St. Louis pulls trump Card with Piscotty

Cardinals move past Heyward and put faith in young OF

January 30th, 2016

ST. LOUIS -- They became the comments heard 'round the rivalry: Jason Heyward's remarks about how the Cardinals' aging core led him to dash for the fountain of youth -- albeit for less guaranteed money -- in Chicago. To the Cardinals, it made the sting of losing their primary offseason target a little more personal.

But while the Cardinals may have a trio of core players past their prime, the team's success won't hinge solely on how Adam Wainwright does on the mound, or what Yadier Molina brings behind the plate, or how much Matt Holliday offers with his bat. In fact, there's a reason why, contrary to outside expectations, the organization didn't pivot its outfield search after Heyward moved on.

Instead, the Cardinals ended it, preferring to fling that aging-club narrative aside and replace Heyward with an even younger talent. Their intent all along was to end this offseason with a young right fielder in place to serve as an immediate impact piece and a long-term fit for the core.

They thought it could be Heyward. Now, they're excited it's Stephen Piscotty.

"You look at his progression through the Minor Leagues, and it was a perfect trend," general manager John Mozeliak said of Piscotty. "It was always getting better. There is a level of confidence that he's the right guy to make the bet on."

The Cardinals have bet big on a pair of young outfielders, opting to give Randal Grichuk and Piscotty a shot to stick as everyday players, instead of reacting to Heyward's departure with a strong pursuit of Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes or Alex Gordon.

Health remains the pertinent variable when it comes to projecting Grichuk's viability as a future core piece. For Piscotty, staying on the field hasn't been a hindrance, nor did he endure the usual learning curve upon reaching the Majors last season. Instead of easing in, he routinely carried a lagging offense. It was, for the Cardinals, an early indication of star potential.

"Stephen is a phenomenal talent, and one of those guys we see so much potential for," manager Mike Matheny said. "We talk about how this kid can make quick adjustments. This kid figures it out on the fly. There is a mental side that Stephen brings, and we'd like all the other kids in the system to figure that out as well. He's the kind of kid we're convinced there is even a higher upside than what we've seen already."

Just as Piscotty, who turned 25 on Jan. 14, will get everyday opportunities because of another hitter spurning the Cards, he landed here for the same reason. Remember that it was with the pair of Draft picks the Cardinals received upon Albert Pujols' departure in December 2011, that they selected a right-hander out of Texas A&M University and an infielder from Stanford University.

Those two players -- Michael Wacha (19th overall) and Piscotty (36th overall) -- are now a part of the Cardinals' own youth movement.

Wacha's ascension after that 2012 Draft was rapid. Piscotty's was more methodical, fitting to his intellectual makeup. He steadily climbed through the system before undertaking an overhaul to his swing after the 2014 campaign. He believed there was untapped power potential and wanted to improve his swing path and setup to unlock a better ability to drive pitches.

This work, done while he was completing a degree in atmosphere and energy engineering, came with an immediate payoff. Piscotty tallied 41 extra-base hits in 87 Triple-A games last season and then earned a summons to St. Louis. Once there, he became the offensive catalyst the Cards couldn't find elsewhere at the Trade Deadline.

"That whole process I think really solidified my belief in what I was doing," Piscotty said. "I trust it, and so this offseason, I'm not trying to change that at all. I think it works."

Piscotty quickly played himself into a starting role. He fit in left field during Holliday's extended absence and then slotted in at first base or in right when Holliday returned. He became a priority piece -- and for good reason.

Piscotty finished the season with hits in 47 of his 63 games. He accrued 18 multi-hit games, batted .393 with runners in scoring position, delivered 23 of his 39 RBIs with two outs and had the 22nd-best average (.305) in the National League after the All-Star break. He flourished in an otherwise forgettable postseason for the Cards, too, becoming just the second rookie in Major League history to connect for three home runs in his first four postseason games.

"I felt like I was able to make adjustments on the fly," Piscotty said. "I think in the Minor Leagues, I made adjustments maybe game-to-game. But I felt in the big leagues, working with the coaching staff, I was able to make adjustments at-bat to at-bat."

The sample size may be small, but the upside is there. It's why the Cardinals avoided the panic move so many clamored for them to make.

The Cardinals continue to contend that, contrary to Heyward's unflattering portrayal, they have some intriguing young talent of their own. And it was, ironically, with Heyward's departure that the Cardinals now have the opportunity to put it on display.

"If you can imagine multiple cars in your garage, and you seem to drive the same one every day, at some point you may ask yourself, 'Well, does the other one work?'" Mozeliak said. "You have to give it a chance. You have to go test drive it. You've got to let it out of the garage and find out if it's what you thought it is."