Cardinals hoping Randal Grichuk makes a name for himself

Randal Grichuk has shown he can hit for power, but strikeouts and injuries have hounded him early in his career. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

JUPITER, Fla. -- Maybe this is the year people will stop mentioning that he was the guy drafted one spot ahead of Mike Trout. Then again, maybe not.

"It’s something I’ve always heard and I’m always going to hear it," Randal Grichuk said.

In fact, the man who drafted Grichuk has always felt somewhat bad the young outfielder had to be compared to a perennial MVP candidate who reached the big leagues as a teen. While Trout was rocketing toward the major leagues, Grichuk was dealing with injuries and progressing more methodically. He played rookie ball and part of low Class A with Trout before their careers veered in different directions.

"At the time, nobody really knew Mike Trout was the best player in the world," said Eddie Bane, then the scouting director of the Angels who now works for Dave Dombrowski’s Boston Red Sox. "Randal had some injuries, but he’s also just getting used to the fact there’s only one Mike Trout. That doesn’t mean he still won’t be a really good major-league player."

The distinction is a bit of a technicality anyway. The Angels took Grichuk with the No. 24 pick of the first round ahead of Trout, because they already knew they had a pre-draft deal with Grichuk. It was essentially a negotiating ploy with Trout’s agent.

At the time, Bane took some heat for drafting high school outfielders with the team’s first two picks.

"It worked out pretty well," he said.

At 24, two years after he was traded from the Angels to the St. Louis Cardinals for David Freese, Grichuk seems positioned to cement his own name in the game. The Cardinals were intrigued enough with his skill set that they passed on several high-profile free agent outfielders to give him this chance.

Only two things -- Grichuk’s lengthy history with injuries and his high strikeout rate -- concern the Cardinals about Grichuk’s ability to be their everyday center fielder this season. After Jason Heyward signed with the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals did not pursue more proven players like Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes.

Grichuk had the highest strikeout rate (31.4 percent) of any player in the National League with at least 350 plate appearances last season. He also had an .877 OPS, the best on the team. Only Matt Carpenter hit more home runs than Grichuk's 17, and Carpenter played in 51 more games than Grichuk.

In a way, his all-or-nothing approach is a good fit for the Cardinals, who were 11th in home runs last season, but struck out less than all but five NL teams.

"I think the tradeoff right now is something we understand and are accepting of," general manager John Mozeliak said. "In terms of (hitting coaches) John Mabry and Bill Mueller, I’m sure the strikeouts are something they’ve mentioned. But you look at our club and having the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, it’s nice to know that’s there."

Grichuk had surgery to repair a sports hernia in December and has had to modify his typically aggressive leg and core workouts since. The Cardinals have encouraged him to adjust his workout regimen to focus more on flexibility and less on raw strength, hopeful it will help with his injury propensity. They have even asked fellow outfielder Stephen Piscotty to share his workouts with Grichuk, who is one of the most chiseled players in the clubhouse.

"Muscles, that’s not an issue for him. They’re popping out all over him right now," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He’s just in phenomenal shape, but he’s going to have to work on maybe figuring out ways with more flexibility and adjusting a little bit, seeing what fits. Stephen’s got a radically different training regimen. Stephen’s been able to stay on the field for the most part."