It’s often said in baseball circles that having too many talented and and effective players for one position is “a good problem to have.”
While it certainly is better than not having enough talented and effective players, I’m not so sure the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly crowded outfield is a situation that will benefit the team. While the Birds are deficient in the bullpen and shallow at third base, they have too many outfielders and not enough playing time to make them all happy.
In short, speedy youngster Magneuris Sierra and veteran minor leaguer Tommy Pham have been two of the best players on the Redbirds roster since they were called on to fill the void when Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez and Stephen Piscotty were put out of commission by a sudden flurry of injuries. I don’t think anyone on the planet thought Sierra would arrive directly from Class A Palm Beach to hit .353 and spark several key rallies for the Cardinals. Probably not many more thought Pham, who failed to hold his place on the major league roster in spring training, would hit .417 with three homers and three doubles over the same span.
Without Sierra and Pham, the Cardinals historic 6-0 road trip over the past week could have easily been 3-3. Maybe even 2-4.
When Sierra and Pham were called up, St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak hoped they could at least slow the bleeding until starters Fowler and Piscotty returned to the lineup. It was a no-brainer that they’d be sent back to the minors as soon as possible when the starters returned to duty. But it sure looks like the injection of youth and speed was just what a complacent and uninspired roster needed for a wake up call.
It was refreshing, when Sierra scored the winning run Wednesday against the Miami Marlins, to see all the players in the St. Louis dugout standing at the railing, wildly waving their arms as the 21-year-old speed demon streaked around the bases to provide the winning run. Meanwhile, Pham slugged St. Louis back into games that they trailed by large deficits, pulling deflating losses out of the fire and turning them into victories.
While major league success is often fleeting, can you imagine this team pulling the plug on Sierra and Pham when they’re still the hottest players on the club? While it likely won’t last for the rest of the season, I think you have to go with the hot streak at least until it cools off.
On the other hand, the Cardinals just gave Fowler and Piscotty long-term contracts to be starting players. So how can manager Mike Matheny park them on the bench if they’re healthy? I don’t think it fits into the budget to turn Fowler into an $80 million pinch hitter.
Some people have already called for the Cardinals to bench Randal Grichuk in favor of Sierra or Pham. While I would hate to see the streaky but talented Grichuk pulled out of the lineup, I’m not sure that solves the entire problem. Fowler wants to play centerfield. I believe he was promised by St. Louis when he signed here that he would play centerfield and that the promise was a deciding factor in where he decided to commit. Otherwise, Fowler would have probably been in left with Grichuk in center to start the season because the advanced statistics indicate Grichuk is better at center than Fowler. There is no debate that Sierra, who covers ground like the Cardinals haven’t seen since Jim Edmonds and Willie McGee patrolled center, is better with the glove than anyone else on the roster.
Would it cause a problem if the Birds told Fowler just 33 games into his Cardinals career that he’s lost his job? I can’t imagine it wouldn’t. But it would be a waste to see balls drop for hits in center because Sierra is bottled up in left to keep the peace.
With Dexter Fowler expected to return to the starting lineup Friday, hopefully, a short-term answer can be concocted to let this issue sort itself out. Maybe Matheny can convince Fowler that it will be easier on his healing shoulder to play left field for a few games while Sierra can stay in center and Pham can split time in right field with Grichuk. But that solution is only workable for a few days. It’s entirely out the window at the point Piscotty comes off the disabled list.
The Redbirds could afford to carry an additional outfielder by sending out one of their extra bullpenners. On a roster that was tilted toward the infield at the start of the season, it might be a good idea to fill that spot with one of the extra fly chasers, sending Jhonny Peralta on his way. But that’s only one spot for Sierra, Pham and Martinez to fight over.
Supposing Sierra is eventually sent out, where do the Cardinals send him? The St. Louis outfield log jam extends well beyond the major league club.
It would seem a little ridiculous to take a guy who was succeeded at the highest level and send him all the way back to advanced Class A ball in Palm Beach. But where else are they going to send him, to Class AAA Memphis where Redbirds top prospect Harrison Bader plays centerfield? Hitting .273 with six home runs, Bader is trying to make his own case for the big leagues. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to move him to another position or cut into his playing time. If Sierra has truly surpassed him as the centerfielder of the future, the Cardinals need to showcase Bader to other teams to try to fill some of their needs on the mound or at third base via a trade.
If the Cardinals tried to bump Sierra two steps down the ladder to Class AA Springfield, he’d run into Cuban defector Oscar Mercado who is hitting .328 with 13 extra base hits including four homers and three triples. He’s also already stolen eight bases.
Centerfield can be the shortstop of the outfield, stealing hits away from the other team and preventing a run or two a game from scoring. It’s a premium position because of that. But the Cardinals, in the next week or so, are going to have to make some tough decisions that not only could change the course of the 2017 season, it could impact the outfield for the next decade.
I’m glad I don’t have to make those choices.