Coming into the 2011 season, no one could have forecast the level of contribution provided by three of the least-major league experienced position players on the St. Louis Cardinals’ roster.
Outfielder Allen Craig and infielder Daniel Descalso had made their major league debuts with the 2010 Cardinals, though neither had enough at-bats or time in the bigs to exhaust their rookie designation. On the other hand, outfielder Jon Jay had appeared in 105 games the season prior, but seemed destined to join Craig in a reserve role for the 2011 club. Descalso was projected by some to be ticketed for a return to Memphis.
As fate would have it, all three not only remained on the major league roster the entire 2011 season, they cemented their futures as big leaguers in the process and earned championship rings.
Craig, 27, had been up and down several times in 2010 after making the opening day roster. In spring training 2011, he batted .359 with 11 RBI and a share of the team lead with three home runs, making his St. Louis return an easy decision.
As Matt Holliday dealt with a series of minor maladies during the season, Craig received time in the outfield. He appeared in a couple of games at both infield corner spots and even was given an intriguing eight-game trial at second base.
His good fortune came to an end when he suffered a fractured right kneecap upon making a sliding catch in foul territory in Houston in early June. Craig missed over two months until his August 10 return to action.
When available to play, Craig offered a tantalizing power bat that could also hit for average. He knocked in 40 runs and homered 11 times in just 219 plate appearances. His slash line was .315/.362/.555. Projecting that return over a full season would cause excitement in anyone.
In the post-season, the right-handed batter launched four more home runs, including three in the World Series, and plated eight. Craig’s playoff OPS was a robust 1.013.
The knee problem from June lingered, however, and Craig needed a procedure to put stabilizing screws in his right kneecap shortly before Thanksgiving. He may miss as much of the first month of the 2012 season as a result of the recovery process.
The 2012 Cardinals had already needed additional outfield depth with the move of Lance Berkman to first base to replace Albert Pujols, but the uncertainty of Craig’s situation may have increased their urgency. Depending on the health of others on any given day during the coming season, Craig may start or be a super sub.
Descalso also performed well in spring training, batting .308. The 24-year-old had made his MLB debut the previous September. Descalso made a credible showing, which was a bit surprising since he was thrown in at third base, a position for which the natural second baseman had not been prepared.
Due to injuries to David Freese and projected top infield substitute Nick Punto, Descalso was pressed into semi-regular duty this season. The left-handed hitter ended up making 81 starts across third base (61), shortstop (11) and second base (nine) and appearing in 148 games in total.
His infield defense was considered steady and his bat was perhaps better than expected. Descalso’s line was .264/.334/.353 in 375 plate appearances. In the post-season, he was ready when called upon, going 3-for-9 (.333) and crossing home plate all three times.
Descalso is expected to report to 2012 camp with a chance to earn the starting second base job. He could be a platoon starter there or serve as the club’s top infield reserve, the role for which Punto was intended last year.
If I had asked who played in the most regular-season contests for the 2011 Cardinals, how many of you would have guessed Jay, at 159 of the 162 possible games?
Despite hitting just .221 in Florida, Jay tied Pujols for the club’s spring lead with 14 RBI and also made his first opening day roster in 2011. As the ups – and especially downs – of Colby Rasmus’ play became more extreme, Jay began to see more and more time.
On the day Rasmus was dealt to Toronto, July 27, Jay was batting .311 with an OPS of .801. His defense in center was steady, easing some of the concern of trading Rasmus. Yet Jay’s offense dipped over the final two months. From July 28 through the end of the season, his line was .277/.320/.403/.724.
In the post-season, Jay struggled mightily. Over 63 plate appearances, his line was .182/.262/.218/.480. With typically better numbers against right-handed batters, Jay is a potential platoon candidate going forward but if so, he would be on the busy side of the platoon.
As noted in the previous countdown article on young relievers, these then-unproven position players were key contributors to the Cardinals’ special 2011 season and should be around a long time into the future as well.