Taveras debut triggers big Cards questions

We’ve been waiting for this for a while, but top Cardinals prospect Oscar Taveras is up. Maybe just for now, maybe not forever, but it’s in his hands. Given the anticipation attending his call-up, that’s just as well, since he’ll be swinging the bat with them.

Projections for what Taveras might do are reliably upbeat for the soon-to-be 22-year-old. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS puts him down for a .779 OPS this year; Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA has him at .787; and even FanGraphs’ more modest Steamer forecast of .754 would do. The only serious question about him in the big picture is whether he can handle center field in the majors on an every-day basis, but as a right fielder his cannon of an arm should be a major deterrent to opponents’ basepaths mayhem. He can help the Cardinals win right now, and, if he hits and makes a good impression in center, he might also get to stick around beyond Matt Adams’ stint on the disabled list.

Because that’s kind of the core issue, which Cardinals GM John Mozeliak touched on immediately. This isn’t just a matter of Taveras being ready or Adams being hurt. As Mozeliak noted, the call-up "made sense in two ways: One, let Matt Adams heal, and two, it's an opportunity to give Oscar some playing time and not have to worry about the balance of power and worry about who's playing and who's not."

And that’s the bigger issue for the Cardinals because, if Taveras’ best position is right field, this is where they run into not just the benefits but also the hazards of the machinelike efficiency of their farm system cranking out yet another excellent prospect. Because if Taveras has to play an outfield corner regularly, instead of living up to the organization’s wishcast that says he has the athleticism to handle center, it’s only a matter of time before he stakes claim to a corner for keeps. Maybe that happens this time around, maybe it has to happen later this summer, but, as Led Zeppelin suggested, Oscar’s time is gonna come.

The question of when one lineup slot becomes his permanently depends not just on Taveras but also on what the Cards want to do with their first base/outfield corner trio of Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Adams. Say Taveras earns his keep now -- can you really send him back down? Something’s eventually going to have to give, and that means other people’s playing time.

In the longer term, as far as how Cardinals GM John Mozeliak might juggle this much talent, keep in mind that Holliday is making $17 million per year and should be Cardinals property through at least 2016, 2017 if the team picks up its option. He’s also already armed with a full no-trade clause. Adams won’t even become eligible for arbitration until 2016. And between those two is Craig, a month and a half shy of turning 30, signed for $25.5 million for 2015-17 with a $13 million club option for 2018 (with a $1 million buyout).

Looking at that ledger, if everyone’s healthy, you can see how this becomes a bit of a playing-time crunch in 2015 and beyond. Sure, let’s say you can spread at-bats around by playing mix-and-match, sitting Adams against all lefties, rotating Craig from first to right to left to give everyone else a rest day every week. Maybe Mike Matheny can make that sale and preserve clubhouse amity. Adding another pennant this year might buy more time.

But at some point you’d have to think the Cards will want to swap out Craig or Adams to patch a hole somewhere else on the roster. Having two guys at very different price points and at different points of their careers as far as service time affords Mozeliak plenty of flexibility to entertain offers down the road. He won’t have to make a deal, but if you want a first baseman you can afford (such as Adams) or an experienced win-now option for first base, DH or either outfield corner (such as Craig), you’ll probably be ringing Mr. Mozeliak. But in the long run, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cardinals deal Craig before his deal is done, much as they traded away David Freese (and Fernando Salas) this past winter to get center fielder Peter Bourjos (and Randal Grichuk).

First, though, Taveras has to deliver in the majors, here and now, and not just because we’ve been waiting for him, drooling in anticipation of what he might do. And the rest of it? That’s a problem for several someone elses at a different pay grade, regardless of whether -- or when -- Taveras takes his place among the game’s next generation of superstars.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.