TAMPA — When the Red Sox gathered their coaches, scouts, and baseball operations executives before the World Series last fall to formulate a game plan against the St. Louis Cardinals, it quickly became evident they had to be cautious pitching to Allen Craig.
He had hit .454 with a 1.138 OPS with runners in scoring position during the regular season. It was the highest batting average for that situation since 1997, when Tony Gwynn hit .459 for the Padres.
Craig destroyed fastballs but also had the ability to work counts and hit breaking pitches with two strikes. There was no obvious path to getting him out.
“Not to take anybody else for granted, but Allen and Matt Holliday were the two guys you had to pitch carefully to,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “We didn’t want them to beat us.”
That’s what made it surprising at the trade deadline when the Cardinals told the Sox they would be willing to include Craig in a deal to get righthander John Lackey.
“When [GM Ben Cherington] mentioned the potential of getting Craig, that got my attention,” Farrell said. “He’s a proven hitter.”
The Sox sent Lackey and a prospect to the Cardinals for Craig and righthander Joe Kelly. Only nine months after trying to beat the Red Sox in the World Series, Craig was wearing their uniform.
“I’ll be honest, it was pretty strange,” Craig said. “But I’ve realized it’s good for me personally to come to a team like this.
“Sometimes baseball defies the odds. I realized that while I didn’t want to get traded, it’s a great opportunity to come to a team like the Red Sox.”
Craig was signed to a team-friendly five-year, $31 million deal before the 2013 season. He turned 30 in July and had been a productive player on three postseason teams. But the Cardinals valued Lackey more.
“I was surprised by the trade,” said Craig. “But as players, we understand that nothing is ever permanent unless you have a no-trade clause. The fact I was coming to a great organization helped me get past it.”
Craig had never settled into one position, playing mostly first base, right field, and left field in recent seasons. Matt Adams had him blocked at first base, and the Cardinals had a group of outfield prospects ready to play. That made Craig expendable despite all he had accomplished.
“He was one of our most valuable players — that’s why he got that contract and he probably could have got more,” Kelly said. “I was surprised they traded me and I was really surprised they traded Allen.”
The last month has been unlike any other for Craig. He sprained his left foot in the first game he played for the Red Sox and went on the disabled list. That kept him from playing in a three-game series at St. Louis. At the same time, he found an apartment in Boston and settled in with his wife, Marie, and daughter, Eden.
Craig also has been dealing with the first protracted slump of his career.
From 2011-13, Craig hit .312 with a .364 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage. He had 127 extra-base hits and 229 RBIs. But he is hitting .231 this season with a .632 OPS and only 8 home runs with 46 RBIs.
In seven games with the Red Sox, Craig is 4 for 27 with one home run.
Craig ended last season with a torn Lisfranc ligament in his left foot. He missed the final 23 games of the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs before limping through the World Series. He was 6 of 16 in six games, starting four times.
Surgery was an option, but the Cardinals and Craig elected to go with rest and rehabilitation.
There is concern that the injury has affected his hitting, and the Red Sox have not ruled out surgery this winter.
Regardless, they feel Craig fits well with their plan to remake a lineup that is last in the American League in scoring.
“We acquired a proven bat, and you look at it like he’s going to be in our lineup,” said Farrell. “My thinking is this isn’t a guy we’re looking to pass through here.”
The Red Sox feel Craig fits best in left field with Yoenis Cespedes taking his strong arm and speed to right field. For now, they’ve allowed Craig to stay in right and Cespedes in left because of their comfort there.
“If you profile their skills, you’d say Craig in left and Cespedes in right,” said Farrell. “That’s the intention and that’s what we would eventually like to get to.”
Craig isn’t concerned about his defensive position.
“I really don’t care,” he said. “I’ll play wherever you want me to play. If it’s left field, that’s fine.
“I’m here to play and I feel good. It might take some time to get my timing back. But it’s a matter of time; I’ll get going.
“I like what we could be. When you put that many good hitters in a lineup, everybody feeds off each other. I’ve done a good job of driving in runs when guys are on base, and there a lot of on-base guys on this team. It’s exciting to think about the future.”
Craig and Kelly, while friendly in St. Louis, have grown tighter since the trade. The shared experience of being traded for the first time and to a team like the Red Sox created a bond.
“We were tight-knit as a team in St. Louis, but once we got traded together, that made us closer and better friends,” said Kelly. “It was good for our wives, too. They didn’t know anybody coming over here.
“The people here have been great to us. It’ll be a lot easier once we get to spring training and really get to know everybody.”
The Red Sox have moves to make this winter to supplement their pitching staff and perhaps add further to the lineup. Craig wants to be part of the solution and perhaps meet the Cardinals in the World Series.
“I don’t project too far in the future,” he said. “I want to be here and be a big part of the team. Going from another storied franchise to another is pretty special. If I had to get moved, this is a great place to come to.”