With second-rounder Charlie Tilson signing with the St. Louis Cardinals after an extended holdout the 2011 MLB Draft is officially in the books for St. Louis—and with Colby Rasmus somewhere in the frozen north, hitting home runs out of the world's only retractable-roof igloo, center field depth is suddenly very relevant to the Cardinals' future plans. Here's a look at how the position shakes out across the minor leagues:
AAA Memphis: Adron Chambers, one of this year's Spring Training sleeper picks, has great speed that he's not very good at using in-game—he's got 18 stolen bases in 28 attempts this year—an advanced plate approach, and surprising power. The total package—he's hitting .272/.365/.399 in Memphis—suggests a useful fourth outfielder, although as a left-hander he's a little too similar to Jon Jay for comfort.
The undersized Shane Robinson is back in the fold after a long injury layoff. He's right-handed, which is good, and hitting, which is also good—.321/.380/.545 across all levels. Unfortunately those 35 great games come after three distinctly unsuccessful attempts at succeeding in Memphis before. At 27 he's a finished product, but if he keeps hitting he could spend some time in the bigs as a fifth outfielder and Jay's occasional platoon partner—though I'd rather see Tyler Greene, personally.
AA Springfield: I was skeptical about Daryl Jones when he was topping prospect lists a few years ago, but as with Bryan Anderson before him I think I am now his only remaining fan. Jones is eight months younger than Chambers and has shown more and better tools, and since being demoted in a roster crunch at Memphis he's hammered AA pitching again—.324/.391/.471, after hitting .250/.379/.400 in Memphis. Jones, 24, is behind Chambers on the depth chart in part because we've grown tired of talking about him; that's a bad reason to stash a potentially useful player in AA.
Elsewhere in Springfield, Tommy Pham is perhaps the biggest tease in the system, a power hitter with great speed who's made real strides in plate discipline the last two years only to suffer injury after injury in mid-breakout. In 2010 Pham hit .288/.394/.441 with 27 doubles, five triples, and six home runs in 106 games between high-A Palm Beach and Springfield before going down for the season with a wrist injury. In 2011 Pham was hitting .294/.372/.517 in Springfield before going down with shoulder and wrist injuries.
He'll be 24 in 2011, and if he stays healthy long enough to get some playing time in Memphis he could figure in the team's plans next year.
High-A Palm Beach: Rainel Rosario, a product of the Cardinals' Dominican efforts, has shown decent power for the Florida State League but hasn't spent much time in center; Adam Melker is a 44th-round pick from 2010 who's managed to stick in full-season ball, but only just.
Low-A Quad Cities: Nick Longmire is a tools goof in the Daryl Jones/Tommy Pham tradition who had a much better short-season debut than either one and is now cratering in his first look at the Quad Cities. He's a legitimate center fielder with legitimate power and speed who is legitimately striking out in a quarter of his at-bats and hitting .239, though he appears to have bottomed out; since the All-Star Break he's hitting .264/.341/.336.
He'll have plenty of chances to put everything together at the same time, though Future Redbirds isn't a fan of his swing.
But I've saved the best for last: Oscar Taveras is nearly perfect as a high-upside prospect. After raking in an age-18 stint at Johnson City Taveras arrived in the Midwest League this April and proceeded to go nine for his first 13 with two home runs. Despite an April OPS of just .871 he's hitting .371/.426/.563 this year. The best part: He was born nine months after Nevermind came out.
The bad news: He's had multiple hamstring problems this year and missed significant time as a result. The good news: Everything else. Are you ready for a high-stakes edition of Tommy Pham?
Short Season: Nick Martini, the Cardinals' seventh-rounder out of Kansas State, signed almost immediately and has struggled mightily in 41 games at Batavia, an ominous start for a college player. Fellow draftees Lance Jeffries, the 18-year-old St. Louis native who went in the 10th round, and C.J. McElroy, the Cardinals' third-rounder and yet another speedy center field type in a draft stocked with them, have split time in the GCL, where Tilson will end up.
Jeffries' numbers are solid—he's hitting .287/.379/.413 with 12 stolen bases. McElroy's are bad. They're both 18 and the GCL is a glorified scrimmage league, so don't worry about it.
The Cardinals have a decent combination of near-term usefulness—Jones, Chambers, and Pham—and long-term upside—Taveras, Pham, Longmire, and now Tilson—in the system, in spite of themselves. If Jon Jay can continue to stick as an average Major League center fielder—perhaps with some platoon help—they might be able to sweat out their inexplicable decision to trade Colby Rasmus for players who weren't Colby Rasmus.