photo: Tommy Pham (Scott Kane/USA TODAY Sports Images)
As our annual countdown of the St. Louis Cardinals top 10 stories of 2018 continues to number six, this item is so prominent because the player traded was so prominent – the starting center fielder and best hitter on the team the year before.
On one hand, many were shocked by the July 31 departure of standout, cost-controlled outfielder Tommy Pham to the Tampa Bay Rays, yet when considering the entire picture, it should not have been a surprise. Both the player and his team were falling short of expectations.
From the day Pham was selected by the Cardinals as a shortstop from a Las Vegas high school in the 16th round of the 2006 draft, he was an enigma. Hampered by numerous injuries and a degenerative eye condition, Pham’s long and frustrating path took him until September 2014 to reach the majors, and over two years longer to stick.
One way to illustrate the ups and downs is to review Pham’s ranking on The Cardinal Nation’s annual top prospect list. He debuted his first winter at no. 39, but fell off entirely the next two years, only grab the last spot for 2010. Pham jumped up to no. 19, then hung in at no. 23 the next year, before again disappearing from the 2013 list. He was back, at no. 23 in 2014 and finished at his best-ever placement at no. 13 in 2015.
To summarize, Pham had been eligible for top prospect consideration for nine years, but was only in the top half twice and missed three years entirely. He almost certainly did not care, or if he did, he would probably have used the perceived snub as fuel for his very intense demeanor.
Pham did not make the 2017 Cardinals out of camp, but from his May 5 recall from Memphis, he took off. The right-handed hitter became the team’s first 20/20 (home runs/steals) performer since 2004 and was only one of seven MLB players to slash better than .300/400/.500. In recognition, Pham placed 11th in the National League Most Valuable Player vote.
2018, his 13th year in the system, finally looked like it would be his time to shine from post to post. With Dexter Fowler shifted to right, Pham would be the everyday center fielder and bat second between Fowler and Matt Carpenter.
The pre-arbitration player was approached in the spring with a two-year contract offer worth a reported $4 million. Pham felt he would sell himself short by accepting and declined, apparently miffed by the money and relatively limited term.
In the first week of the season, an interview Pham granted with Sports Illustrated was published. Emphasizing his message with considerable profanity, the 30-year old shared his frustration with how he had been treated by the Cardinals.
A major point of contention was his being sent down to the minors in 2016 and 2017, about which he said he challenged then-manager Mike Matheny. The highly-confident outfielder, who was known for being harder on himself than anyone, also proclaimed he was better than a number of his teammates at the time, though he did not call them out by name. (Note: After struggling with St. Louis in the second half of 2016, Pham was clearly outplayed the next spring by newcomer Jose Martinez.)
Back with Memphis, Pham admitted he took actions and inactions to try to push the Cardinals into releasing him. As he felt the organization had given up on him, he gave up on them. Pham, whose sister noted in the SI article, “He has got a lot of anger”, which was rooted in his tough childhood, considered quitting baseball entirely.
Among Cardinals fans, the SI article was polarizing. Some applauded his honesty, while others labeled him as selfish and worse for his strong words and the manner in which they were delivered. As one might expect, Pham did not back down from the points made.
As the 2018 season proceeded, Pham could not reproduce his breakout 2017. At the time of his trade, he was batting just .248 with 14 home runs, 10 steals and 41 RBI in 98 games. His 99 wRC+ put him just below league average for the year, though he played much better after joining the Rays.
The article seemed a flash point for ongoing frictions reportedly between the player and the organization. Some teammates stood behind Pham, while at least one other said following the trade, “We just got rid of pieces that didn’t always quite fit.”
The Cardinals’ return for Pham and international cap space was three minor leaguers. While 40-man roster outfielder Justin Williams was the best-known player, the plum of the deal may be left-handed pitching prospect Genesis Cabrera. Pham was replaced in the lineup by rookie Harrison Bader.
No one except the Cardinals front office knows for sure, but it seems quite possible the ever-present chip on Pham’s shoulder, upon which he relies for motivation, was also a contributor to the premature conclusion of his Cardinals tenure.
Within an hour of my posting the above, the following interview ran, in which Pham undoubtedly endeared himself to Rays’ fans.
— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) December 27, 2018
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