Another thought experiment for the end of the year 2010, this one a bit darker and one I hope never comes to fruition. If the Cardinals do not re-sign Albert Pujols at 1B, will they be able to replace him internally from the farm system? (Odds are that the Cardinals WILL re-sign Albert, but it does not hurt to take a look at our 1B depth just in case.)
The First basemen in the Cardinals system have been blocked by Pujols ever since he moved from 3B to LF to 1B and stayed there. Pujols has been a full-time first baseman since 2004 and any prospect that was reaching the minor leagues’ ceiling as first base needed to be moved for a player at another position. (See Wallace, Brett who will be a permanent 1B in the majors.) That being said, what do the Cardinals have left in the minors at first base? The great thing about first base is that it can be played by any slugging player that does not quite have a position and the Cardinals have a few of those as well.
Obviously, no one in the universe is going to replace Pujols’ production, so we can only look at the internal candidates to replace him at 1B and how well they will do.
First into the breach: Mark Hamilton. Hamilton is an interesting prospect who got his first cup of coffee in the majors this September, which shows the Cardinals wanted to get a better look at him. He’s 6-4 and 220, so he’s got the size to play first base. As a 25-year old in Memphis this season, he had a wOBA of .415 and an OPS of .981 which signals to anyone a great season. He hit well between Springfield in Memphis in 2009, but not nearly as well as 2010. He’s a prospect on the rise, but his “prospect egg timer” is about to go off when he will be a 26 year old in AAA this season. ZiPS projects him to have a OPS+ of 95 this season with a slash line of .246/.322/.408. That shows good progress for the 26 year old, but he will need more good seasons in the minors to come close to his AAA lines.
Also receiving votes: Allen Craig. In Memphis, his second most frequent position was 1B after LF. He even got 5 games there in the majors towards the end of the season. We know much more about Craig than Hamilton and ZiPs for 2011 likes him much better as well with a slash line of: .280/.333/.438 for an OPS+ of 105.
Steven Hill. Hill has played only catcher in 2010, but played 25 games at 1B for Springfield in 2009. His bat is much more valuable at catcher and obviously the Cardinals value him there, but he is capable of playing first.
Since 2012 will be the goal here, we can look a little farther down the line to see who else might be available in the Cardinals system.
In the Reserve Force: Andrew Brown. Brown is a solid prospect just finishing up Springfield with decent numbers. Hamilton and Craig put up better numbers than him, so he is still considered a long shot and the Cardinals are trying him in the outfield and at 3B.
Xavier Scruggs. Scruggs is another power prospect with a lot of strikeouts. His numbers do not jump off the page. He would need a huge 2011 to be considered a replacement in 2012.
This last group would not be considered to replace Pujols in 2012, but become a permanent replacement going forward.
The Rear Guard: Matt Adams. Adams is your typical bad-bodied swing for the fences power first base prospect. In Adams’ one year with Quad Cities, he struck out a lot and will need to work on his plate discipline.
Victor Sanchez. The Cardinals recent 2011 draftee hasn’t had much time in the minors yet, but MLB Bonus Baby had this to say about the Cardinals draft pick:
Victor Sanchez, 1B – 26th Round
Sanchez did well as a freshman but floundered his last two season at San Diego. He has a powerful swing and could be a solid power hitter if he can stay healthy. He has the ability to be a solid hitter and a decent defensive 1B. He showed good plate discipline at San Diego, that it reason for optimism. He has top of the draft potential if everything is going well, so the Cardinals could well have gotten a steal in the 26th round.
It is impossible to replace Albert Pujols, but if the Cardinals are forced to replace him from within, they have a few interesting prospects ready to step in right away and a few long term prospects that could turn into MLB players going forward. However, the Cardinals do not have a sure thing waiting in the wings and (heaven forbid) the 1B replacement process will evolve slowly.