St. Louis Cardinals boast depth few other teams can approach
Randal Grichuk is 22 years old and has yet to play a game above Double-A, but he knows that his place in baseball history is already in one way assured. That is because the Angels selected him 24th overall in the 2009 draft out of Texas' Lamar Consolidated High School, one slot before they picked another high school outfielder: Mike Trout.
"People always joke that I'll probably be a question on Jeopardy!," Grichuk said. "It could get old, but because it's him? Okay, if it was somebody that's average, it would be like, seriously? But him? It doesn't bother me at all."
Grichuk is friends with the game's leading phenom ("Oh, we're good boys," Grichuk said), and Trout called him to offer his congratulations and to talk about their shared future after the Angels added him to their 40-man roster last Nov. 20. "That conversation kind of got thrown out the window," Grichuk said, because two days later, the Angels shipped him and outfielder Peter Bourjos to the Cardinals in exchange for third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas.
"In a way, it might be nice for him to be here, because he'll be asked [about Trout] less," said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. Grichuk does not hide his pleasure about receiving a fresh start in St. Louis. "I feel like it's more of a family-oriented type of place," he said. "I feel like everybody's in it to win it. Great organization I've seen so far."
The Cardinals are, empirically, a great organization -- the defending National League champions have had one losing season in the past 14 years -- but rarely have they looked more formidable they do right now. One rival executive told me that despite the fact that the Cardinals play in the NL Central, which produced both of the league's Wild Card teams in 2013 (the Pirates and the Reds), he expects them to win the division with a double-digit lead in the standings. "I'm not just saying they're going to win it," he said. "It'll be closer to 15 than it'll be to five."
A central element of the Cardinals' success has always been the depth of talent they have continually replenished, and last November's trade seems an exemplar of one way in which they have managed to do that, and one reason why their current depth is certainly unmatched. They turned Freese -- a St. Louis-area native and the hero of their 2011 World Series run, but also a player who seems to be declining (he hit just nine home runs last year), can reach free agency after this season and had an obvious heir in Matt Carpenter -- and the middling middle reliever Salas into the speedy, younger and defensively superior Bourjos, as well as Grichuk, who might have even greater upside.
Injuries kept Grichuk stuck in neutral during his first three professional seasons as Trout accelerated toward stardom -- he sustained, among other things, a torn ligament in his thumb, a broken wrist, a strained MCL and a fractured kneecap -- but over the past two years, he has averaged 20 home runs, 68 RBI and 13 steals. "Probably, from a developmental standpoint, thinking about getting on base and striking out less would be beneficial to his portfolio," Mozeliak said. "But overall, he's a talent, and we're excited to see how he fits in for us."
This spring, Grichuk was given a locker in the corner of the Cardinals' Jupiter, Fla., clubhouse reserved for players who wear the high numbers (his is 88), meaning that their big league dreams won't be immediately realized. Last spring, however, Michael Wacha was in that corner ("It's a lot better being over here," said last fall's playoff star of his spot near Adam Wainwright), and five members of that same '09 draft in which Grichuk was selected made St. Louis' World Series roster five months ago: Carpenter, Matt Adams, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and Trevor Rosenthal. Grichuk played against several of them in Iowa when they were on Quad Cities and he on Cedar Rapids in the Single-A Midwest League, and against Miller (from Brownwood, Tex.) in high school.
Grichuk draws inspiration from their rapid ascensions, but he knows that no matter what he does at Triple-A Memphis this season, his own debut at Busch Stadium likely will not come quick. The Cardinals run particularly deep in the outfield, and ahead of him in the pecking order are All-Stars Allen Craig and Matt Holliday at the corners, and Bourjos and incumbent Jon Jay in center. There is also Oscar Taveras, who was just ranked by Baseball America as the game's third-best prospect, and fast-improving 2012 first-rounder Stephen Piscotty, whom B.A. ranked 70th. "It's pretty stacked," Grichuk said.
"Outfield's a little crowded right now," Mozeliak confirmed. "I feel like, from an organizational standpoint, your job is to create depth and make sure you're being competitive at all areas if you can. But it's not always easy to do. From an outfield standpoint, I do feel like we have a lot of future potential."
Piscotty, a 23-year-old Stanford alum who recently put up a .936 OPS in the Arizona Fall League and who is currently participating in his first big league spring training, points out a benefit to that depth beyond the protection it offers from injury and poor performance. "I think it's good for development," he said. "I think it's huge to have guys to compete with, have fun with and learn from, honestly. Looking around, you can just watch guys and pick something up. Playing with these guys every day, you just get better. It's thanks to the guys around you that I think you do get better here than in other organizations."
That dynamic is similarly present in St. Louis' rotation, which has more arms than a Hindu deity. The recent recurrence of veteran Jaime Garcia's shoulder troubles were not nearly as concerning to the Cardinals as they might have been to virtually any other organization, as all it meant was that Kelly -- whose fastball can touch 99 miles an hour and who started three playoff games last October, including Game 1 of the NLCS -- will likely begin the season not in the bullpen but as the rotation's No. 5, behind Wainwright, Miller, Wacha and Lance Lynn. And behind Kelly, for now, will be Carlos Martinez, who can throw 101, as well as Rosenthal. Rosenthal, who started 48 of his 66 minor league appearances, will begin the season as the closer, Mozeliak said. That could change, especially if Jason Motte, the owner of 42 saves in 2012 and of a Tommy John surgery in 2013, can return to form.
"When you think about our potential rotation, there's certainly guys that are starters, that have to start," said Mozeliak, referring to his current top four. "There are other guys that if they don't make the rotation, they could go in the bullpen. There is some flexibility there."
Flexibility is something that most teams don't have. Unlike with most other clubs, you cannot pick one or two Cardinals -- with, perhaps, the exception of the nonpareil catcher Yadier Molina -- and say that significant injuries to them will inexorably damage their chances. That state of affairs has been hard earned, through years of savvy drafting and trading and player development, and makes the Cardinals the preseason favorite in the National League once more. When Randal Grichuk, even if he will never become Mike Trout, is your organization's seventh best outfielder, you have done something very right, and have also given yourself an attractive commodity that you might one day flip again to ensure your depth in perpetuity.
The Cardinals' greatest ongoing trick is that their depth isn't just quality, but also youthful, thereby allowing them to contend while maintaining a consistently modest payroll. (Baseball Reference projects this season's wages to total $109.5 million, the game's 11th-highest for the second straight year.) "I was talking to [veteran shortstop] Pete Kozma about how young everybody is," Grichuk said. "He pointed out how many guys we have that have less than three years in the big leagues, but are legit contributors. Coming from the Angels, I wouldn't say the opposite, but they've got more veteran guys."
"They know how to use their money," Grichuk said of the Cardinals' front office. "That's for sure."