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Randal Grichuk finds himself at a crossroads

What path will the Cardinals ultimately take with their talented yet free swinging outfielder?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals have sent outfielder Randal Grichuk to the team’s Single-A Advanced minor league affiliate as an opportunity to work on his pitch recognition, according to general manager John Mozeliak.

Grichuk has long struggled to pair patience with the pure power that was his calling card upon being drafted in the first round — 24th overall — by the Los Angeles Angels in the 2009 amateur draft. His 21 home runs as a high school senior, the most in the United States that year, had many teams projecting him as a bat with raw power to go along with solid defensive ability at all three outfield positions.

Many scouts and prospect watchers had concerns about Grichuk’s approach at the plate, noting a penchant for whiffs. Still, the run production potential was there, and many envisioned him as a middle-of-the-order bat that could do some damage.

Chalk this one up as a win for the scouting crowd, as Grichuk’s major league career has borne out almost exactly in that manner. Grichuk’s wRC+ of 137 in his breakout 2015 — built on the backs of 17 home runs and a respectable .276/.329/.548 slash — was clearly achieved in spite of his strikeout rate, a lofty 31.4 percent. This year, with his strikeout rate at 29.8 percent, his wRC+ has plummeted to 71.

In fact, Grichuk’s plate discipline issues have always been at the forefront of his 1,125 career plate appearances:

Grichuk plate discipline snapshot

Year K% O-Swing % SwStr%
Year K% O-Swing % SwStr%
2014 26.70% 32.40% 15.00%
2015 31.40% 34.40% 15.50%
2016 29.50% 31.20% 15.00%
2017 29.80% 35.60% 13.70%
NL 2017 Rates 21.30% 29.50% 10.30%

Those numbers are ugly in any context, and Grichuk’s performance relative to the current National League rates for 2017 is particularly troubling. The 25-year-old is actually whiffing a bit less, yet chasing more pitches out of the zone than he ever has.

A quick look at the types of pitches that are fooling Grichuk indicates lasting trouble. He is whiffing against breaking pitches at a 39 percent clip, as per Brooks Baseball. More concerning is that he now cannot be trusted against fastballs, as he is swinging and missing at a 27 percent rate, exceptionally high for pitches with heat. Simply put, everything is giving Grichuk trouble right now.

In that light, it is no surprise that Grichuk’s 2017 triple-slash stands at just .222/.276/.377, forcing the Cardinals’ hand. The Cards would gladly live with a high strikeout rate from their left fielder provided his production remained at a level that was at least comparable to his 2015/2016 highs.

Grichuk’s demotion has been well-earned. The major leagues are not the place to work on such issues, especially for a club that is surprisingly right in the middle of things in the National League Central.

Trade bait?

The team’s considerable commitment to both Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty — coupled with encouraging returns from Tommy Pham — have given many cause to ponder Grichuk’s potential trade value.

A quick survey of the landscape shows a few clubs that have obvious fits for Grichuk’s services. Looking at those clubs with a deficiency in the outfield in terms of Wins Above Average, the San Francisco Giants (-5.3 WAA from outfielders) are an obvious fit. The Oakland Athletics (-2.0 WAA) could be interested as well. Other teams that are not seeing their outfielders scuffle as loudly, such as the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels, might want to take a flyer as well.

The Giants’ outfield has taken a hit with the absence of Hunter Pence, who is set to begin a rehab assignment with the goal of being back by mid-June. San Francisco is tied for dead last in the majors with 42 home runs, and Grichuk can form a natural platoon with center fielder Denard Span. Though the club is also uniquely enamored with OF Gorkys Hernandez — who has slashed .173/.257/.224 — Grichuk would be a considerable upgrade to the Giants’ run production efforts, warts and all.

The always-thrifty Athletics could see Grichuk as a stop-gap solution who can slide right in for light-hitting Rajai Davis in centerfield. Davis’ OPS of .568 is, well, just not very good. Oakland might view Grichuk as a platoon mate with left-handed hitting Matt Joyce. Serving as a designated hitter for Oakland — and, obviously, any American League club — is a viable option, though it would displace second-year player Ryon Healy, whose slashline of .271/.305/.473 coupled with a 26.6 percent strikeout rate represents a marginally better performance than what Grichuk is currently providing.

The Mariners surprisingly sport the sixth-lowest home run total in the majors, and may view Grichuk as an attractive platoon partner for center fielder Jarrod Dyson, who has all of nine career home runs under his belt. The Angels were just dealt an incredible blow with the loss of Mike Trout.

At 26-28, the Angels are hanging in the American League Wild Card race and may feel more confident in bringing Grichuk in rather than rely on Ben Revere or journeyman Eric Young Jr. However, the Angels are likely pretenders rather than contenders, and an honest accounting from the club’s management would likely come to that same conclusion. Still, the team does continue to employ the general manager who drafted Grichuk — Tony Reagins — albeit in an advisory capacity.

Other teams around Major League Baseball could see Grichuk as a low-risk flyer. Grichuk just went through his first round of arbitration, and teams would likely accept his flaws with three years of control left.

Or, Grichuk can find the ability to better recognize pitches without the pressure of having to do so at the major league level. There is no need for Grichuk to suddenly achieve a Joey Votto-level of patience. However, it is a must for the 25-year-old outfielder to reverse course on the slippery slope he finds himself on.

Jason Rollison is a new contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @pbcbreakdown.