One of the few open questions for the St. Louis Cardinals to resolve during spring training camp is the identity of their fifth outfielder.
With the current assumption that starters Matt Holliday, Peter Bourjos and Allen Craig will be backed up by Jon Jay, that potentially leaves one spot.
The incumbent is clearly Shane Robinson, who spent all of 2013 in the majors. Before that, Robinson claimed the job with a fast start in spring training. The right-handed hitter batted .438 last spring, second in the Grapefruit League.
Then just coming off a very strong Double-A season, Oscar Taveras also had a nice 2013 camp with a line of .289/.325/.421 with a pair of home runs and 10 RBI in 76 at-bats. Yet it was no surprise when the then-20-year-old was sent to Triple-A to continue to work on his game, especially playing centerfield. An injury-plagued season followed, however, during which Taveras had just 186 plate appearances.
The Cardinals have no obvious need to push Taveras this spring. All eyes will be on his surgically-repaired right ankle – to determine if the problems are truly behind him. But even if the left-handed hitter is ready – do the Cardinals have room for him?
On the latter point, I say “yes”. I see Taveras positioned this year like Matt Adams was 12 months ago. At that time, Craig was ensconced at first with Carlos Beltran in right and there seemed no place for Adams, whose 2012 season had ended prematurely due to elbow surgery. Yet the burly first-sacker literally mashed his way onto the roster. He paced the Cards with 17 spring RBI. Two of his team-tying three home runs occurred when he was pinch-hitting.
Though Adams had no apparent job even after making the club, the inevitable injuries to others eventually opened the door for him. The left-handed hitter amassed a respectable total of 319 plate appearances during the regular season and another 67 in October.
To those who think the Cardinals might artificially keep Taveras down in the minor leagues for the first month or two in an attempt to avoid a year of arbitration or even a year of free agency down the road, I offer Shelby Miller as exhibit A. Last year, the club could easily have returned Miller to Triple-A, but instead took their best 25 players north.
Some question whether Taveras has been fully groomed for a major league role. With the addition of Bourjos, any defensive pressure on Taveras to play centerfield with St. Louis has been relieved. Most observers agree Oscar’s bat has been ready for some time.
Still, for those who think Taveras needs more plate appearances to be ready, who is to say how much is “enough”?
Albert Pujols had a total of just 15 regular-season plate appearances above the A-Advanced level before reaching St. Louis. Sure, that was a unique hitter in a unique situation. Further, I am not suggesting that Taveras will become Pujols, but he is likely the best position player to come out of the Cardinals’ system since - a special talent at a comparable age.
Special talents are often treated differently than their peers.
If I could re-emphasize just one sentence from this entire article, it would be the one preceding this.
A case study
|Harper and Trout|
Putting Pujols aside, let’s look at two more recent young outfield stars in Major League Baseball – the Angels’ Mike Trout and Washington’s Bryce Harper. Like Taveras has been the last two years, both Trout and Harper were top three prospects in the game for two springs, albeit competing against each other for the top spot in the national rankings.
After opening his age 19 season at Double-A, Trout made the big jump for his MLB debut in July of 2011. (Ironically, it was due to an injury to Bourjos.) Trout was one month short of his 20th birthday. He didn’t stick, however.
The next spring, 2012, Trout seemed ready to make his statement, but ended up missing most of the Cactus League campaign with a case of the flu and shoulder stiffness. After 93 plate appearances at Triple-A in April, Trout was hitting .403. He received the call again and this time, took off. That season, Trout became an All-Star, AL Rookie of the Year and came in second in the MVP balloting.
Harper split his time in 2011 between Class-A and Double-A. To open his age 19 season in 2012, he made 84 plate appearances at Triple-A before getting the call to join the Nats at the end of April. An injury to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman created a need.
Though the Nats’ stated intent was to give Harper 300 at-bats at Triple-A, he took to the majors so well, the plan was quickly scrapped. Harper was 19 ½ years old upon his MLB debut and by mid-season, was an All-Star.
||19 yrs/11 mos
||20 yrs/8 mos
||19 yrs/6 mos
||19 yrs/6 mos
||21 yrs/9 mos*
||21 yrs/9 mos*
To summarize, Taveras has already accumulated more Triple-A plate appearances than did Harper and Trout combined. He has almost 300 more total minor league plate appearances than Trout and nearly three times as many as Harper.
If his debut would be on opening day, Taveras would be close to two years older than was Harper for his first MLB at-bat and over a year older than Trout when the latter stuck in the bigs for good.
Now, one could easily understand why the Cardinals might send Taveras back to Triple-A, especially if he shows rust in the spring. It certainly would not be the end of the world.
But at this point, I think Taveras himself will be the only person who can say with any certainty that he is not ready.
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