It has been a long and twisting journey, with flashes of brilliance followed by stretches of mediocrity.
Drafted as a high school shortstop from Las Vegas, Nevada, the second-team High School All-American was touted as a top-five round talent in 2006. A commitment to Cal-State Fullerton that was considered firm caused him to drop to the 16th round, where he was selected by St. Louis. Excited Cardinals officials, who paid Pham an over-slot bonus of $325,000, evoked a Derek Jeter comparison that proved to be overly optimistic.
Unable to send him to the new Gulf Coast League team that would be created in 2007, the Cardinals assigned Pham to their then-lowest-level club, Johnson City of the Appalachian League. The move worked well initially, as the 18-year-old started hot with the bat, with a .345/.457/.483 line in June. Injuries and inconsistency would go on to derail his rookie year, however.
His line-drive bat showed good pop but he had problems making contact, striking out more than once per every four at-bats and hitting just .231 on the season. Pham showed great speed and good baserunning instincts, with his 12 stolen bases in 15 tries good for a tie atop the Appy League in 2006. He was ranked our number 39 prospect in the Cardinals system that winter.
Despite Pham's good range, there were concerns about his fielding and especially throwing due to a stiff-armed motion. After committing 22 errors in 54 games with Johnson City, Pham was sent to the Winter Instructional League to work on his defense. After further tutoring in spring training and extended spring training in 2007, by that May, Pham was shifted to the outfield full time. He has played primarily in centerfield ever since.
Skipping over Batavia of the New York-Penn League, Pham was promoted from extended spring camp, where he had a .293 average and an .875 OPS, to Class A Quad Cities following the Memorial Day weekend in 2007. Again, he had trouble with the bat. After an .063 start in the Midwest League, Pham was bumped down to Batavia by mid-June, where he hit just .205, but swiped 14 bases in 20 attempts that summer.
In 2008, Tommy split the season between Quad Cities and A-Advanced Palm Beach and despite a Midwest League 'Player of the Week' award in May, Pham struggled overall. Following a shoulder injury in July, he hit just .200 in August for the River Bandits. Pham finished the season with a .203 batting average, but hit 18 home runs, drove in 56 and was 18-for-23 in stolen base attempts between the two levels.
At the age of 21, Pham was back with Palm Beach in 2009. There he would remain for the entire season as he rebounded slightly from the two rough offensive years prior. His line was .232/.313/.378 in the pitching-dominated Florida State League. Pham hit eight home runs, collected 44 RBI and stole 18 bases in 24 attempts. After a two-year absence, Pham reappeared in The Cardinal Nation top prospect list at number 40 over the winter.
In 2010 spring training, Pham was the talk of minor league camp. He topped all players in spring batting average, on-base and slugging percentages, hits, runs and bases on balls. During camp, Pham's line was .476/.600/.810 with two home runs and 12 walks. His walk rate was especially encouraging, as he drew only 36 free passes all season in 2009.
Despite his stellar camp, Pham did not make Double-A to start this regular season, instead returning to Palm Beach for a third time. In a perfect illustration of his continued inconsistency, the now-22-year-old batted .186 with a .564 OPS in May only to hit .329 with an .875 OPS in June.
As part of a series of moves that rippled through the Cardinals system, starting with Ryan Ludwick's trip to the disabled list, Pham received his initial promotion to Double-A Springfield on July 3.
No longer a bonus baby with glowing major league comps, Pham is going to have to compete for time in the Cardinals outfield with promising prospects Daryl Jones, the organization's Player of the Year in 2008, and 2010 Texas League All-Star Adron Chambers. Chambers has been Springfield's primary centerfielder this season, with Jones and Antonio De Jesus having also appeared there.
To date, in 1,633 plate appearances over 433 career minor league games, Pham's line is .221/.310/.359. He has 32 home runs, 164 RBI and has stolen 79 bases in 103 attempts.
As the old line goes, how much further he progresses is entirely up to him.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Brian pens a column each Wednesday at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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