been preaching.) Craig has shown plus power in his minor league career; he's just beginning to translate that into in-game power at the major league level.
Kent's career OPS is .855. Craig's OPS this season is .872. That will likely come down a shade, but the point is this: Allen Craig could easily post an .800-.850 OPS at the MLB level, I believe. Can we call him a poor man's Jeff Kent? I wouldn't quibble with it.
This doesn't make Craig an equivalent player to Jeff Kent, of course; Kent had some truly sublime seasons in his career and will likely be headed to Cooperstown as soon as he's eligible. But what it does mean is that Allen Craig is at least a fairly similar player to Jeff Kent in terms of physical makeup and the shape of their skillsets, and if he play the same position Kent did his value takes an enormous step forward. Kent was a very good hitter, but not an historically great one. What made him so special was his ability to be a very good hitter while playing a position where you see so few of them.
Or take the example of Dan Uggla, favourite trade target of so many teams and so many fanbases this past offseason. I know for a fact plenty of Cardinal fans were aching to see Uggla playing in red, and would have traded pretty much anything on the farm to see him do so.
Uggla's career OPS is .820; his career wOBA is .353. Now, Uggla goes about it in a little different way, as he leans more toward power and walks, with a low batting average, whereas Craig tends to have higher BAs, but again, those numbers for Uggla are in no way out of range for Craig. Uggla, even with his appalling glovework, averaged nearly 4 WAR per season in his 5 seasons with the Marlins. That's a very, very valuable player, and I honestly think Craig has a chance to be significantly better on defense than what Uggla is.
Everything in Allen Craig's career so far suggests he should be at least an above-average hitter. If he can actually man second base at an acceptable level while hitting the way he has at every other stop on the trail, then he could potentially give the Cardinals a huge advantage over their opponents. Very few teams can field a bat like his in the middle infield, and the few who can generally extract loads of value from it.
There's no guarantee this experiment will work, of course. Craig may not be able to refine his glove to any kind of acceptable standard and just move back to the outfield. Or, it's possible major league pitchers may prove too wily for him in the long run and make adjustments to get him out on a consistent basis. It's far too soon to declare anything about Allen Craig a sure thing. But if he really can play second, and do it while hitting exactly as he has the rest of his career, then the potential payoff for the team could be enormous.