ST. LOUIS -- When the Cardinals summoned top prospect Oscar Taveras from Triple-A Memphis for the second time this season, it came with a promise of playing time but not with the guarantee of it coming every day. But nearly a month into this second big league stay, the organization is beginning to re-evaluate whether keeping Taveras on the Major League roster is best for him in both the short and long term.
Manager Mike Matheny has had the task of trying to fill three outfield spots with five players -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Allen Craig and Taveras. Bourjos has fallen to the back of the pack, while Craig and Taveras have essentially formed a timeshare in right field as Matheny tries to get both players hitting. The Cards don't consider center field a viable place to play Taveras regularly.
The growing concern, though, is that by continuing to commit steady playing time to Craig, the Cardinals are not giving Taveras sufficient opportunity to jump-start his bat. It's a dilemma, general manager John Mozeliak said, that is likely to soon require change.
"He is still somebody that we view as a prospect, and at some point he's going to need to play more," Mozeliak said of Taveras, ranked by MLB.com as the Cards' best prospect. "Whether that is here or back in the Minors, for his development, getting at-bats is important.
"At the Major League level, I understand that you have to try to go with the hot bat -- or in this case to try and get both guys going. It's not an easy task. As you can imagine, it's a fine balance between sitting and playing. Currently, it's not a great situation for either one. Hopefully, in the next week or two, it might find a way to be resolved. If not, there are obviously some answers to help create playing time."
Taveras' production in the Majors has been underwhelming, as he's hit .205/.239/.277 with four extra-base hits, five RBIs, four walks and 14 strikeouts in 27 games across both of his stints in St. Louis. The only home run Taveras has hit came in his debut.
Upon being recalled at the end of June, Taveras started five of the team's next six games. He went 3-for-18 during that stretch. Since July 6, Craig has started seven games in right field; Taveras has started the other five. That means Taveras, because of the All-Star break and other off-days, has started only five games over the last 18 days. That sums to 29 at-bats.
"I think there are benefits to being here," Matheny said when asked about how he's managing playing time for the 22-year-old outfielder. "There are other times where you do have players who need playing time. I don't necessarily think that is where Oscar is right now. We need to get him locked in right now, and hopefully that can happen with opportunities, whether it's as a pinch-hitter or when he gets starts. He is going to get opportunities."
But that still begs the critical question: How likely is it that Taveras will take off if he's not playing regularly? Keep in mind that this is the first time in his professional career that he is not an everyday player.
"This game is about playing, so at some point, I do think getting at-bats are important," Mozeliak said. "We said that in the month of July, if he was getting two or three games a week, that would be OK. But you bake in the All-Star break, then take into account that he is not getting a lot of at-bats at the moment -- it is something that we, internally, have to reflect on."
Both Matheny and Mozeliak agree that Taveras has little left to accomplish in Triple-A, where the outfielder hit .318/.370/.502 with 18 doubles, eight homers and 49 RBIs in 62 games. Even if there aren't developmental needs, though, there would be everyday at-bats.
The other option would be to play Taveras more regularly in the Majors, a move that would directly cut into Craig's opportunities. Craig has arguably been the team's biggest disappointment to date this season. Expected to anchor the lineup as the team's cleanup hitter, he has been mired in a four-month battle to right his swing.
July has been his worst month yet, as Craig will enter a weekend series in Chicago just 6-for-41 with two extra-base hits and four RBIs over 12 games. The Cardinals are hesitant to unplug him from the lineup altogether, because they know what he's done before.
"It's not unreasonable to see him becoming more productive," Mozeliak said.
"We'd love to see that come around," added Matheny, "and for him to have the kind of second half that we're more accustomed to seeing."
And so the conundrum continues, as it will until Matheny commits to one player or Mozeliak steps in and transfers Taveras back to Memphis to give him a chance to play. Such a move is unlikely to happen until early August, but it is one that is no longer implausible.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.