If there's one thing Allen Craig could always do, it was hit. All throughout the minors and finally in the majors in a bench role, all Craig did was hit, hit, hit. He mashed in the minors, finishing with a career .308./369/.518 line. In his best year, in 2009 in AAA, he crushed 26 homers and 83 RBIs while OPSing .921. Given his first extended stay in the major leagues in 2011, he hit .315/.362/.555 in 200 plate appearances as a fourth outfielder and part time infielder. He played in all seven games of the 2011 World Series and hit .263/.417/.737 with three home runs. Craig hit the lights out everywhere he went, so why wasn't he ever given a chance to see regular at-bats?
Well, because offense is just half the game, of course. Craig has always been a man without a position because his glove has usually been regarded by scouts and coaches as less than optimal. He started out his pro career as a third baseman and shortstop, but the Cardinals soon shifted him to the outfield corners and first base, where he spent most of his time in AAA. While his bat was normally enough to keep him in the lineup, it was questionable whether he'd be able to hang as a regular outfielder in the big leagues, as his range was unimpressive. Several scouting reports also described him as having bad hands on the infield, so it was apparent that perhaps Craig's natural position might have been DH.
The bigger problem, though, was that he didn't have a place to play on the big club. Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman manned the outfield corners for the Cardinals, while David Freese was busy making a name for himself at third base. First base was a no go, of course, because of that guy named Albert Pujols who had been destroying the Cardinal record books at the position for ten years. Craig started eight games at second base in 2011, but he wasn't an option there long term. In spite of the fact that he clearly had a major league-caliber bat, there just seemed to be no room for him to shine on the Cards' roster.
That all changed in 2012. Albert Pujols bolted for the Angels as a free agent, temporarily freeing up first base. The Cardinals responded by signing Carlos Beltran to play right field, then re-signed Lance Berkman and shifted him to first. The ever-brittle Berkman hurt himself seven games into the season, and finally there was an opening for Craig. After all that waiting, a starting role was his!
Unfortunately, he was stuck on the DL recovering from offseason knee surgery. When he returned in May, though, it was all systems go. Craig essentially took over as the starting first baseman and hit a smoking-hot .373/424/.765 in May before landing on the DL again to finish the month. When he returned, he just kept on hitting, and finished the season with a line of .307/.354/.522 to go along with 22 home runs, 92 RBIs, and 76 runs. A power drought in September was the only blemish on what was otherwise a stellar first full season for Craig.
Craig combines two hitting skills that should make fantasy owners swoon. He hits for power while being able to maintain a solid contact rate and avoid strikeouts. The more balls a hitter puts in play, of course, the better the chances are of those balls falling for hits. Craig's ability to keep the ball in play should let him maintain a good bating average, even if he can't sustain his relatively high .334 BABIP. Given his history, Craig looks like a rare hitter who can hit .300 consistently while providing good pop. If he can tick his home run total up towards 30, he'll be one of the best fantasy hitters in the game.
There's ample reason to think he might be able to do that. Remember that Craig missed the entire first month of April with an injury. Despite this, he still knocked in 92 runs. I know everybody hates projected numbers, but if you extrapolate his production over 650 plate appearances, he ends up with 28 home runs and an impressive 116 RBIs. Assuming Carlos Beltran doesn't suddenly age 100 years and Rafael Furcal recovers from his injury, the Cards still stand to have a high-octane offense in 2013. That means there will still be a lot of RBI opportunities for Craig.
There are some question marks, to be sure. Craig doesn't walk as much as you'd like and his sudden inability to hit the ball over the fence in the season's final month was disconcerting. Also worth noting: in the NLCS, the Giants completely incapacitated him by hammering fastballs in on his hands all series, and he was never able to adjust, hitting just a weak .125 in the seven games. You have to wonder if opposing scouts saw this and are taking notes.
Those are just minor quibbles, though. There's a lot to like here. Craig has shown throughout his time as a professional ballplayer that he can hit .300 year in, year out and compliment that with 25-homer power. That he kept mashing in his first full season in the bigs should have surprised no one. With Adrian Gonzalez suddenly looking old, I think it's safe to rank Craig as the top first baseman in NL-only leagues behind Joey Votto (no, I'm not a Paul Goldschmidt fan). I realize he just had his age-27 year, but he's a late bloomer to the major league scene and I'll go out on a limb projecting a .300-30-110 season for him.