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Cardinals' fate could hinge on two young outfielders

The St. Louis Cardinals finished eighth in the National League in OPS and 11th in home runs last season and yet won 100 games, a strange trio of numbers that prompt two remarkably obvious conclusions.

First, they must have had dominant pitching and, second, they must have been intent on using the winter to add punch to their offense. Oddly, only one of those conclusions proves right. The Cardinals’ rotation had the best ERA in the league, and the Cardinals’ bullpen had the league’s second-best ERA behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. So, yeah, they pitched the ball well.

But general manager John Mozeliak reacted to the loss of his second-most productive hitter, right fielder Jason Heyward, by largely standing pat through the winter months. In fact, with Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton still out there a few weeks ago, Mozeliak signaled a lack of interest in adding to his outfield.

“Where are we going to play them?” he said. “People say, ‘Well, why don’t you put them in center field?’ Well, the whole idea is to find out if Randal Grichuk can be that person.”

The Cards’ GM proved his faith in two of his young outfielders by remaining out of the fray even as the market for Upton and Cespedes remained surprisingly tepid and both ended up signing far-from-outrageous contracts by today’s standards. Upton went to the Detroit Tigers on a six-year, $132.75 million deal and Cespedes went back to the New York Mets for three years and $75 million.

MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch explores the team’s comfort level with Stephen Piscotty as Heyward’s heir apparent. Mozeliak and the team might have even higher hopes for Grichuk, 24, who will be given first shot as the team’s everyday center fielder after he put up an .877 OPS in 350 plate appearances last year.

“Grichuk is an above-average defender and a very toolsy player,” Mozeliak said. “He has enormous power and can do everything well. If he just can stay healthy and give us 550 plate appearances, I think you’re going to see a 30-home run kind of guy.”

Up to now, Grichuk is best known throughout baseball for being the guy drafted one spot ahead of superstar Mike Trout in the first round of the 2009 draft. That label is a bit unfair considering the same team, the Los Angeles Angels, drafted both players and picking Grichuk ahead of Trout was a simple negotiating ploy since the team had already worked out a deal with Grichuk.

One veteran NL scout said he thinks both Grichuk and Piscotty will reward Mozeliak’s faith if they’re given everyday at-bats.

“Both guys show up and come to play,” the scout said. “Given the fact they weren’t the so-called ‘everyday guys,’ there were some inconsistencies in their game. Both will be very good major-league players.”

The Cardinals have a lot riding on that conclusion now, for years to come.