St. Louis Cardinals: What Role Will Randal Grichuk Play Upon Return?


The St. Louis Cardinals appear to be nearing the return of outfielder Randal Grichuk, one of the team’s most exciting young players who started in right field down the stretch in 2014 and showcased himself as a hitter with extremely intriguing righthanded power potential. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold relayed on Monday, Grichuk will be playing in extended spring training games all this week at the team’s facility in Jupiter, Florida. On Friday, the Cardinals will decide whether they want to add Grichuk back to the big-league roster or send him to a minor-league affiliate for a rehab assignment.

Once Grichuk ultimately is ready to resume normal game action, it should be interesting to see what his role is. He was placed on the disabled list on April 18, and at the time it was seen as a potentially harmful loss for a team that had gotten off to a good 7-3 start but hadn’t quite figured it out at the plate yet. However, he’ll come back to a Cardinals team that is now firing on all cylinders, having gone 16-6 since then on the way to a MLB-best 23-9 record. It’s not exactly a situation that is ready-made for a player who’s been out of the loop for a month to just jump back in and start producing.

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One factor that couldn’t have been easily predicted at the time of Grichuk’s injury is the resurgence of center fielder Peter Bourjos. The 28-year-old hit just .231/.294/.348 and quickly lost a starting role in his first year as a Cardinal in 2014. After going 7-for-47 (.149) at the plate during spring training, there was some debate about whether he should be optioned to Triple-A to start the year, with Grichuk assuming the fourth outfielder role. But as he’s been allowed to get back into a rhythm with Grichuk on the shelf, Bourjos has found his form, now hitting .333/.396/.500. He’s started five times in the Cardinals’ past six games, and it’s quite apparent that he’s the team’s best defensive center fielder.

With regular center fielder Jon Jay in a bit of a slump (.248/.330/.267 with no homers in 115 plate appearances) and dealing with a thumb injury that may be affecting his hitting ability, Bourjos’s viability as a starter has been important for the Cards. While it’s highly possible that he’s just on a hot streak—after all, he still has just 42 at-bats on the season—it’s difficult to see Bourjos returning to the fifth outfielder role that he occupied at the beginning of the season any time soon.

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At 35 years old, Matt Holliday has been through enough that it wouldn’t hurt to give him an off day every week or two. But since he’s hitting .346 and anchoring the Cardinals’ lineup from the three hole, it doesn’t really make sense for manager Mike Matheny to take him out for Grichuk any more than he has to.

Thus, the only logical situation in which to give Grichuk even occasional playing time is by subbing him in for right fielder Jason Heyward. Though Heyward has slightly underwhelmed so far this season, hitting .250/.308/.358 with just two homers, the Cardinals will be in no hurry to bench him. After all, they gave up arguably the best starting pitcher in the National League so far this year, Shelby Miller, to acquire him, and they’ll want to do everything in their power to make the most of their investment in the former All-Star.

On top of that, Heyward is going to provide a significant advantage in the field that Grichuk doesn’t, as he is one of the best defensive right fielders in Major League Baseball. While Heyward’s defensive presence hasn’t been as noticeable thus far in 2015 as it was last season, when he led all MLB outfielders in total zone runs and led big-league right fielders in range factor, he’s made some run-saving plays and has yet to commit an error.

Even if the Cardinals did want to try to work Grichuk into the lineup as a right fielder, it would be difficult to know when to sit Heyward beyond just removing him from the lineup when he needs a rest. The lefthanded-hitting Heyward has some rather extreme reverse splits during 2015, hitting .353/.436/.412 in 32 at-bats against lefties and .220/.256/.354 in 82 at-bats against righties. These numbers will likely self-correct at some point, as Heyward’s career numbers are much better against righties than they are against lefthanders, but the Cardinals may want to give Heyward more time to try to work out his issues at the plate before they set up any type of platoon arrangement.

If Grichuk hadn’t been receiving such strong verbal affirmation from general manager John Mozeliak, one might think that he’d be a candidate for demotion upon his return. Largely because of the absence of Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals haven’t gotten the innings that they anticipated receiving from their starting rotation to this point in the season. Thus, they’ve been working with an eight-man bullpen recently, and guys like Mitch Harris and Miguel Socolovich who started the season in the minor leagues have gotten rather frequent work. Though it certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Cards to have to go back to a seven-man bullpen, it’s highly likely that an eighth reliever would be more valuable to manager Mike Matheny for the immediate future than a fifth bench player would.

With that said, the Cardinals’ hands are tied up rather tightly in terms of what they can do to remedy the situation. Bourjos, who is effectively a platoon starter these days, and backup catcher Tony Cruz, who must stay on the roster due to his status as the only alternative to Yadier Molina, are the only players on the Cardinals’ bench with options.

With the Cardinals likely to have trouble getting Grichuk into the starting lineup on a consistent basis, it might be better to have the 23-year-old getting regular at-bats in the minors, especially as he attempts to get back into a rhythm following the injury. However, it appears that the Cardinals find his righthanded power bat too valuable to sacrifice, so he’ll step back into the fifth outfielder role and take at-bats as they come to him.

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