The pocket-sized version of Allen Craig‘s player profile is this: third baseman drafted out of college, has hit for good average and power at every stop and the only question mark is whether his defense is good enough at third base to play in the majors. Hmmm… that sounds familiar for some reason.
At a high level, comparisons to Brett Wallace do make a lot of sense. Both played in the Pac-10 (although Craig played all over the field during his college career, including LF, 1B, SS and 3B) and both are much more highly regarded for their bat than their glove. The superficial differences between the two are that Wallace bats lefthanded while Craig bats righthanded, Wallace weighs about 45 pounds more than Craig and Wallace is two years younger than Craig.
The consensus is that Brett Wallace is a future major leaguer and probably a well-above average offensive major leaguer. If Allen Craig is Wallace-lite (both literally and figuratively), what kind of value does Craig bring to the Cardinals organization?
Craig played High School ball in California (also like Brett Wallace) and then went to Cal, where he played for four years. In his four years at Cal he improved every season, capping off his college career with a .344/.403/.561 line his senior season which also included eleven home runs in 221 at bats. If you want to be picky, the only negative that you could point out is that he only walked in about 6% of his plate appearances, but it’s tough to quibble with a lack of walks when he was mashing everything thrown to him. Meanwhile he was striking out in about 10% of his plate appearances, which is an acceptable amount for a guy with his power profile.
Still, when it came time for the 2006 draft, Craig was not taken until the eighth round. He was listed as a shortstop when taken and Baseball America said at the time that he had “an injury-riddled career at California” and that he was “an offensive player without a defined position.” According to the Cal baseball website, he was injured in a collision at first base during his Freshman year of college and missed 17 games with an injury to his hand and wrist, but I couldn’t find any other mention of injuries and he seemed to play in almost all of Cal’s games during the rest of his career. Whatever the reason, whether injury concerns or positional concerns, the Cardinals appear to have gotten a steal in the eighth round.
In his professional debut, Craig’s numbers were down from the levels he set in college, but they were respectable nonetheless. In 48 games in the New York-Penn League he put up a line of .257/.325/.400 with four homeruns. The next season, however, he was back to his old self, tearing up pitching while playing for Palm Springs and putting up a line of .312/.370/.530 with 21 homeruns. Craig’s walk rate had improved since college, as well, taking the base on balls in 7.5% of his plate appearances (although he was striking out at a higher clip as well: 16.9% of the time). His performance earned him a seven game call up to Springfield at the end of the season and he made the most of it by hitting three homeruns.
Despite his offensive success in 2007, the Cardinals were unsure about Craig’s future. He had committed 18 errors at third base, which was cause for concern. That offseason, the Cardinals further complicated Craig’s future by trading Jim Edmonds to the Padres for prospect David Freese. Freese promptly jumped over Craig on the depth chart, skipping Springfield and starting 2008 in Memphis while Craig spent the year in Springfield.
Another complication that added to the backlog at the hot corner was that the Cardinals then went and drafted Wallace with their first round pick in June. Wallace was fast-tracked and was playing alongside Craig at Springfield by the end of the season.
But, in the face of seeming lack of faith in him, Craig continued to hit throughout 2008. He put up a .304/.374/.494 line with 22 homeruns in Springfield and increased his walk rate to 8.5%. According to the Baseball Prospectus, Craig’s peak translations (what he is likely to do in his peak years based on statistical extrapolation) is this: .284/.348/.472. The OPS of 820 that would represent would be 10th among third basemen at the major league level last season.
The question, of couse, has never really been about Craig’s bat, though. He followed up his 18 error performance in 2007 with 17 more in 2008. The Cardinals periodically played Craig in leftfield throughout the year and he did not make an error (or record an assist) in his 17 games patrolling the outfield. As an outfielder his OPS isn’t quite as impressive, as he would have been 40th in the league last season (although that still puts him in the top half of starting outfielders).
So, to answer the question posed above, the value Craig adds to the organization is a guy that projects to be a very solid major league bat – I’m thinking that Josh Willingham might be a good comp. Whether Craig becomes trade bait because of the backlog at third base or the Cardinals hold onto him and use him at third or left field, the Cardinals should receive a good return on their eighth round pick.
[Note: for more on Craig in his own words, check out Erik's great interview with him from earlier this year]