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Outfield depth motivates young Cardinals to improve

Prospects such as Taveras, Grichuk and Piscotty driven by logjam

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals don't like to talk about depth these days. Manager Mike Matheny jokes that he learned his lesson last year when he spoke about the luxury of having such a deep well of pitching.

That's because that depth turned out not to be an extravagance, but rather a necessity, as the Cardinals had to call upon one rookie after another to help pitch them into the postseason.

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This year, it's the collection of young outfielders that has garnered attention and is poised to create a logjam in the upper Minor League levels. The Cardinals may superstitiously keep from referring to this as depth, but it is clear that they have coverage and several tough decisions soon to make as a result of it.

"It's a tough organization to be a young outfielder in right now," Matheny said. "You have a number of guys who could play at that Triple-A level. We'll see how it all plays out and how each guy takes advantage of the time they get."

Any talk about young Cardinals outfielders starts with Oscar Taveras, though he actually got the briefest look this spring. Slowed first by his ankle and then with a hamstring injury, Taveras left Major League camp last week after tallying six at-bats. Nevertheless, he'll still enter the season ranked by as the organization's top prospect.

Not far behind him on that list is Stephen Piscotty, who climbed to No. 3 after a standout first professional season and strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. James Ramsey (No. 7), Randal Grichuk (No. 12) and Mike O'Neill (No. 19) are also among the outfielders to dent's organizational top 20 rankings.

Add to the mix winter waiver claims Joey Butler and Rafael Ortega, and the Cardinals have enough outfielders to fill their top two Minor League levels.

"I feel like there's two ways to look at it," Piscotty said. "One is that, 'Oh, there are so many great outfielders in this organization, how can I move up?' Or you can say, 'I just have to be better.' I think everyone looks at it that way, and I feel like that's why the Cardinals have been so successful. They bring in such talent and there's this inner competition, but there is also the Cardinal Way. Everyone gets along, shares knowledge. It's so awesome to be a part of."

Piscotty and Grichuk have especially shined this spring and have benefited from increased exposure due to Taveras' absence. Though the Cardinals already have a big league outfield of five -- Matt Holliday, Peter Bourjos, Allen Craig, Jon Jay and Shane Robinson -- the two former first-round picks have positioned themselves as among the ready wave.

Piscotty, who transitioned to the outfield last season, has 10 hits in 28 spring at-bats. Four of those hits have been for extra bases and he's driven in six. With six walks and two strikeouts, Piscotty's plate discipline has been notable.

Grichuk's numbers aren't as gaudy, but he does lead the team with five doubles. His power potential is one of the reasons why the Cardinals pushed to have him included in the November trade that netted Bourjos.

"It's just a drive to push harder, be better," Grichuk said. "We have Piscotty, Ramsey, Oscar, Mike, you can go on and on. The Cardinals have a good group of guys outfield-wise, a lot of depth. I just use it as motivation to work harder and push myself to play better."

Piscotty and Grichuk happen to be roommates, too, along with Ramsey. That means they also get to see their organizational competition away from the field -- though that has not been a topic of frequent conversation.

"We're just constantly trying to help each other out," Ramsey said. "I think the less you worry about fitting into the puzzle instead of seeing how it can benefit your own game, the better."

But with a deep stock of outfielders comes decisions and the necessity to get creative with positioning. As of now, Taveras, Grichuk and Piscotty are projected to fill the three starting outfield spots in Triple-A Memphis. It's an especially talented outfield, though all three have said they are most comfortable in right field.

Grichuk will likely land in center, where he played 23 games last season. Piscotty and Taveras can then take the work in the two corner spots. Butler or Ortega could serve as a fourth outfielder on the roster.

O'Neill, who earned a promotion to Triple-A last season after hitting .320 in 98 Double-A games, could end up back in Springfield, despite having already proven himself there. The same destination is likely for Ramsey, too.

The Cardinals have not finalized those assignments.

Jay is among those to have a front-row seat to see the young outfielders coming behind him, and as he watches the group, he sees something familiar. He compared the logjam to the one he was in several years ago when a group of talented position players -- among them Craig, Colby Rasmus, Daniel Descalso and Robinson -- were seemingly Major League-ready, but without a big league opportunity.

"It took some time to get up here, but we understood that St. Louis had some depth, and we understood that when we did get a chance to come up here, we were going to have a chance to win," Jay said. "We could have been in another organization where we got called up maybe a year or two earlier. But we wouldn't have had the chance to win right away and maybe experience what we've been able to experience. This organization has done a really good job of stockpiling."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.

St. Louis Cardinals, Randal Grichuk, Mike O'Neill, Stephen Piscotty, James Ramsey, Oscar Taveras