The St. Louis Cardinals’ Tommy Pham, who recently turned 30, had his breakout season in 2017 when he hit 23 homers, stole 25 bases, achieved a .411 on-base percentage. And yet, he began the year by being optioned to Triple A. Pham hasn’t forgotten.
Sports Illustrated’s Jack Dickey, who used to work here, spoke to Pham before this season, and the outfielder has a long memory. Pham had been well-acquainted with the Memphis Redbirds, because he was sent there a few times despite his major-league talent. (He made his major-league debut in 2014.) When Pham was again sent down before the 2017 season, he seriously contemplated quitting baseball. While he was in Memphis, Stephen Piscotty was getting thumped with baseballs and Matt Adams was lost in the outfield. From the feature:
Still, Pham hadn’t thought to quit. Then the season started. “We’re two weeks in, and I’m raking,” he says. “I’m hitting like .400. The big league team was 3–9, and all three outfielders were hitting .200. They tried [Matt] Adams out there, and he’s a great hitter, but he just couldn’t play the outfield. So I’m like, They’re getting the reports every day, they know I’m raking. What the f—-? When are they gonna call me up? And then we’re three weeks in. The guys are still struggling, Grichuk, Dex [Dexter Fowler], Piscotty. And I’m still balling! So finally I said, They’re not gonna f——-’ call me up, f—- it, and I zoned out in Triple A. Every day I was just like, F—- this. I’ve made it to the big leagues, f—- it.”
He stopped showing up for early work, daring his manager to bench him, daring St. Louis to cut him loose. Pham’s agents had learned that other MLB teams as well as Japanese clubs were interested. “I’m thinking, [the Cardinals] are not gonna trade me,” Pham says. “They won’t sell me to Japan. What the f—-? They clearly don’t believe in me. Let a mother——— leave! And they wouldn’t even do that.”
Pham was also pissed about his playing time in 2015, when he was once again in line behind Randal Grichuk and others:
When leftfielder Matt Holliday got hurt in 2015, Grichuk got that job, and when Peter Bourjos was benched, sliding Grichuk to center, Piscotty took over in left. Pham had to settle for 35 cobbled-together starts. “You can’t bitch about it, because if you bitch about it, you f—- up the team,” Pham says. “But I put up an .824 OPS and a 1.4 WAR in 150 at bats. Times that by four—if anybody did that their rookie year, baseball goes crazy over them. But when I did it, they say, Oh, he’s just the backup. In 2016, I had an .870 OPS before I stopped playing every day. An .870 OPS in the big leagues? That plays. But I never got the recognition. I put up better numbers than these other guys in the minor leagues and the major leagues. And I was a better athlete than these mother———-. I run faster than ’em, I’m stronger than ’em. But when a team puts some money in a player, they’re gonna talk ’em up.”
Predicting the success of a prospect, in this case one drafted in the 16th round in 2006, can be a crapshoot. The Cardinals, by all accounts an organization pretty good at identifying talent, clearly had no idea about Pham. He had a few chances before last year and apparently didn’t give St. Louis enough to justify a roster spot. Sometimes a team screws it up just enough to keep a talented player down. In this case, the Cardinals’ decision means they’ll pay Pham only $570,000 this season. It worked out for one side.