The recent loss of St. Louis Cardinal phenom outfielder Oscar Taveras was sudden and tragic.
Watching the highly touted Cardinal rookie blast a home run in the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants and then learning he had died in a car accident just a week later was definitely shocking. The gravity of the loss transcends way beyond baseball and St. Louis. Taveras just turned 22 in June, so he was a very young man with an extremely bright future in front of him.
But as fans and the Cardinals as an organization begin to pick up the pieces and look to the future without him, it leaves a lot of baseball questions.
How good could Taveras have been?
What hole does it leave for the Cardinals and how do they fill it?
These questions and others will swirl during the offseason as we watch to see what our beloved Birds do moving forward.
There is no doubt Taveras’ ceiling was high. Entering 2014 he was No. 3 on the prospect list by Baseball America, mlb.com and baseballprospectus.com. Over six seasons in the minor leagues his batting average was .320, he blasted 53 home runs and drove in 324 runs.
His 2012 season at AA Springfield was his best. In 124 games he hit .321 with 23 homers and 94 RBIs.
We learned in 2014 by watching Taveras at the MLB level, though, that being rated high doesn’t always translate into being a five-tool player. While he possessed a sweet, effortless swing, he wasn’t necessarily fast and was an average fielder with an average arm. His position was hitter and that’s what the Cardinals wanted and needed from him.
General manager John Mozeliak liked him so much it prompted him to trade struggling veteran outfielder Allen Craig to the Boston Red Sox in a package for pitcher John Lackey. Craig was just an All-Star in 2013.
Taveras struggled with the Cards, batting just .239 with three homers and 22 RBIs in 80 contests. He made one error in the outfield in 111 chances, too.
St. Louis faced the conundrum this offseason of beginning to build around Taveras for the future, or using him as the centerpiece in a trade for a more established veteran outfielder. Now neither of those options are available.
The free agent list for outfielders this offseason is sparse. Guys like Norichika Aoki, Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Jonny Gomes, Torii Hunter, Colby Rasmus, Ichiro Suzuki, Josh Willingham and Delmon Young are out there, to name a few. Nick Markakis, Ryan Ludwick, Alex Rios and Denard Span have options that could make them available, too. None of them excite me as far as difference makers at this stage.
The other road the Cards could travel is with what they have. Stick with Matt Holliday in left, Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos in center and promote Stephen Piscotty to platoon with Randal Grichuk in right.
Piscotty batted .288 with nine homers, 69 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 136 games at AAA Memphis in ‘14. The Cardinals left him down this year as to not start his clock toward being arbitration eligible. He’ll be 24 in January, and with the loss of Taveras it’s time to get the clock ticking.
Grichuk was a decent contributor late for the Cards and in the postseason. He hit .245 with three homers and eight RBIs in 47 games and then hit .171 with two homers and three RBIs in nine postseason contests. He’s just 23.
Whatever the Cardinal brass decides to do, it will be done with a heavy heart. Unfortunately for Cardinal Nation, Taveras joins Darryl Kile (2002) and Josh Hancock (2007) as players to die during their St. Louis playing careers in recent history. The franchise persevered through those losses, so hopefully it can do it again — but it’s never easy.
Oscar, you will be missed.