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Craig a Dangerous Weapon for Cardinals

On the same day he took home the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award, Lance Berkman was given the day off in favor of Allen Craig. This raised a few eyebrows, as Berkman had started and hit in the middle of the order in each of the Cardinals’ first eight postseason games. But in Craig, the Cardinals had an apt replacement, and perhaps the best bench player in this year’s postseason.

Craig displayed the light tower power that he is capable of in his second trip to the plate last night, unloading on a Randy Wolf pitch and taking it to out deep to right field. There was talk of the wind blowing out to right field last night, but while the home run from Matt Holliday may have qualified as wind-aided, Craig’s blast probably gets out on any day. It’s nothing to new to Craig.

The quintessential player without a position, St. Louis has seemingly not known what to do with Craig throughout his professional career. Drafted in the eighth round in 2006 out of the University of California, Berkeley, Craig saw time at shortstop, second and third base in his pro debut that summer. In 2007, he consolidated to third base, but saw time at first base as well. He carried both of those over into 2008, but also added 17 games in left field to the mix. In 2009, he made his Triple-A debut and for the first time his primary position was left field rather than third, though he saw time at all four corner spots. In 2010, the Cardinals could no longer deny his bat — his wOBA’s from stop to stop from 2007-2009 read .400, .450, .386 and .400 — and he made the Opening Day roster. But after garnering only 20 plate appearances in the RedBirds’ first 17 games — all as an outfielder or pinch-hitter — he was sent back to Memphis. There, for the first time ever, he didn’t play even one inning at third base, though his blurb in this year’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook said he was still taking grounders at third. This year, the experimentation continued, as Craig was thrown back into the keystone mix. He started once at second in Memphis, and started eight times at second for the big Birds in May. Ultimately, he moved back to the outfield, spelling Berkman, Holliday and Jon Jay during the second half.

The lack of a true position has conspired to turn Craig into a late bloomer. But blooming he is. He sowed the seeds in the second half last year, as he put up a respectable but not flashy .284/.330/.484 in 103 plate appearances. The total was low, because while he started 24 games, he only finished seven of them, as the ever-tinkering Tony La Russa was nearly always on hand with a defensive replacement. This season, that ratio more or less persisted, as Craig finished only 20 of the 62 games he started. But he keeps turning up in the lineup, and his bat is why.

Looking at the past decade, we find that there is a decent sample of late bloomers — players whose first or second Major League seasons came from ages 25-30. Craig is a standout among that group. His .240 ISO this year, ranks him eighth out of the 190 in that group (min. 200 PA):

Num Player Year Age ISO
1 Chris Duncan 2006 25 .296
2 Luke Scott 2006 28 .285
3 Ryan Howard 2005 25 .279
4 Garrett Jones 2009 28 .274
5 Jason Bay 2004 25 .268
6 Josh Hamilton 2007 26 .262
7 Chad Tracy 2005 25 .245
8 Allen Craig 2011 26 .240
9 Jay Gibbons 2002 25 .235
10 Dan Uggla 2007 27 .234
11 Chris Heisey 2011 26 .233
12 Travis Hafner 2003 26 .230
13 Josh Hamilton 2008 27 .226
14 Hideki Matsui 2004 30 .224
15 Mark Trumbo 2011 25 .223

We seem to have two types of players here. Players that went on to have All-Star careers, or players that never grew out of their part-time role. Whether Craig can achieve the former may not be in his control. If St. Louis resigns Pujols, they will be covered at all four corners next season, which would probably limit him to something in the 400 plate appearance range (a range he may have hit this year if he didn’t miss more than two months due to injuries). But there is reason to believe that his output this season wasn’t a fluke. While Craig did have a high BABIP, we can see from his Minor League numbers that he has a pattern of generating high BABIP’s — at least .329 in any of his full season stops. And while the samples are small, he showed a proficiency against all pitches he was thrown. He also displayed an improved approach at the plate. In the NLDS, he led the Cardinals with four walks, despite not playing in the final two games once Holliday returned. Last night was his first start since, and Craig delivered. On a night when Wolf kept the Cardinals from finishing rallies, Craig’s homer helped keep the Cards within shouting distance.

Carlos Gomez, Andruw Jones, Jesus Montero (who won’t be a part-time player for long) and John Mayberry (who had a very similar season to Craig but was in his third Major League season and is a year older) are or were valuable part-time players for this year’s group of postseason entrants. But in Craig, the Cards may have the most valuable bench player in this postseason, especially given the gimpy status of Berkman and Holliday. Should the Cards reach the World Series, his bat will keep St. Louis on even footing in American League ballparks, and if he ever gets a chance to play full time, Allen Craig could be an even more dangerous man.