Defining the 2009 Memphis Redbirds’ headline act has been a chore. Third-baseman Brett Wallace — the St. Louis Cardinals’ top draft pick a year ago — was sent to Oakland in the July trade that brought Matt Holliday to St. Louis. The Redbirds’ lone Pacific Coast League All-Star — relief pitcher Jess Todd — was likewise part of a trade package last month (the one that landed Mark DeRosa from Cleveland). So when fans look back on the ’09 campaign, which name will stand out? Who has made the largest season-long impact?
It may well be Allen Craig.
One class (Spanish) shy of a degree from Cal-Berkeley, Craig isn’t your boilerplate minor-league prospect. He was drafted in the eighth round of the 2006 draft and entered this season ranked 26th in the St. Louis system by Baseball America.
Craig’s numbers reflect a metronomic rise up the Cardinals’ farm chain, with each of his three full seasons played at a higher level than the year before. In 2007 at Class A Palm Beach, Craig hit .312 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs. The next year at Double-A Springfield, the numbers were .304, 22, and 85. Through Sunday this season for the Redbirds, Craig is hitting .314 with 22 homers and 67 RBIs. With the team’s roster volatility, Craig is a chief reason the Redbirds remain in contention for their first playoff berth in nine years.
What’s Craig’s secret to adjusting, one level after another? “I wouldn’t say it’s been a smooth transition,” he says, “because I struggled early on. Every year you move up, there’s something different, and you have to change . . . sometimes things you already changed the year before.”
The pitching at Triple-A is a craftier version of what a player sees at lower levels. Keeping up with the head games has been among Craig’s primary challenges. “They throw a lot more off-speed pitches up here, and you have to be ready for that,” he says. “They have better stuff, and they’re smarter. There are a lot of veteran pitchers who have played in the big leagues. They’re not just going to give you a 3-1 fastball.”
Craig spent the majority of his professional career at third base before arriving in Memphis, where Wallace arrived early this season and recent playing time has been eaten up by David Freese and the rehabbing Troy Glaus. Craig has started more than 40 games at first base and leftfield, adjusting to new positions without allowing any disorientation to impact his production at the plate.
“I finished my senior year in college at shortstop,” says Craig, “and I played a lot of leftfield my junior year. I feel comfortable playing third, first, or left. I don’t really have a preference; whatever gets me to the big leagues. One of my goals this year was to show that I could play the outfield, that they could be comfortable putting me out there.”
If a player can hit, clubs will find a position for him. Craig knows this, and he continues to fine-tune his approach in the batter’s box. “I widened my stance,” he explains, “and I’ve tried to be shorter to the ball, a little quicker. Not trying to do too much, or hit it too far.” He has a bat-waving trigger mechanism that is a mild version of Gary Sheffield’s stance. “I started that in college,” he says, “reminding myself to use my hands as much as my body. I’m not trying to hit home runs. They usually come when you least expect it.”
Third base will be a question mark this winter for the Cardinals. Glaus’s contract expires, as does that of DeRosa, either of whom would be considerably more expensive than Freese, should his ankle woes be behind him. (With re-signing Matt Holliday a priority, bargain-hunting at other positions will be a task for Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak.) If past performance is a clue, though, and steady hitting a prerequisite for a player’s last, biggest promotion, Allen Craig may find himself in the conversation next spring. Needless to say, he’ll have his outfielder’s glove nearby.