ST. LOUIS -- This is the fourth of a seven-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and backup options heading into next season. The catchers, corner infielders and middle infielders have already been discussed. Up next: outfielders.
Though the Cardinals avoided a roster overhaul this winter, the club has seen its collection of outfielders grow considerably. As a result, it would seem that the outfield has emerged as the place of greatest organizational depth.
That depth, of course, may not play immediately. In fact, the Cardinals hope it's not yet needed. Matt Holliday is already entrenched in left field. Allen Craig is projected to start in right. Between the two will likely be some combination of Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay. Then there is the wild card in the whole mix, top prospect Oscar Taveras.
Holliday is among the longest-tenured Cardinals players and will again anchor the outfield. In a sport where salaries are rapidly escalating, Holliday's $17 million salary looks plenty reasonable for the production he is expected to provide. In parts of five seasons with St. Louis, Holliday has a .306/.389/.520 slash line and has averaged 28 home runs and 108 RBIs per season.
Over the last four years, Holliday ranks among baseball's top five outfielders in batting average, on-base percentage, RBIs and doubles. He'll be 34 this season, but he has continued to show strong durability as his seven-year contract has played out.
Craig will likely settle into the other corner-outfield spot, unless the Cardinals opt to start him at first base instead. Assuming Taveras does not crack the Opening Day roster, however, it seems as if Craig will open the year in right.
While it can be debated which position is less of an injury risk to Craig, he has always been consistent in noting his affinity for playing in the outfield. He has started 129 games there, including 78 in right field. One of those starts (June 7, 2011) ended with Craig coming off the field having injured his right knee while sliding into an unpadded portion of the wall along the right-field line at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
That injury cost Craig the next two months and then another month in 2012 as he recovered from surgery.
"I enjoy playing outfield," Craig said. "It's going to be a good opportunity for me, get out there and run around. We'll get Matt Adams in the lineup quite a bit [at first base]. I'm looking forward to it."
Offensively, Craig profiles perfectly as a right fielder. He was on pace to easily surpass the 100-RBI mark for the first time in his career last season until a foot injury ended his season four weeks early. Craig is fully recovered from that issue and is poised to again be the team's cleanup hitter. He has hit .311 over the past two seasons and projects to show more power than he did in 2013, when he hit 13 home runs.
The center-field situation is much more fluid and became such when the Cardinals acquired Bourjos from the Angels in a four-player November trade. Bourjos will arrive to Spring Training the favorite to start in center, though the job is not yet firmly his. How much time Jay sees in the lineup will likely depend upon how much Bourjos can offer offensively.
On defense, there is no question Bourjos is an upgrade. He's among the quickest players in the game and is well above average in terms of ground covered. From 2010-12, Bourjos was credited with 35 Total Zone Runs Saved. That same statistic identified Jay as costing the Cardinals runs last season.
Jay's inconsistency on offense and troubles defensively led the Cardinals to seek an upgrade. That leaves Jay with the task of proving himself deserving of playing time this spring.
"I'm going to come in and be ready to compete," Jay said. "Over the past few years, I've been in the same situation before. Nothing changes for me, the way I go about my business."
The most talked about outfielder this spring, though, is likely to be one who has yet to crack a Major League roster. Taveras, recently ranked by MLB.com as the No. 3 overall prospect in baseball, is coming off an ankle injury that cost him the majority of the 2013 season. The good news for the Cardinals is that Taveras will be uninhibited when camp opens.
"He absolutely looks great," general manager John Mozeliak said. "By the time we get to Spring Training, he should be cleared to run. But just from a physical standpoint, I think he's in the best shape of his life."
While the Cardinals are not so much concerned that Taveras' bat will be hurt by the layoff, the reality that he played in only 47 games in 2013 cost the 21-year-old time to work in center field. Sending Taveras back to Triple-A to start the 2014 season would allow for him to make up some of that lost time.
A Minor League assignment in April, though, would not mean that Taveras is earmarked for another year in Triple-A. The Cardinals have every expectation that he'll dent the Major League roster this season. It just remains a question of when.
If Taveras does start the year in the Minors, that seemingly opens a bench spot for Shane Robinson, who went 5-for-18 as a pinch-hitter last season. He, too, can play any of the three outfield positions.
Other outfielders on the Cardinals' 40-man roster include: Joey Butler, a waiver claim in November; Randal Grichuk, a trade acquisition from the Angels; Mike O'Neill, an organizational prospect; and Rafael Ortega, a January waiver claim. Each of the four, along with outfield prospects Stephen Piscotty and James Ramsey, are expected to start the season in the Minors.
This saturation of outfielders, though, gives the Cardinals promising depth at the position.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.