It seems crazy to think about considering how wrecked by injuries the Cardinals have been all season, but they could be on the verge of having too many quality hitters to fit into the lineup.
Lance Berkman is nearing a return from knee surgery and looks likely to come off the disabled list shortly after the All-Star break, so assuming the rest of the Cardinals’ hitters can stay healthy in the meantime manager Mike Matheny will have a decision to make regarding Allen Craig.
Craig has been filling in for Berkman as the Cardinals’ primary first baseman, with Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran playing the outfield corners and Jon Jay in center field. Matheny could shift Beltran to center field on occasion, opening up right field for Craig, or he could take an even bigger hit defensively by using Craig at second base over the three-headed monster of Daniel Descalso, Tyler Greene, and Skip Schumaker.
Because of Beltran’s legs and Craig’s glove neither of those options are ideal, but when Craig is hitting .322 with 13 homers, 11 doubles, and a 1.046 OPS in 40 games–including two homers last night and four homers in his last 16 at-bats–it’s awfully tough to bench him. He’ll come back down to earth a bit at some point, but Craig has now logged 518 career plate appearances–slightly less than one full season’s worth of playing time–and has hit .300 with 28 homers, 33 doubles, and a .909 OPS.
The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.
Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.
Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”
Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.
The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.