Should St. Louis Cardinals Bring Back Tommy Pham?

Mar 16, 2016; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Thomas Pham (28) reacts to striking out against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 16, 2016; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Thomas Pham (28) reacts to striking out against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports /

With Jeremy Hazelbaker one of their most potent power threats off the bench, should the St. Louis Cardinals still restore Tommy Pham to their big-league club?

At the outset of spring training, it appeared as if outfielder Tommy Pham was going to be one of the St. Louis Cardinals’ key offensive players during 2016.

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After breaking out in September of last season, hitting .322/.359/.661 with four homers and 13 RBI in 59 at-bats, then hitting a clutch pinch-hit homer in Game 1 of the NLDS, it appeared as if the longtime minor-leaguer was going to be a part of the team’s plans.

Things definitely shook out that way to begin the year, as the 28-year-old was in the Cards’ Opening Day lineup, starting in left field and allowing Matt Holliday to shift to first base against Pirates lefthander Francisco Liriano. Things took an unfortunate turn on that 39-degree day, though, as Pham strained his left oblique during his first at-bat, which forced him to leave the game.

Pham was replaced on the 25-man roster by none other than rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz, he of the .383 batting average and 1.066 OPS. Perhaps more significantly, though, the injury to Pham opened the door for another 28-year-old longtime minor-leaguer, Jeremy Hazelbaker, to prove himself. While Hazelbaker has started just four games during the month of May, he’s remained one of the club’s most viable power hitters and versatile defenders.

Hazelbaker’s value off the bench–he’s 4-for-12 (.333) with a double, two homers, and four RBI as a pinch-hitter–makes him an important presence on the Cardinals’ roster, and his ability to play all three outfield positions (12 appearances in left, eight in center, and two in right) rivals, if not exceeds, Pham’s.

Thus, the fact that Pham is 5-for-22 at the plate with no extra-base hits during his minor-league rehab assignment isn’t exactly a great development for him. The most important function of a minor-league rehab assignment is for a player to get healthy, but with the current structure of the Cardinals’ roster, it’s obvious that the organization is going to wait until Pham is totally ready, as he’s now played six games at Triple-A Memphis and one at Double-A Springfield, more than enough time for him to get back up to speed.

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold detailed on Thursday, Pham is ready to be activated at any time once the Cardinals feel that he’s going to be a productive addition, though he may end up in Triple-A at the end of the rehab assignment:

"He has been medically cleared and his return is entirely based now on production.Both his and others.The Cardinals could elect to keep the roster they have as long as those hitters are producing and, at the end of Pham’s rehab, assign Pham to Triple-A."

The most obvious move that the Cardinals would make upon Pham’s return would be to option Hazelbaker to Triple-A, where he was expected to be this season before a series of injuries allowed him to make the Opening Day roster. But if the lefty slugger continues to build on a surprising 2016 campaign during which he’s hit six homers and posted a .906 OPS over his first 94 big-league plate appearances, he could make himself so valuable that the Cardinals end up preferring him over Pham. Despite the fact that he hit a homer on Sunday against Pittsburgh, things don’t exactly appear to be looking up for Hazelbaker at the moment, as he’s hit just .143 in May after hitting .317 during April.

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If the Cardinals want to delay the decision on which outfielder to send down–which isn’t the most painful choice in the world, as both have options remaining and could be recalled at any point–they could preemptively release utility infielder Ruben Tejada, who’s likely to be the odd man out once Jhonny Peralta is activated from the disabled list.

Though Mike Matheny‘s ability to play Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, and Stephen Piscotty at either first base or in the outfield and the ability of Diaz, Matt Carpenter, and Jedd Gyorko to play multiple infield positions makes things easier, it would still be somewhat risky to have Gyorko as the only legitimate backup infielder on the club. In addition to the platoon that Matheny has employed at second base with Gyorko and Kolten Wong, he’s clearly made it a priority to get Carpenter rest and avoid overexposing Diaz, so it may be troublesome for him to have just four players available to fill three positions on a daily basis.

With that said, the Cardinals did employ that type of roster format–with Gyorko at shortstop and Greg Garcia as the only backup capable of playing second, short, and third–on Opening Day, so it’s theoretically possible that they could decide to return to that roster composition if they decide that Tejada is unnecessary. Though the 26-year-old provides solid defense at short, second, and third, he’s hitting just .174/.192/.261 in 26 plate appearances, so it might be a viable option to let him go. (Our friends over at Redbird Rants argued for ending the Tejada experiment yesterday.)

Sooner or later, though, the Cardinals are going to have to go back to a roster that includes Holliday, Piscotty, Moss, Randal Grichuk, and either Pham or Hazelbaker, because Peralta is going to be back in the lineup upon his return, and with the way Diaz has played, he’s not going anywhere, either. Thus, the next few weeks (or perhaps the next few days, depending on how aggressive the Cardinals are with making a decision and potentially burning an option for Pham) will be crucial in determining what the roster is going to look like going forward.

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Considering the health issues that Grichuk has consistently had and Holliday has had over the past couple years, it’s highly possible that both Pham and Hazelbaker will end up contributing to the big-league club later this season. For now, though, it will be interesting to see which player the front office values more and prefers to have on the major-league roster.