Admission: I’m a big fan of Matt Adams. I’ve argued his virtues for a couple years. That might not be 100% checked at the door on this one.
The St. Louis Cardinals have one of the better ‘problems’ you can have. Matt Adams and Oscar Taveras have been awarded (and have certainly earned) back-to-back Texas League Player Of The Year honors.
The problem: both are blocked from the parent club’s roster on Opening Day 2013.
It’s not a ‘bad’ problem because of who’s blocking Adams and Taveras, even though those two register as probably two of the three best bats among minor leaguers (Kansas City’s Wil Myers being the third, probably sandwiched between Taveras in the 1-spot and Adams at number three.) Matt Holliday is a monster talent. Carlos Beltran is fine when he’s healthy. And Allen Craig has a career .383 wOBA through his first 720 Major League plate appearances.
Beltran and Holliday are not going anywhere. Holliday is owed millions in a long-term deal and despite tapering off a small amount each year in St. Louis, remains a sure-fire All-Star worthy of down-ballot MVP votes. Beltran is owed $13 million for the 2013 season before he becomes a free agent, and as a likely 3-WAR player he’s going to earn that. There’s no need for Cardinals GM John Mozeliak to give as much as a thought to moving either to rush the 20 year-old Taveras to the majors. Given the age of both Holliday and Beltran however, and the chance of injury, Taveras will probably have some kind of role in St. Louis by the middle of 2013, arriving sometime around his 21st birthday.
The Craig/Adams situation, and the first base job, isn’t so clear cut.
The “pro” column for Craig in the debate has a few big pluses. That .383 wOBA is the kind of number that puts a player firmly in the “best 15 hitters in baseball” territory. Craig can play a corner outfield spot, first base and, if needed, second base. His multi-position skill set makes him a bigger asset. In money terms, Craig has one more year near the league miminum, then three years of arbitration. And in terms of incidental/extra stuff that may or may not be important, Craig has experience in a MLB clubhouse on a team that won a World Series.
The “pro” column for Adams, on the surface, is shorter. He can rake at the plate. And he’s over 4 years younger than Craig.
Both Adams and Craig will hit as a first baseman in the major leagues. Here’s where someone thinks: well, we can say that about Craig, but Adams we don’t know. He only hit 244/286/384 when he came up this year. Right. And that was over 91 plate appearances. In his own personal first 92 Major League PA, Allen Craig had a line of 193/261/313. And Craig didn’t have an elbow problem he was struggling through. And Adams got his first taste as a 23 year-old, not a 25 year-old.
In Springfield as a 23 year-old Craig had a .386 wOBA. As a 21 year-old in the same park Adams’ wOBA was .391. Craig had a .400 wOBA the next year in Memphis, and Adams had a .416 wOBA in Memphis. Adams out-hit Craig in the same environment at two years younger.
The age thing in there is important. Adams out-hit Craig at every stop in the minors, and he did it while playing those levels two years younger than Craig was at same. Yes, Craig was a very good minor league hitter who became a very good major league hitter. Indications, though, point to Adams having the potential to be much much better.
Craig will be 28 next year. Adams will be 24. Since we know hitters peak somewhere between 26-29, Craig has maybe one year of his peak left. Adams has every year of his peak left. So the question of having Craig, for maybe one more year of his prime followed by the start of his decline, including two years in his 30s, or having Adams for six years, all of them before age 30, and all of his prime, leads me to say this: in pure terms of what they will deliver at the plate, Adams is the better play, as both a win-in-2013 move and a long-term one.
There’s the Craig pro/Adams con of multi-positional utility. I don’t think it matters in terms of the Cardinals roster. Holliday will be St. Louis’ everyday LF until 2017 (2016 if St. Louis does not pick up his option.) Oscar Taveras will be St. Louis’ everyday RF on or before Opening Day 2014 and will hold that through at least 2019. There is nowhere for Craig to play in the corner OF spots. He can play second, but that job, probably by midseason of next year if not sooner, will belong to Kolten Wong, who won’t hit like Craig, but who is a true second baseman and a defensive asset, unlike Craig (more later on that.) Which means any everyday role Craig could have in St. Louis, as of pretty much today, is at first.
That eliminates Craig’s multi-position skill advantage. If he can’t be used in multiple positions because he’s blocked, that ability doesn’t help. Which means any advantage Craig’s athleticism will provide will be via baserunning and fielding at first base. Problem is, FanGraphs registers Craig as a liability on both defense and the basepaths, baseball-reference calls him neutral on the bases and a liability on defense, and Baseball Prospectus registers him as a liability in both regards. Those things that superficially Craig looks like he should be a big upgrade over Adams in because of his better athleticism, he’s not that big an upgrade, if he’s an upgrade at all–I submit to you that via both Adams’ advanced fielding stats on Baseball Prospectus and what I’ve seen with my own two eyes that Matt Adams is, in fact, not a liability as a defensive first baseman but fairly neutral.
Another knock on Craig is health. In just the past 2.5 years, he’s hit the 15-day DL with a groin strain, missed four days with a lower leg laceration, missed 63 days with a knee fracture, had off-season surgery on said knee, missed time in camp and the first 22 days of this season due to an elongated recovery from said knee surgery, hit the DL again with a thigh strain, then missed games here and there for both left- and right-wrist strains. Those first 720 PA of Craig’s career? They’ve been spread over three seasons. That is partially because he was blocked or used in a utility role–he entered this year without an everyday job on the Cardinals roster despite his hitting talent. But Craig’s career line, regardless of reason, is compiled of three partial seasons in which his body and skill set were never required to weather a full 162-game season. Until June of this year, Allen Craig had not taken more than 70 PA in a single calendar month and had played in 20 or more games in only two calendar months. The numbers are impressive, but given the context of those numbers coming in small batches, they’re not as reliable as if they had come via three consecutive 600-PA seasons.
Because Craig can play a corner outfield spot, or some second, as well as first, he’s a far better fit for a team that doesn’t have both corner outfield spots and second base locked down, and a likely better in-house option at first. That gives him a good amount of trade value to a team who wants to win in 2013 and needs a corner OF or a 1B every day while providing insurance at the other. In St. Louis, though, he’s kind of a square peg where only a round hole is needed.
Of course, St. Louis could also deal Adams in the off-season, figuring Craig keeps them better positioned for 2013. But that would leave St. Louis in 2015, with a declining 30 year-old first baseman and lacking the financial might to go get a better one on the free agent market, asking who is going to fill the hole at first base and in the middle of their lineup.
Craig can hit, there’s no question. But Craig is 28 next year and is going to get worse, not better. Adams is a young player, already a prodigious hitter and still on the way up. He is a better defensive player at first base, and is going to hit more for the next several years at a much lower cost. I’d go with Adams.