Why Allen Craig needs spring training less than any other Cardinal — even while on the mend

What a sweet swing Allen Craig has. And simple -- which is its beauty.

ST. LOUIS — If anyone on the Cardinals shouldn’t report to Florida before the mandatory reporting date, Allen Craig tops the list.

He lives in Southern California, so he hasn’t had to worry about winter messing up his off-season regimen. Plus, there’s no need to uproot his young family any sooner than needed. Besides, the later he reports to work, the less time he has to injure himself.

OK, that last one is a joke. Craig has missed 158 games in his three full seasons in the majors, but he’s proven to be more unlucky than injury prone.

The No. 1 reason Craig doesn’t need to be in Jupiter early is because he doesn’t need much camp at all. The way this guy hits, he could stay in Temecula until March 31, show up in Cincinnati and drill a couple of line drives to right-center.

Remember last fall. After not playing for 55 days because of a nasty left foot injury, Craig returned for the World Series and hit .375 against the Red Sox. This was not a fluke, either. In 2012, Craig missed the first month of the season after off-season knee surgery, went 2-for-4 in his season debut and was hitting .404 after two weeks. In 2011, he went on the disabled list with a groin strain, came back and homered in his first start.

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This is a guy who hits 365/24/7 and makes it look simple. Actually, that’s the key. A very simple swing. Craig has no big leg kick ala Matt Holliday, no exaggerated hand movements like Jon Jay, no pull-happy trigger like so many sluggers. He relies on a steady, quiet approach with few moving parts, and the result is a swing as low-maintenance as a new Honda.

"I just try to hit the ball hard on a line somewhere," he shrugs.

"The same at-bat all the time," is how manager Mike Matheny describes it.

It is an approach that makes Craig arguably the most feared hitter in a lineup that includes Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina. "He is for me," a veteran scout says. "With such a consistent approach and with such good plate coverage, I’d rather face anyone else in that lineup, Holliday included, with the game on the line."

Craig’s numbers with runners on base make him the most dangerous hitter in any lineup, at least ones that don’t include Miguel Cabrera or Joey Votto. Craig led the majors with a .454 average with runners in scoring position last season, a mark surpassed by only George Brett and Tony Gwynn since 1974.

In his three full seasons in the majors, Craig has hit .407 with RISP. No other player in the majors is over .400 in that span, not even Cabrera. The Tigers’ slugger, however, owns a superior OPS with RISP, 1.165, to 1.119 for Craig and Votto.

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Craig, however, has something that you’re not likely to say about Cabrera or Votto: a reasonable contract. He will make $2.75 million this season in the second year of a five-year, $31 million extension he signed last spring. Cabrera will make $22 million in 2014 and Votto will collect $12 million in the first year of his 10-year, $225 million deal.

When Freddie Freeman agreed to an eight-year, $135 million extension with the Braves earlier this week, it was difficult to not think of Craig’s deal. Even when you factor in that Freeman, 24, is five years younger, Craig’s contract should prove to be more team friendly. Over the next three seasons, for example, he will make $17.25 million to Freeman’s $25.625 million.

Craig’s versatility adds to his value, too. Freeman is considered one of the top defensive first basemen in the game, but you’re not likely to see him in right field anytime soon. After playing mostly first base in 2013, Craig is headed back to right field to take Carlos Beltran’s spot and give Matt Adams the opportunity to play regular first base.

While Craig isn’t likely to win a Gold Glove at either position, neither is he a liability at either spot. (Otherwise, you can be sure Tony La Russa would not have joked at Craig’s expense at the recent baseball writers’ dinner. The answer, La Russa provided first, was Catch-22. The question: If you hit 100 balls to right field, how many will Craig catch?)


At the Winter Warm-Up, Craig admitted that his left foot still was short of 100 percent, but he wasn’t expecting to be slowed during spring training. He said he took a month off following the World Series, then began off-season workouts with a focus on improving his left foot.

"Just strengthening all the little muscles and flexibility issues," he said. "But I think we ironed that out pretty good. I was able to move on to more conditioning and weightlifting."

He had proceeded to agility drills and running by January and actually was looking forward to returning to the outfield.

"As long as I’m healthy, I don’t think it matters what position I’m playing, and I feel pretty darn good right now," he said. "I’m excited about that."

On those few occasions when he met with the media last fall to update his condition, it was easy to see his frustration. Though he isn’t one to show much emotion, Craig later admitted that sitting out last fall was more difficult than he might have let on.

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"That was a pretty tough time in my career," he said. "Just a really tough time for that injury to happen. It was just bad timing, a tough pill to swallow."

Even though the Cardinals lost, being able to return for the World Series was worth the considerable pain he played through.

"To get out there and contribute with the team was a great experience overall," said Craig, who led the Cardinals in hitting and scored the winning run in Game 3 on a crazy walk-off obstruction call.

Craig landed so awkwardly at the plate that he appeared to reinjure his left foot, leaving his status for the rest of the Series in doubt. He didn’t start the next night but was able to pinch hit in the ninth inning.

No surprise, he lined a single to right.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.