JUPITER, Fla. -- If St. Louis prospect Oscar Taveras falls short of expectations this season, it won't be for lack of guidance or preparation.
Before the Cardinals arrived in spring training, manager Mike Matheny let Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Jon Jay know that he was counting on them to help steer Taveras through the ins and outs of his initial Grapefruit League camp with the big club. The veterans would drop by Taveras' locker each morning at Roger Dean Stadium and offer up some suggestion or goal for the day, until Beltran and Molina left to play for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and Jay assumed a greater share of the nurturing responsibilities.
Taveras receives pointers on outfield play from coach Chris Maloney and help with his mental approach at the plate from hitting coach John Mabry. It's less a case of micromanaging or babysitting Taveras than schooling him on the organizational mindset while he is still young and impressionable. The Cardinals know that habits firmly ingrained at age 20 will eventually become second nature. So if Taveras fails to run hard down the first-base line or loses track of the situation in the outfield, someone gently but firmly prods him about the lapse.
"He's been over-mentored this spring, if there is such a thing," Matheny says. "He's had so much information to absorb, but that's perfect. That's what we hoped for -- that we would have a willing learner on the back end. He's done that."
The routine isn't quite as suffocating as it sounds. At least four times a day, the Cardinals give Oscar the latitude to be Oscar.
"When he steps in the box," Matheny says, "we get out of the way."
Taveras, a left-handed hitter, is all business from the moment he steps to the plate, smooths out the dirt with both spikes and then feverishly digs a hole with his left foot. He takes a wicked cut, but hangs in the box against left-handed pitching and has the ability to pull inside pitches or shoot balls on the outside corner to the opposite field. Some things just come naturally.
Taveras is hitting .296 with two home runs and an .815 OPS in 54 at-bats this spring, and flashing enough tools to substantiate the endless hype. ESPN's Keith Law placed Taveras second on his 2013 top 100 prospect list, right between No. 1 prospect Jurickson Profar of Texas and Dylan Bundy of Baltimore. Baseball America, which ranks Taveras third behind Profar and Bundy, raves about his "superb hand-eye coordination" and "innate ability to barrel pitches."
The "which former All-Star does he resemble?" game has elicited some interesting comparisons. Former big league GM John Hart shot the moon when he said Taveras reminds him of a young Barry Bonds. And lots of scouts mention fellow Dominican Vladimir Guerrero, although Vlad had a special knack for making solid contact even while violating so many tenets of good hitting. His head could be flying out and his back side bailing, and he would still find a way to keep his hands back and hit a rocket to the gap. Taveras' swing, in contrast, is more fluid and appealing to the naked eye.
"Carlos Gonzalez is a good comparison," Descalso says. "That's one I've heard a little bit. He's a guy who swings hard, but it's a violent, controlled hack, if that makes sense. I know it's lofty expectations to put on a kid, but if [Taveras] were to remind you of somebody "
At the rate he's going, Taveras will soon carve out a prominent niche of his own in the game. Signed to a $145,000 contract as a free agent in 2008, Taveras has spent his first four professional seasons sailing through the system. The Cardinals let him skip Palm Beach in the high Class A Florida State League last season, and Taveras posted a .321/.380/.525 line with 23 home runs and 94 RBIs for Double-A Springfield.
Taveras has shown an impressive ability to put the bat on the ball. In 1,410 professional plate appearances, he has 190 strikeouts and 115 walks. In that respect, he bears a distinct resemblance to Guerrero, who hit 449 homers and slugged .553 in 16 big league seasons while never striking out 100 times.
Practically speaking, it makes the most sense for Taveras to begin the season with Triple-A Memphis. The Cardinals have Matt Holliday in left field, Jay in center and Beltran in right, and an offense that ranked second to Milwaukee in the National League with 765 runs scored in 2012. Barring an injury or a sudden, unforeseen decline by Beltran in the final year of his contract, the Cardinals can afford to send Taveras back to the minors and let him round out his game while delaying the start of his service time clock.
Each day in Florida brings a new opportunity for improvement. In a 3-2 loss to the Mets on Monday, Taveras hit three bolts, ran the bases aggressively and threw out a runner, but also received a mild admonishment from the coaching staff when he was caught unprepared and let a ball get over his head in right field. The next day against Miami, the Cardinals played Taveras in center field, and he was ready out of the chute. Two batters into the game, he deftly ranged back to the warning track to make a catch on Placido Polanco. Moments later, he hauled in another fly ball and made a strong, accurate throw to second base to keep a runner from advancing.
We talk to him about the urgency of every pitch, and how one lapse can end up costing the team. Baseball isn't just an every day game, but an every play game. He knows that's a big deal to us -- being ready every single pitch.
”-- Cardinals manager Mike
Matheny on Taveras
"We talk to him about the urgency of every pitch, and how one lapse can end up costing the team," Matheny says. "Baseball isn't just an every day game, but an every play game. He knows that's a big deal to us -- being ready every single pitch."
Organizational tradition is palpable at Cardinals camp, where players can look up and see Red Schoendienst riding around in a golf cart or fellow Hall of Famers Lou Brock or Bruce Sutter putting on the uniform and dispensing bits of wisdom. Descalso had to pinch himself recently when he was taking grounders at second base and practicing double plays with Ozzie Smith, who can still pick it at age 58.
But the process is more about veterans helping kids to perpetuate the organizational legacy of winning. Chris Carpenter did it for Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia, Skip Schumaker helped Descalso at second base, and now Beltran, Molina and Jay have teamed up to shorten the learning curve for Taveras.
"The Cardinals take a lot of pride in professionalism, working hard and doing things the right way," Holliday says. "For a kid who doesn't speak a ton of English, it really helps him to have guys like Yadi and Carlos who have experienced a lot of different things in this game. Obviously the American guys can help, too, but it's a great example for him to watch them. They're two super-hard workers and guys who have handled their success well and are really willing to reach out and help the young players."
Taveras' spring semester at the University of Jupiter consists of more than just baseball. Three times a week he takes part in English classes arranged by the St. Louis front office. When Matheny was in college at Michigan, his former coach, Bill Freehan, convinced him to take Spanish because he knew it would help him achieve his long-term goals in the game. Matheny, convinced that communication is a two-way street, is a stickler for the Cardinals' young Latin players learning English.
"It's huge for all of our kids, to help them learn the game and give them confidence and feel good about themselves," Matheny says. "Especially at this level. Oscar has a lot of microphones in his face now, so we've tried to school him in that as well."
Although Taveras navigates his media interviews with the help of coach Jose Oquendo, catcher Tony Cruz or baseball operations assistant Luis Morales, he has made considerable strides in a year. When he isn't hunched over a computer or learning new phrases in the classroom, he's picking up snippets of English in conversation with his American teammates or by watching action movies (with subtitles) on television.
Once the games begin and Taveras steps in the box, he plays the lead role in his own action movie. As Albert Pujols showed during his memorable 11-year run in St. Louis, true superstars build their games from the ground floor and take just as much pride in defense and baserunning as they do offense. But hitting is baseball's international language, and Taveras has been around long enough to know that he has a special gift at his disposal.
"I know it's something natural," Taveras says through Morales, "but I have to work hard at it all the time."
The Cardinals wouldn't have it any other way.