With the acquisition of slugger Marcell Ozuna and emergence of center fielder Tommy Pham, it was left to incumbent Randal Grichuk to battle a bevy of prospects for the fourth outfield spot.
And he admitted during the last weekend’s Winter Warm-Up that he hadn’t warmed to the idea of being a backup.
The Cardinals on Friday traded Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays for right-handed relief pitcher Dominic Leone and minor-league starter Connor Greene.
Both Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty — since traded to Oakland — suspected their days in Cardinal red were numbered.
“We’ve got 37 outfielders between Double-A, Triple-A and the big leagues,” Grichuk said at the Winter Warm-Up. “We knew there would be a possibility.”
The move addresses a particular need in the Cardinals’ bullpen. St. Louis lost two closers last season in Seung-hwan Oh, who finished 1-6 with a 4.10 ERA, and Trevor Rosenthal, who hit the free agent market after having Tommy John surgery last August.
Leone, 26, was solid for Toronto in 2017, going 3-0 with a 2.56 ERA. He struck out 81 batters in 70.1 innings of work, while stranding 42 of 54 inherited runners, which ranked fourth among American League relievers with at least 50 innings pitched.
As a unit, the Cardinals allowed more than 32 percent of inherited runners to score.
For his career, Leone is 11-8 with a 3.48 ERA in 160 games, all in relief. He previously pitched with Seattle and Arizona before joining the Blue Jays for a single season.
He’ll be arbitration eligible after making $1.09 million in 2018 and can’t be a free agent before 2022.
The Cardinals avoided an arbitration hearing with Grichuk by signing him to a $2.6 million, one-year deal last week.
Greene, 22, went 5-10 with a 5.29 ERA as a starter for double-A New Hampshire of the Eastern League. He started 25 games and was rated Toronto’s seventh-best prospect by Baseball America.
Grichuk joined the Cardinals in a November 2013 trade that sent third baseman and World Series hero David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels. Grichuk owns a career batting mark of .249 with 66 HRs and 182 RBI in 404 games. He hit .238 last season with 22 HRs and 59 RBI in 122 games.
While the 26-year-old has delivered on his power-hitting potential with 54 home runs over the last two seasons, his performance at the plate was too inconsistent to hold space on the big-league roster. He was sent down to Memphis each of the last two seasons.
With the arrival of Ozuna and his 37 home runs in a December trade with Miami, Grichuk knew his role had been permanently diminished.
“I felt like last year was kind of up and down, it wasn’t consistent enough,” he said Saturday. “We needed a big power bat, an impact bat in the middle of the lineup, and fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it — it’s an outfielder. It’s good for the team, rough for me, but we’re going to roll with it and see what happens.”
Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak had said after the Ozuna deal was announced that Grichuk actually would be the perfect fourth outfielder because of his ability to play plus defense at all three positions and his power boost off the bench.
But, he added, “when you have somebody like Harrison Bader and even someone like Tyler O’Neill, all of those guys have that ability to do that.”
The Cardinals also found a trade partner in the Blue Jays when they sent Opening Day shortstop Aledmys Diaz to Toronto for a minor league outfielder.
Both Leone and Greene will be added to the Cardinals Major League roster, which is currently at the maximum 40 players.