The 46th overall pick in 1999 as compensation for the departure of — blast from the past — Delino DeShields, Chris Duncan spent 7 seasons in the minors before getting a significant look in 2006. From age 18 to 22, he failed to post an OPS higher than .800 over the course of any season. He never hit more than 20 homeruns prior to 2005. Prior to 2004, he had never posted an OBP higher than .331 (2002). Chris Duncan looked like an organizational player up until 2004. Drafted out of high school, there was projection but things weren’t clicking and the production wasn’t there.
I wonder what kind of coverage a site like ours would have given Duncan during his breakout campaign at age 23. Would we twist him to our own machinations as a promising high school athlete that was blossoming and an anecdotal justification to draft more high schoolers? Would we have been skeptical of the outbust and the dramatic increase in walks? Would we have questioned the defense in the same way we do players like Allen Craig, Jarrett Hoffpauir and Nick Stavinoha? I don’t have the answers to these questions but it’s an interesting thought exercise. Regardless, Duncan announced himself as someone worth watching in 2004 as he hit .289/.390/.473 showing an ability to hit for average and draw walks that was previously unseen.
Albert Pujols was still establishing himself as the pre-eminent first baseman in baseball so Chris Duncan continued to spend the majority of his time at 1st seeing only 31 of 118 games in the outfield in 2004. It’s hard to argue from any objective statistical perspective that Duncan has been anything short of a butcher in the outfield while at St. Louis but his offense in 2004 would have most likely been enough to overshadow those concerns.
Flash forward a few years and Chris Duncan is mashing 22 homeruns in 280 at bats for the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s easy to take those numbers and imagine the 40 homerun power that he might have. Personally, I clamoured for Duncan to get more time especially versus left handers. Even assuming a -15 runs on defense, he was a +3 win player if those 2006 slash lines were for real. It’s hard to beat .293/.363/.589 for the league minimum. I also clamoured to sell high on him after 2007. Neither happened.
2007 would taper off some but was still productive at .259/.354/.480. Duncan was troubled by nagging back injuries that saw him see time on the DL periodically. After watching him hit in 2008, I also think that the book was out on Duncan and the league was adjusting while he wasn’t. Hard and inside was death on Duncan and whether it was the back injuries or a hole in his swing, Duncan became an easy out in 2008 despite receiving an egregious 200+ at bats in St. Louis this year. Now out with an unfortunate and severe injury, Duncan is done for 2008 and perhaps for good.
Let me put two lines next to each other for a moment:
Obviously, the second line represents someone with more power but those are remarkably similar numbers. The first is Duncan’s career minor league line and the second in Joe Mather’s. Before I say anything else, let me remark that I’m a huge fan of Joe Mather. He’s got tremendous power and is an athletic corner outfielder whose defense is more likely to be a lift than a drag on his value. Another troubling, if coincidental, parallel between the two can be found in the two DL stints Mather had this season for “back spasms”. Mather is far from a guaranteed major leaguer with his long swing and somewhat advanced age (26) he hasn’t followed a career arc that makes you think blue chip prospect or sure thing.
At the end of the day, the Cardinals still have more outfielders than they know what to do with. Colby Rasmus needs a place in the outfield everyday next year. I’d hope the Cardinals would realize that the relationship between Rasmus and the organization is exceedingly important given the caliber of player many expect him to be and the likely desire to sign him long term once he proves that at the major league level. Sending him down to the minors again next year could widen what may already be an unfortunate rift. Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick seem unlikely to go anywhere leaving guys like Skip Schumaker, Joe Mather, Brian Barton, Nick Stavinoha and Chris Duncan fighting for bench spots. Add in prospects like Jon Jay and Daryl Jones who are making significant strides within the organization and the need to move these outfielders should be an imperative for Mozeliak this offseason.
It’s easy to become attached to players that come up and smack the hell out of the ball from the minors. Chris Duncan received a great deal of praise from St. Louis fans in 2006. Skip Schumaker has done a very nice job this year. Joe Mather could pop off another 10 HRs before the season is out and look like a real consistent power threat. There’s a healthy skepticism to be maintained about those types of performances and a real argument to be made for selling “high”. With the depth the Cardinals have in the minors for outfielders, they should be less hesitant to make those trades. You’d hate to watch them crumble in the same fashion that Chris Duncan did. From hero to zero in less than a season — it can happen that fast.