By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
“I just met the man who’s going to take my job someday,” he told his wife.
I don’t know if Dexter Fowler felt the same when he reported to Cardinals spring training camp for the first time on February 12th, but given the recent play of young phenom Magneuris Sierra, maybe he should have.
Sierra, a 21-year old center field prospect attempting to make the jump from A-ball to the major leagues, has burst on the scene like Kramer on Seinfeld. And just like Cosmo, when Mags arrived, everything changed.
In just four games, Sierra has collected six hits, two walks, and scored seven runs while standing in for ailing outfielders Stephen Piscotty, Jose Martinez, and the aforementioned Fowler. During that time, the Cardinals have won six straight on the road, completed two consecutive series sweeps, and rallied to win back-to-back games in which they trailed by four runs.
According to Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch, that undefeated, six-game road trip was not only historic, it’s something the Cardinals have never done in their 125-year history. And it’s a far cry from their 3-and-9 start to the season and a mediocre 4-and-3 home stand the week prior.
Sierra’s mere presence is sparking the dugout, lifting butts from benches and arms in the air as he streaks around the bases wreaking havoc in games once thought out of reach. The scrambling opposition’s attempts to stop him appear hopeless, his speed forcing throwing errors and his athletic slides dramatically dodging misplaced tags at home.
Before recording his first extra base hit or swiping a single bag with that ground-eating stride he’s known for, Sierra has ignited a dormant offense and provided the traction St. Louis needed to generate the momentum they crave.
Let’s call it the Magneuris Sierra effect.
In 28 games before Sierra arrived – more than a month of baseball – the Cardinals’ offense managed to score six runs or more just nine times. Three of those games occurred before the Mozeliak Moment on April 17th, when Matt Adams was playing left field and the punchless Jhonny Peralta was starting at third. Six came after making critical lineup changes to supposedly maximize their offensive potential.
Since Sierra arrived, they’ve scored six runs or more in four straight games, or all of the games Sierra has played. Of the Cardinals’ 28 runs scored in those four contests, Sierra has recorded seven of them, roughly 25%. And in each of the Redbirds’ two rallies against Miami, as one user on Twitter put it, Sierra has managed to find himself in “the heart” of both of them.
In fact, he’s done more than that.
In yesterday’s 7-5 win, Sierra came to the plate in the third to lead off the inning with St. Louis trailing 4-to-0. He walked and eventually scored the first of three runs to pull within one. It remained 4-to-3 until the sixth when, with a man on and one out, Sierra singled. And again, he came around to score, this time the go-ahead run to make it 5-to-4.
He started the rally in the third and finished it in the sixth. It felt like deja vu.
On Tuesday, the day of the Cardinals’ first 4-run rally, Sierra came to the plate in the eighth with his team trailing 5-to-1. Tommy Pham was on base when the 21-year old singled and took second on the throw. He later scored and sent the Cardinals to the ninth in a 5-5 tie. An inning later, with one out and none on, Sierra singled again, this time taking second base on a throwing error, a crucial move with pinch hitter Dexter Fowler coming to the plate. The Cardinals’ regular center fielder drove the ball in the gap to send the current center fielder speeding around third to score the winning run with an athletic slide to avoid the tag.
Sierra helped start the rally, then finished it off by scoring his first of two winning runs in as many days. That run left Cardinal fans amazed. The second left them pondering one confounding question.
How in the world are the Cardinals going to send this kid down?
With Fowler’s return expected this Friday and Piscotty’s return looming, a roster that reached deep to pluck Sierra from A-ball will soon be bulging with possibilities. Things get even more complicated if Jose Martinez, disabled with a groin strain, returns to a healthy and productive St. Louis outfield, or if rehabbing pitcher Tyler Lyons demonstrates health and effectiveness over the next week.
And let’s not even bring up the mysteriously absent Peralta.
Any combination of moves involving those players could lead to Sierra’s return to minor league baseball. He is, after all, a 21-year old rookie who has yet to play a single inning at the Double-A level. His development is far from complete, and it is critically important that it continue unhindered. The Magnificent Mags (a nod to Benjamin Hochman for that one) is expected to play a significant role in St. Louis for years to come. There’s no chance general manager John Mozeliak – the master of assets – will risk that future by sitting Sierra on the bench now.
And with Fowler, Piscotty, and eventually Martinez returning, he would sit on the bench.
He needs at-bats, and he needs them everyday. Truth be told, the challenge facing the system right now is more about Sierra’s movement up the ladder than it is about his sustainability in the big leagues. With Harrison Bader, Oscar Mercado, and Adolis Garcia all receiving priority playing time at center field in the levels above him, the way is virtually blocked for the only remaining minor-league outfielder on the 40-man roster.
Mozeliak will likely take a personal hand to clearing up that log jam – likely by the July trade deadline – before he considers keeping Sierra in St. Louis.
Besides, one could make the argument that the Cardinals don’t really need him up here.
Sure, Sierra was the face of the comebacks in Miami, and he’s certainly an intriguing story, but he’s hardly the only Cardinal producing.
Jedd Gyorko, the newly appointed starter at third base, is slashing .391/.440/.696 in 19 games since April 18th, and he’s hitting .400 since April 28th. He’s made the Cardinals’ previous struggles at cleanup an afterthought.
Ahead of him, Matt Carpenter is putting up his own MVP-like numbers with a .353 batting average, .853 slugging percentage, and a mind-boggling .542 on-base percentage in his last 10 games. Those numbers include four home runs and 11 runs scored in just 48 plate appearances. Number two may be the best spot in the lineup for Carpenter at some point in his career, but as long as he’s getting on base ahead of Gyorko, number three looks just right.
Besides, Aledmys Diaz looks ready to return to the two-hole soon enough with is own .341/.364/.463 slash line in May. Or maybe Tommy Pham can fill the roll with his tremendous .417/.517/.917 line since getting called up May 5th.
Whoever Matheny decides to replace current number two hitter Randal Grichuk with – hint, hint – for this weekend series against the Cubs, they’ll likely be looking to drive in the recovering Fowler at leadoff. If his two pinch hit appearances are any indication, his bat is more than ready to get his old job back.
And if he’s not, then Dexter can spell Grichuk in left field and Sierra can get a few more at-bats in center field before his exit.
But it won’t last. And it doesn’t need to.
Because despite his prominent role in the Cardinals’ dramatic comebacks over the last two games, the Magneuris Sierra effect has done it’s job. The infectious energy and youthful exuberance of the latest Cardinal rookie to make a splash at the major-league level has not only ignited the Redbird offense – it woke a sleeping giant and propelled them to first place in the NL Central.
Now, as the Cardinals prepare to defend their position against the now-challenging Chicago Cubs in Busch Stadium, it’s time for Mags the Magnificent to pull a disappearing act and return to his duties in the lower levels of the Cardinals’ farm system.
His time will come soon enough. This latest run was less a premiere and more a preview of what’s around the corner.
For now, this Cardinals team can take it from here.
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.