Hochman: Pham pumps energy into Cards | Benjamin Hochman

Will the best hitter on the 2017 Cardinals even start for the 2018 team?

It’s a fascinating question, one that most teams won’t even have to ask. Yet of all teams asking the question, it’s the Cards, a club that has struggled hitting for stretches this season.

They’ve sure needed every single single from Thomas James Pham.

But on paper, the 2018 offense will have two high-priced outfielders — Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty — and a litany of upstarts with upside, battling for a spot or two.

I’ll say this: 2017 breakout star Tommy Pham will make an important impact on the 2018 team, either as a starting or fourth outfielder … or as trade bait that lures a quality player. And that’s something that couldn’t have been said last winter.

“When he’s been able to stay healthy, and his vision hasn’t been an issue and all that sort of stuff, he’s never really not played well,” general manager Michael Girsch said. “But those things have been issues. Which is why as a 29-year-old he’s sort of finally breaking through. This is not a 29-year-old nobody — we drafted him fairly high, gave a bunch of money to him, he was on prospect lists throughout the minors. He’s always been a talented player, which gives you a little more hope that this is what he always should’ve been.

“As far as how the future of our outfield shakes out, Tommy has earned himself a prominent role in that process, but it just depends on how things shake out. We have a lot of outfielders under control, and there are outfielders out there who might become available.”

Pham has been my favorite infusion of the ‘17 team. He’s a hustle-hard guy in a town that appreciates them, even anoints them. And he’s a run producer who has salvaged the offense, even saved the offense.

He leads the team in batting average, though Pham said, “I don’t care about batting average.”

He entered Saturday hitting .309, 10th best in the National League, but shared that, “I think that’s an overrated stat. It doesn’t truly measure a hitter’s offensive profile. I care more about getting on base and driving the ball. … Offensively speaking, OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) truly measures a hitter, because it’s telling you if a guy can get on base — and if the guy can drive the ball. I feel like .850, you’re pretty solid — regular. At .900 you’re All-Star. At .950, you’re pretty much in your own league. So I try to shoot to be the best.”

Well, Pham entered Saturday an OPS a few percentage points from .900.

Though not a 2017 All-Star, he’s a stalwart for St. Louis. Pham basically tallied the enticing “.300-.400-.500” trio in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage — he entered Saturday at .309/401/.498. And he leads the Cards in steals. And outfield assists.

“I think Tommy’s a winner, man,” said fellow outfielder Jose Martinez, whose locker is near Pham’s. “As soon as he shows up to the stadium, he gives you the attitude that he wants to win. And for me, you’re an example. I like to win too. Over there in winter ball, I’m on a team that for 30 years (often) wins the championship. I need to absorb that winning attitude — him, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, guys who have showed me the way with a winning attitude.

“He shows you the frustration when he’s not doing well with his swing, or in BP, and you see that — this guy wants to work, this guy wants to do well. Every day. That’s what motivates you to try to do the same. He’s always paying attention to pitchers and details and (absorbing) information.”

Though different types of players, Pham and Martinez have both energized St. Louis upon arriving via long roads. Both men are 29. Martinez is a rookie, while Pham had tallied 312 career at-bats in 2014-16 — he entered Saturday with 307 in this season alone.

“He’s just very intense,” manager Mike Matheny said of Pham. “And he’s also intense about constantly getting better.”

Pham’s frankness is refreshing. When you ask him a question, he pauses to process it, and just when the question-asker wonders if he’s asked a question so dumb that the player has refused to answer it … the player answers it. And Pham does so with thoughtfulness and forthrightness.

He’ll say “he’s struggling” if his last at-bat of a great game was a strikeout. He’ll honestly assess the team’s play after each game. And as for the 29-year-old’s big-league career, “I’m trying to get at least 10 years in this game, so I still have 7½ to go. I need 7½ more years. I think with my body type, and the way I train and take care of my body, it’s definitely attainable. Mike Matheny actually said he believes that, too — I remember he told me that last year, and I thought highly of that, especially coming from him, because he played the game for so long. I was flattered to hear it.”

To get there, Pham plans to work on his speed and explosiveness in the offseason. He shared that he used to run a 60-yard dash in the range of 6.28 seconds to 6.3. At the time, he was 197 pounds, while he’s now around 215.

“I think I’m going to drop down to 205,” he predicted. “I’ll focus on getting some of that back, because it’s going to help me in the outfield. I’ll get to more balls. Steal more bases, of course. And I’ll score more runs, and that’s how you win games.”

Pham, you might know, is from Vegas. Fowler winters there. So the two of them hit together at times during the offseason.

“He’s intense — I had to tell him to calm down a little bit,” Fowler said. “If he’s going to hit with me, he’s got to calm down, because we’re going to have some fun. …

“It’s good to see him out here having some success.”

Perhaps my favorite image of Pham was shared by Martinez — a zoned-in Pham zoomed-in on a screen.

“When he’s watching video, you have to let him be,” Martinez said, “because he’s trying to find out something. Trying to figure something out. And just sitting around on the bench, you can just ask him for whatever, and he’ll know the information. About the pitcher or the OPS, on-base percentage, slugging percentage. He’s always on top of everything. And he’s really fun to watch.”

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