Not a Rookie: Allen Craig, INF-OF, St. Louis Cardinals
I've had several requests recently for a look at St. Louis Cardinals masher Allen Craig. I've also had requests for a revival of the "Not a Rookie" feature, where we look at major league players who are no longer rookies, but who have only been in the Show for a year or two. Today we will kill two birds with one stone and profile Craig.
Allen Craig played four years of college ball at the University of California. He improved steadily, hitting .285/.362/.390 as a freshman, .285/.391/.451 as a sophomore, .304/.374/.481 as a junior, and .344/.403/.561 as a senior. Despite his regular playing time, he had no set position, seeing action at left field, third base, shortstop, and first base. He also had some problems with nagging injuries. As a result, scouts weren't sure where he was going to fit with the glove, which helped drop him to the eighth round in the 2006 draft.
The Cardinals made him a third baseman. Not surprisingly he had some defensive adjustment issues at the hot corner, and hit just .257/.325/.400 in 175 at-bats in the New York-Penn League after signing. At this point he would rate a Grade C prospect.
Craig's bat came alive in 2007, with an excellent .312/.370/.530 season for Palm Beach in the High-A Florida State League, with 21 homers. The glove needed work, but the bat looked special to me. I put a "Sleeper Alert" tag on him and gave him a Grade B- entering '08.
He rewarded my faith by hitting .304/.373/.494 with 22 homers and 30 doubles for Springfield in the Double-A Texas League in '08. His league-relative production actually declined significantly, his OPS dropping from +26 to +14, and his MLEs weren't that impressive when league context was considered, seeing him as a .250ish hitter with moderate power. I lowered him slightly to a Grade C+, but noted that he always looked very good to me in person and that I felt he could exceed the MLE projections. I'm not just a reflexive stathead.
Craig remained effective in Triple-A in 2009, hitting .322/.374/.547 with 26 homers for Memphis. I gave him my annual Josh Willingham This Guy Can Fucking Hit Award. This award goes annually to a player who can fucking hit, but who has positional problems, mediocre tools, or some other issue that makes scouts doubt him a little. I was afraid this might curse Craig, since the previous two winners (Kellen Kulbacki and Max Ramirez) had flamed out with injuries.
Ooops. Injuries have been a problem for Craig. However, I also noted that he showed power to all fields, makes adjustments within at-bats, and that while MLEs "have never especially liked him," I felt they undersold his bat. "I think he can hit .280-.300 at his peak, with 20-25 home run power" I concluded, moving him back up to B-. Even that grade undersold him.
Craig made the Opening Day roster in 2010 but didn't get consistent playing time and wound up back in Triple-A, where he hit .320/.389/.549 for Memphis. He saw additional action down the stretch in St. Louis, hitting .284/.330/.484 in his last 36 games and positioning himself well for 2011.
You know the story from here. He got hurt last year but was effective when on the field (.315/.362/.555 in 75 games for the Cardinals). He's mashed again this year (.306/.360/.541). Overall, in 217 major league games, Craig has hit .299/.351/.524 with a 137 OPS+. He's produced 38 doubles and 26 homers per 162-games. Defense is not his forte, but with a bat like that, it doesn't have to be, and his ability to play multiple positions is helpful.
At age 28, Craig is likely at his peak now. The man can simply hit when his body cooperates: his biggest problem since reaching the majors has been staying healthy. Keep in mind that he was just an eighth round pick who lacked the tools to really excite scouts. All in all, a great success story, and a good reminder about how we shouldn't dismiss blah-tool middle round picks if they have a good track record.