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St. Louis Cardinals: What becomes of Tommy Pham?

Tommy Pham's future is in question.

For the last few seasons it has been somewhat of a running joke that Mike Matheny dislikes playing Tommy Pham. The guy could hit 3 bombs in a game and then ride the pines for a month or so. It’s an exaggeration, but founded in some truth. When Brandon Moss was mired in a 9 for 99 slump (and seated firmly in a premium RBI position) in September 2016 it would have been prime time to give Pham a chance. He got 19 PA’s in the month. For reference, Jose Martinez received 16 AB’s as a September call-up with no prior big league experience. The Birds went 14-14 in September and missed the Wild Card by 2 games. It’s not unreasonable to think that Pham, even with his .226 BA, over Moss (literally almost anyone over Moss) down the stretch could have swung a couple close games and at least put them into a sudden-death with the Giants.

For all the hand-wringing the last two years about Pham being passed over when it comes to playing time, we now sit just days away from him most likely being demoted to AAA. That’s the rainy present, and there are clouds in the future as well.

The Profile

There is no doubt about it, when you look at Pham’s skill set he appears to be an ideal 4th Outfielder. He has some speed and he can provide something in the area of league average defense at all three positions (0 errors, -1 DRS for his career). His power should be an asset coming off of the bench and in spot starts.

Only the latter is true. In 71 career starts he has a .266/.353/.510 slash line with 13 HR. Project that over a full season and you’re talking about a guy pushing 25-30 HR, but also striking out close to 200 times (right at 30% strikeout rate in his career). However, in 62 PA’s coming off the bench his slash line is a meager .145/.242/.200 with his 1 HR being the only XBH in that situation. To make matters worse his strikeout rate spikes to 40%. Small sample and all, he has not shown an ability to be a valuable in-game bench player. This is in stark contrast to Matt Adams, who is pretty average as a starting player but has a knack for performing as a PH, thus maintaining value.

Pham has also had his fair share of injuries stall him throughout his minor league and major league career. It’s hard to forget him coming up lame while running out a groundout on Opening Day 2016. Pulled a hamstring and we didn’t see him again until June. So, while he has shown he can have success when given regular playing time, his injury-prone ways and struggles coming off the bench have killed much of his upside.

His Peers

Pham’s fall down the depth chart is not entirely of his own doing. Although his spring has not been particularly impressive – .231 BA with just 2 XBH and 14 SO’s – it’s not as though he has taken a serious step back from his past performance. Rather his demise in this camp is that his competition has far exceeded him. Don’t put too much stock in spring stats but its pretty clear that he is in tough company.

Mags Sierra (he needs plenty more seasoning at the dish) hit .387 and by all accounts is ready to play defensively at the ML level. Harrison Bader has followed up a strong AFL with a strong spring, leading the team in AB’s while hitting .318 with a .898 OPS. He can play all 3 OF spots and possesses nice power, like Pham, and will be sitting at AAA ready to fill in. Jose Martinez has been Mr. March slashing .381/.490/.786 with 4 HR and only 5 SO’s. Jose Adolis Garcia was able to get into games this week and was immediately involved. How much time the 24-year old needs in the minors is still a question, but as one of the best players remaining in Cuba, he is probably not far away.

When camp opened it was pretty clear how the 25-man roster would shake down. The last couple bullpen spots seemed like the only competition. It was easy to pencil Pham in as the 4th OF on a bench consisting of Fryer, Adams, Gyorko, and G. Garcia. Then Martinez started bashing and others put forward strong performances. If Pham was 4th on the OF depth chart to start the spring, I can easily see him now sitting at 6th. Martinez and Bader have both passed him, in my opinion, and J. A. Garcia is poised to leapfrog him as well (pending more playing time).

What’s his role in 2016?

Pham still has one option remaining. This means the Cardinals can send him to Memphis to start the year without consequence. The general sense is that there is just no way that Jose Martinez doesn’t make the team. Pham’s biggest edge over him is the ability to play CF, but having Grichuk to spot Fowler on his days off negates that advantage. Pham likely winds up at AAA as a nice depth piece. If for some reason an OF bench spot opens up, Pham likely gets the call over Bader. I believe the Cardinals would prefer he get the regular AB’s. If an injury to one of the starting 3 OF’s were to happen, then I think we see Bader over Pham. The wild card is Garcia. If he gets it going then he could be the next man up.

Some unforeseen things could occur. After Ian Desmond was injured a couple of weeks ago a Matt Adams/Gerardo Parra trade idea was floated. Parra’s LH bat would replace Adams and he would be an upgrade over Pham as a 4th OF. It’s unlikely to happen though. Michael D. Miles even reminds us that Angel Pagan is still out there. An outside acquisition would spell certain doom for Pham.

The End is Near

If the Cardinals get into injury trouble and run into a 40-man roster crunch, Pham could be a victim. Considering he hasn’t been overly impressive, he might slip through like Aledmys Diaz (wow, disaster averted), or a rebuilding teams could take a flyer like Arizona did with Jeremy Hazelbaker. I think he becomes such a casualty next off-season should he make it that far.

No roster decision has been made yet, so this could be premature. April 2nd could find this article completely irrelevant. However, should Tommy Pham find himself in Memphis to start the year then I believe his road back to St. Louis is a difficult one and that his days in the organization are numbered.

What’s that you say Shane Robinson?

Thanks for reading!

Rusty Groppel
I'm a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I'm also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.
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