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Grichuk may be key to the 2016 Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Randal Grichuk follows through after hitting a two-run home run.
St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Randal Grichuk follows through after hitting a two-run home run.

The Cardinals are counting on breakthrough seasons from a number of players in order to have a successful 2016 season.

But none of them is more important than Randal Grichuk.

Stephen Piscotty is a guy the Redbirds are high on. He could give the team a boost by replicating -- if not surpassing -- the offensive numbers of free agent defector Jason Heyward.

Kolten Wong is a guy who intrigues the St. Louis front office with his quick bat, power and foot speed. He could be a big difference maker if he can become a capable table setter at the top of the order instead of hanging out near the bottom as he has for most of his career.

But the Cardinals jettison both of their other centerfield options over the winter, putting Grichuk into a sink or swim situation.

Grichuk has teased fans with his power outbursts punctuated by times on the shelf with a variety of nagging injuries. projects a season with a .270 batting average, 16 homers and 46 runs batted in from the right-handed hitting outfielder. But that’s likely not going to be good enough if the Cardinals are going to be a serious contender in the National League Central.

St. Louis needs Grichuk to ascend from a complimentary sixth or seventh hitter in the order to their centerpiece power guy.

He’s really the only guy on the current roster who seems capable of threatening the 35 home run mark, barring a tremendous surprise from Matt Adams. Even if Adams rediscovers his power stroke, the Cardinals aren’t paying Brandon Moss $8.5 million to sit on the bench.

If you take Grichuk’s numbers from two partial seasons in the big leagues, they add up to 20 homers over 433 at-bats. If he can put together 550-600 at bats about the same pace, he ought to end up between 25 and 30 easy.

His RBIs would go up significantly if a healthy portion of those at-bats come in the middle of the order.

Can Grichuk stay healthy and be the RBI machine Allen Craig was early in his career? Or will the nagging injuries break him down and destroy his sweet swing like what happened with Craig in 2013?

The biggest concern about Grichuk is his high number of missed swings. He has struck out darn close to one-third of the times he comes to the plate and has walked only 27 times for a .316 on-base percentage.

That’s a big issue. But Grichuk is still a relatively inexperienced player. He’s got less than one full season of games at the big league level and only 436 at-bats above the Class AAA level.

So he’s still growing as a player. But, hopefully, he’s got his feet under him coming into his third big league camp and is ready to settle in.

If Grichuk fails to establish himself as a major league regular, the Cardinals are going to be forced to heavily rely on Tommy Pham in centerfield.

Pham had a nice cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2015. But he has only 52 games under his belt in the majors and doesn’t show the middle of the order power potential of Grichuk. He hit five homers in limited duty last year. But he hit 10 in 390 plate appearances in Class AAA and you have to go back to 2008 in Class A ball to find the last time he hit for power in double figures.

I like Pham a lot as a fourth or fifth outfielder. But I don’t know how I feel about him being forced to be a starter on a team that is starved for power.

So... the Redbirds are gambling on Grichuk that they have a 24-year-old, right-handed Jim Edmonds-type power hitter in centerfield for the next several years. If they’re wrong, they have a late 30s, injury prone left fielder and two guys who have well under half a year of major league experience starting in the other two outfield spots.

I hope, for the sake of the team, it’s the former option.