I can count on one hand the amount of people who saw the 2017 season from St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham coming.
If you sat back in your rocking chair in March thinking Pham-who didn't make the team out of spring training-would compile a f5.9 WAR and a slash line of .306/.411/.520 with 22 home runs this season, you should stop reading this article and head to Hollywood Casino and place a bet.
If there is one unexpected success story from 2017, it's Pham's breakout, both on the field and in the locker room. Whenever you are hitting baseballs hard during the game and ruffling the feathers of your general manager with blunt comments about expectations, it's a confident place to be.
Pham didn't just defeat most pitchers and teams in the league; he proved to himself that he can play a full season without breaking down. Pham competed in 2017 without getting hurt or missing major time due to injury.
When I was having a conversation with a trusted Cardinals scribe before the 2016 season, he laughed at my notion that Pham could stay healthy and contribute. He was "nothing more than a fourth outfielder" was the response, and it wasn't a bad stance or a vindictive statement. Pham, for reasons that can never be fully established (what rash of injuries can?), couldn't stay healthy.
Pham played 153 games between Memphis and St. Louis this past season, which is an easy career high. The most games Pham played in before 2017 in a season was 114 back in 2009 for Palm Beach, the class A minor league affiliate for the Cardinals. Durability and reliability come hand in hand with being a professional athlete, and Pham wasn't there...yet.
The ridiculous factor with Pham's 2017 season comes in the form of his 128 games in St. Louis. How do you produce nearly six wins for your team in only 3/4 of the games? Consistency.
On July 14th, Pham collected two hits, bringing his batting average to .303. It never dropped below. 300 again. Pham's OBP was .388 after that game in Pittsburgh; it never dropped below that mark again. Pham maintained a .492 or better slugging percentage for the rest of the season.
Let's be honest. Only the most loyal members of Cardinal Nation and Wish Upon A Star candidates thought Pham could maintain those marks through the final months of the season. Accountants, gamblers, and most fans figured he'd come to normal or get hurt along the way. It was a giant NO on both accounts.
Off the field, Pham couldn't care less about what the front office would say the next day or how his teammates would feel after something came out of his month. When the Cardinals failed to convert a crucial sequence in Pittsburgh towards the end fo the season, he let them know after the inning. He couldn't even reach the dugout before sounding off.
This week, Pham was asked about missing the playoffs back to back seasons and said point blank that it was becoming familiar to miss the playoffs. John Mozeliak wasn't happy, but who cares? Mo and Michael Girsch have work to do and they know it. Pham was like the messenger dropping off a one line reality check.
I have zero problem with Pham's blunt attitude. The Cardinals fraternity club atmosphere needs a lone wolf type like Pham to keep everybody in check. If Pham wasn't hitting or producing, his words would mean little. But there he is, cranking doubles, stealing bases, and leading by example. He walks the walk and talks the talk.
Pham became the first Cardinal since Reggie Sanders to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in a season. It had been 13 years since Reggie did it at an veteran age for the team. Maybe Pham can do it again. Or, perhaps not.
That is the million dollar question moving forward: can Pham do it again? Was 2017 an outlier in his career or simply proof of what he can do when fully healthy?
Pham will be 30 years old when the 2018 regular season begins, so there is no time to waste. Mozeliak could play the smart card and deal Pham at his highest value to another team-or slide him into center field to see if he can lead the team again. After all, Mozeliak should love what a homegrown counted out product like Pham is doing. He is only proving the promise and trust that the Cardinals showed in him to be worth the stretch.
Pham could walk into Mozeliak's office and ask why he allowed Mike Matheny to start Matt Adams in left field with him sitting down in Memphis, but who wants to live in the past, especially one that dirty?
Pham hasn't even gotten a full serving of MLB games yet. The Cardinals control his rights until 2022. This show is only starting up for each side, so the next season will be interesting.
The Cardinals have seen young players like Allen Craig show flashes of greatness and disappear behind an injury. They've seen promising young hitters produce a great season and suffer a setback, such as Stephen Piscotty. There's no need to be shrewd and offer Pham a multi-year deal just yet. See if he can do it again.
One thing is for sure: Pham should be your starting center fielder in 2018. Move Dexter Fowler over. Tell him it's for the better of the team. If needed, have a center field showcase between the two players. It will be short and sweet.
On Tuesday, Mozeliak said that the only position carved in stone for 2018 was Yadier Molina at catcher, which is accurate. Carson Kelly's feeble .174 average amidst little playing time spelled that out.
But Pham in center should be written in pen. Unless a trade happens, he needs to be there for this team to win more games.
Many years ago, a great Cardinal pitcher named Joaquin said "you never know" in this game.
Tommy Pham's 2017 season is the epitome of "you never know". Can he do it again? I'm not ready to place a bet, but I want to find out.