The Pujols negotiations are, well, pretty boring. If you are like me, you’re sick of hearing about aimless speculation about what will happen next. So lets speculate less aimlessly, if you will, about the future at first base without Five. We’ve got a few options. One, Matt Adams, may be a little far away, but that could change with an incredibly important, and what I cautiously see as a difficult, year for him in 2011. The other two are Mark Hamilton, and Allen Craig, viable mid-20′s players that could provide what most teams want from the corners — a hitter — one being more practical than the other. Let me explain…
Craig has seen some action in St. Louis, and he struggled with inconsistent playing time, but he did show signs of his natural hitting ability in his last stint at the end of 2010. Craig has been a hitter since he joined the system, boasting a plus tool in power, and natural hitting ability. He’ll hit for a decent average, and his above-average plate discipline will yield enough walks for him to get on at an decent rate. I thought it was good to see him work on his discipline since he entered the system, improving his walk rate at a pretty steady increase as he continued to advance and face tougher competition.
That competition might have exposed him a bit in ’10 with St. Louis. Big league off-speed, and breaking stuff tricked him. He showed improvement yet again towards the end of the year, staying back on a couple of breaking balls, and using his strong weight transfer and swing leverage to produce some extra base hits. Projections for Craig have varied, but with a little help from our friend Rui over at GasHouseGraphs.com, we’ve got a graphical matrix look at the payroll flux, and WAR projections with a 2012 and beyond roster of Craig replacing Pujols’ plate appearances.
The right side graph on each year is the projected WAR. The bars on the left are “paid-for-WAR,” which was created by Rui converting the 2011 salaries into WAR, and then implying an 8% inflation rate for each year from 2012-2016. So to find the payroll numbers you’d multiply the left side by 4.5 for ’11, 4.86 for ’12, and so on…
Using player wOBA from ZiPS, and a league average wOBA of .335, plus the assumed PA total of 636 (Pujols’ ZiPS projection), Craig projects to keep St. Louis around 75-78 wins in 2012, with his highest WAR total coming in 2014 with about a 3-win season, and I think he has the tools to exceed that ceiling.
Maybe the most attractive component of the Craig route would be the monetary flexibility. The payroll commitments for 2012 would be around $70 million, which leaves plenty of cash to spend on nine roster spots. With Craig at first, and smart investments elsewhere, the Cardinals could easily be in the mid-80s in terms of wins in their first year without Pujols.
Looking past 2012 with Craig at first, St. Louis’ system has loads of high upside, cost controlled pitching talent on the way that gives reason to believe 90-win seasons wouldn’t be too far away in life without Pujols, and Chris Carpenter. If the improving farm system can provide more flexibility, challenges like keeping Adam Wainwright, or balancing payroll around a long-term contract like Matt Holliday’s won’t be so bad.
At 26, Hamilton has had a hard time breaking into the big leagues. The near future doesn’t look any brighter for him with almost no shot at making the big club out of camp in ’11. From what we hear, he’s not very good defensively, and he lacks the versatility to make his best tool — his bat — an attribute that could benefit a bench role. He shows good plate discipline, and recognizing pitch types well with the ability to go the other way. Hamilton draws walks, and generates good leverage in his swing to produce plenty of doubles and long balls. He still hasn’t been able to figure out left-handed pitching, but does he ever rake against righties.
He hit a bit of a wall when he got to Springfield his first time in 2007, and he even had trouble his second go around at AA in 2008, but in the past two years he’s posted a .900 OPS twice in a combination of time at Springfield and Memphis. Looking at another matrix Rui made for Hamilton, St. Louis would probably not be getting enough production at a position like first base with Hamilton starting there from 2012 and on. With a bat that crushes righties like Hamilton, it would be nice to find a bench spot for him somewhere if he can find a way to be more versatile in the field.
Here’s an outlook on the roster with Hamilton being the everyday first basemen using the same methods we used for Craig:
Payroll wouldn’t differ too much from Craig playing, but you’d probably be looking at something slightly less in wins in ’12 and beyond. With the aging curves applied, Hamilton would plateau around the age of 30 with a 1.7 WAR year in 2014. Keep in mind we’re assuming average defense here, so that would project Hamilton as nothing special at the plate either. At a corner position like first, the Cardinals probably can’t afford to have a bat that just isn’t producing. With Hamilton’s lefty split struggles and minimal defensive value, going down a route where he gets 600 PA probably isn’t ideal.
After Craig, and Hamilton, there are a number of first base prospects that could be thrown into the conversation as additional replacements, but none of them are really close enough to be a viable option in ’12. It would take a huge year and camp performance for Matt Adams to be there the year after next, but he certainly has the best bat at that position in all of the system, and I think there’s reason to be excited about his future.
After being touted as maybe the top Division-II hitter, he was a 23rd round selection in ’09, and he’s continued to hit in his first two years of professional ball. Adams broke into the system hitting above .340 at rookie ball, and Low-A, with a combined .424 wOBA to boot (yeah, that’ll do.) He measures in around 6’3, 230, and he does a good job of generating exceptional power by staying back well, and quick hands.
For a guy who gets big power, you don’t see a ton of swing-and-misses from Adams, which is encouraging. While he does draw walks at an okay clip, I think he’ll need to be a little more patient as starts to face better competition. He extended his success in 2010 with a .393 wOBA, including 22 homers, and 41 doubles in 510 PA. He’s going to start 2011 in Springfield, and while I’m not worried about how an above-averGe hitter will do in, you know, the bandbox that is Hammons Field — or just the Texas League in general — it should be noted that this is where Hamilton really hit a wall.
Now, Adams certainly has a higher ceiling than Hamilton at this point, but competition does pickup in AA, so to just go ahead and assume that because he raked at Johnson City, Batavia, and Quad Cities, then he’ll be fine because he’s at a smaller park in Springfield would be a little premature, in my opinion.