Slugging Prospect Randal Grichuk Is Key to St. Louis Cardinals' Playoff Hopes

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2015

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The recognition has been quiet, and the hype has been nonexistent.

But there is substance. It exists under the radar for a team that has not had many splashes this season but has modestly positioned itself as the best team in the National League.

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Randal Grichuk has played a significant role in that accomplishment, putting himself among the top candidates for NL Rookie of the Year. He's the organization’s best offensive project since Albert Pujols, though he has never really been seen as an elite prospect despite being drafted one spot ahead of Mike Trout by the Los Angeles Angels in 2009.

Grichuk went into Wednesday hitting .291/.341/.571 with a .912 OPS, a 147 OPS+ and a 150 wRC+. He led all league rookies in Isolated Power (.279), wOBA (.385), wRC+, slugging percentage and OPS, and was third in FanGraphs WAR (2.8) despite starting the year as the Cardinals’ fourth or fifth outfielder. He also strikes out more than 30 percent of the time, far outpacing the league’s 19.6 percent non-pitcher rate.

He continued his production Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds, hitting a double that missed being a home run by centimeters as well as the game-winning homer in the 13th inning, his 13th of the season. He extended his hitting streak to eight games and had his team-high seventh game with at least two extra-base hits.

“He’s still a young guy figuring it all out,” Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during spring training. “He’s a Lamborghini. He’s got all the skills in the world. You look at his skill set and every person on this field and every person in this league would look at him and go, ‘Yeah, I want that.’ He’s got the tools. He’s also trying to manage them on the fly.”

The Angels did not have Grichuk as high as Trout on their 2009 draft board, but because they had back-to-back picks at Nos. 24 and 25, they went with Grichuk first in an attempt to tamp down Trout’s slot bonus. Trout has gone on to become the best player in the game. While that was happening, Grichuk failed to turn himself into a top-flight prospect, having never been rated in any major publication’s Top 100 list while in the minors.

That made him somewhat expendable in 2013, when the Angels traded him and Peter Bourjos to St. Louis for World Series hero David Freese and pitcher Fernando Salas. While Bourjos would provide immediate outfield help, Grichuk was still seen as a project, having just completed a disappointing season at Double-A: .306 OBP, .780 OPS.

He was a bit better the following year at Triple-A Memphis, earning playing time with the Cardinals in 2014, though not enough to sap his rookie eligibility for 2015. Entering this year's spring training, the Cardinals had no one else close to the majors in their farm system with the raw power Grichuk possessed. So after he posted a .911 OPS in 44 Grapefruit League at-bats, the Cardinals decided to bring him along for Opening Day.

Tom Gannam/Associated Press

His first real chance for everyday playing time came in May after he spent time on the disabled list with a back injury. He started playing again on May 16, manning all three outfield positions and hitting .302/.339/.547 for that month.

Grichuk really made his presence felt while left fielder Matt Holliday was on the DL with a quad strain, an injury that could have devastated the lineup considering Holliday had a .417 OBP and .839 OPS at the time. But Grichuk made sure Holliday’s absence did not hurt the club as he batted .290/.342/.570 with a .912 OPS, seven doubles, four triples and five home runs in 30 games.

Things have only gotten better for Grichuk since Holliday returned—though the latter went back on the DL after aggravating the quad last week. Between July 17, when Holliday initially returned, and Wednesday’s game, Grichuk hit .339/.413/.696 with a 1.109 OPS and five homers.

Post All-Star Game: Randal Grichuk is batting .339 (21-62), 4 doubles, triple, 6 HR, 14 RBI, 1.132 OPS in 16 games.

— Chris Tunno (@TunesSTL) August 6, 2015

Manager Mike Matheny told reporters Wednesday:

He's got some potential. You might see some swing and misses every once and a while, but you're also going to see what you did tonight. I think he's going to keep honing his approach at the plate, which is going to take some of those swing and misses out of play. But we're not going to have him shorten up. He has the ability to jump the ball out of the park and change the game.

Grichuk struck out twice Wednesday, and he might always be a high-strikeout player. In order to keep up his current success, he might have to adjust his approach, though. As of now, a big reason for his production is his .387 BABIP, which dwarfs the .304 non-pitcher league average and seems unsustainable for the long term.

However, Grichuk also has a hard-hit rate of 37 percent. The league average is 29.5 percent, according to FanGraphs. And among players with at least 100 at-bats worth of batted-ball data, Grichuk ranks seventh in all of baseball with a 93.2 mph average exit velocity, via BaseballSavant.com.

So even with Grichuk’s approach flaws and good luck, he hits the ball hard enough that he could maintain this level of production for more than just a season, even after a correction to his BABIP.

Grichuk has used the first four months of this season to blossom into one of the league’s best rookies and one of St. Louis’ best hitters. And as the Cardinals push their way into the postseason over the next three months, his continued success will be counted on to keep them as a World Series contender.

All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.


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