JUPITER, Fla. – Being a first baseman in the Cardinals system hasn’t worked out well for those not named Albert Pujols or Allen Craig the past eight years.
Pujols burst onto the scene in 2001, moved around to different positions and took over as the primary first baseman in 2004. Craig took over last season when Pujols departed and just signed a five-year contract.
The Cardinals have drafted 23 first basemen since 2004 but all of them were eventually released or forced to try a different position. Mark Hamilton was likely the most notable after they drafted him in the second round in 2006 but he got stuck behind Pujols at Triple-A. The Cardinals tried him in the outfield before ultimately releasing him.
Steven Hill was a 13th round pick in 2007 but was eventually tried at catcher, the outfield and even third base before the Cardinals lost him in the Minor League portion of the Rule 5 draft. John Gall was an 11th round pick in 2000 and had some impressive minor league numbers but couldn’t find a spot due to Pujols. He played just 30 big league games with the Cardinals, most of which were in the outfield.
The Cardinals have taken just two first basemen in the top ten rounds of the draft since 2000. Simply put, the Cardinals haven’t spent much time developing or focusing on first basemen since Pujols broke onto the scene.
And that brings us to the curious case of Matt Adams, who appears to be blocked by Craig at first base but doesn’t play another position and has nothing more to gain by continuing to play in the minor leagues.
Adams was the Texas League Player of the year in 2011 when he hit .300 with 32 home runs and 101 RBI for Double-A Springfield. Last year he bounced between Triple-A and the big leagues but managed to hit .329 with 18 home runs and 50 RBI in just 67 games in the minors.
“I think it’s obvious that he doesn’t have much more to prove at Triple-A,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. “He’s hit at every level and we know he can hit. It’s just a matter of what will help our team and also what would keep a player like that ready if we did need him on an everyday basis. I think you have to balance all of those together.”
There might be a scenario to keep Adams on the big league roster this year. The Cardinals hope to give both Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran more rest and Craig can play both left and right field on the days one of them sits. That would open up playing time at first base for Adams, who would also be a deadly pinch-hitter off the bench.
But that plan probably wouldn’t work in the long term. Adams deserves a chance to play every day and the Cardinals don’t have a way to give that to him right now. Holliday is signed for several years and outfield prospect Oscar Taveras is ready to take over in right field when Beltran’s contract runs out at the end of the year.
It would seem Adams’ best chance to play regularly would be with another organization. But when asked how Adams fit into the future of the Cardinals with Craig and Taveras seemingly blocking a way for him to get regular playing time in the future, general manager John Mozeliak wasn’t ready to bite.
“That’s what you see,” said general manager John Mozeliak when asked about Adams not having a place to play. “I don’t. I see that things happen in life and being prepared and having options makes a lot of sense. I’m not going to worry about next year. I’m going to worry about now.
“I look at Craig as he gives you flexibility to play first or in the outfield. I think what you’re trying to do is secure offensive players and he gives you flexibility, which is nice. As far as Matt Adams is concerned, we’re going to try and find ways to get him at-bats.”
The next first baseman on the organizational depth chart would appear to be Xavier Scruggs, who has 43 home runs and 154 RBI the past two seasons. He hit 22 home runs and had 91 RBI last season for Double-A Springfield but hit just .235.
The former 19th round pick out of UNLV is relatively young – he turned 25 last September – and appears to be blossoming into a power hitter as each year passes. But he also seems stuck with no path to the big leagues just like others before him.
“I don’t really pay to much attention to it,” Scruggs said. “I just try to focus on me and try to get better each and every day. Obviously there’s a lot of stuff that’s out of my control so I try not to think too much about that, I think about stuff I can control and get better each day.
“It’s good though because there’s a lot of competition and whenever you can get competition, that’s good because it makes you a better player strive to work harder and get to the top of your game, so seeing those guys is actually an opportunity for me to push myself.”
Adams enters Tuesday’s Grapefruit League game against the Mets with a .304 average, three home runs and 12 RBI in 18 games. If the regular season started today he’d likely be on the roster as a bench bat.
As he continues to hit no matter the level, some believe the Cardinals will eventually use the left-handed swinging Adams as a trade chip and give him a chance to play regularly for another organization. That theory was strengthened when Craig got $31 million over five years to anchor the middle of the lineup.
But Adam’s can’t predict the future and he’d rather not guess what might happen.
“That’s really out of my hands,” Adams said. “The thing that I can control is getting my work in and coming to the ballpark each day and wanting to learn and get better. Whatever they do with me – whether it’s send me to Triple-A, keep me with the Cardinals or whatever – I’ll be ready.
“Allen deserves it. He’s a great player and goes about his business the right way and produces day in and day out. It doesn’t change my outlook. I just have to go out there and continue to try and get better each day and improve offensively.”
He’s not the first player to be stuck in a log jam in the Cardinals system at first base. And he probably won’t be the last.