Taveras on fast track to big leagues
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – First-year Springfield manager Mike Shildt leans back in his office chair and talks about the rare struggles of prized prospect Oscar Taveras.
Two weeks from his 20th birthday, Taveras went 0-for-4 for the second straight night. After bursting out of the gates with an impressive five-week stretch that included 10 home runs and a batting average near .340, the teenager is experiencing his first rough patch at Double-A.
He hasn't homered in two weeks and looks uncomfortable at the plate. His average has dropped below .300 for the first time all season. But Shildt, who managed Taveras in 2010 at Johnson City, knows the struggles won't last long.
"He's probably pressing a little bit," Shildt says. "He's probably looking to do a whole lot. It's a combination of the league trying to figure him out a bit and the counter adjustment taking place and the process of that. He'll be fine.
"He wants to do really well, really bad and he's used to doing well. He's got that kind of talent. Talent plays. He'll figure it out."
Two nights later, Taveras goes 5-for-5 with a home run, double, walk, four runs scored and two RBI, raising his average back to .316 and quieting any concerns over the recent speed bump. Following an off day, the talented prospect goes 2-for-5 in Springfield's next game, scoring two runs and launching his second home run in as many games.
Arguably the Cardinals top hitting prospect in their Minor League system, Taveras is learning on the fly. He's not used to struggling. He's used to hitting. A lot.
Taveras hit a ridiculous .386 in 78 games at Low-A Quad Cities in 2011 with 27 doubles, eight home runs, five triples, 62 RBI and 52 runs scored. He led the league in hitting and both his .444 OBP and 1.028 OPS were among the league leaders.
And he's continued to amaze, even to those who have seen him for a couple years.
"I played with him in Johnson City and then a little bit in Quad Cities and now here," said Springfield shortstop Greg Garcia. "He was born to hit. He goes out there every day and amazes you with what he can do with the bat. It's tough to believe he's 19 because he's such a phenomenal hitter.
"I think has swing has always been there but he's got an approach now which makes him even scarier at the plate. He's not chasing bad balls and he's being more selective which is a scary thought when he's in the batters box."
After his breakout season at Quad Cities, the Cardinals sent Taveras to the Arizona Fall League last fall. The second youngest player only to Bryce Harper, the left-handed hitting outfielder extended his impressive year into the fall.
Playing against some of the best prospects in baseball, Taveras hit .307 (23-for-75) with five doubles, a home run, seven runs scored and five RBI in just 19 games. His success in Arizona allowed the Cardinals to let him skip High-A Palm Beach and start 2012 at Double-A.
"It was a great experience," Taveras says through translator and Springfield utility man Jose Garcia. "There were so many good players there. I was really happy the Cardinals sent me there. I had good numbers. I was the youngest guy on the team but I enjoyed it."
Taveras was a virtual unknown when he signed with the Cardinals as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2008. He received a reported $145,000 bonus from the Cardinals, significantly less than what most of the top international players receive.
But the left-hander has continued to get better, despite the competition getting better as well. Wherever the Cardinals have put him the past three years, he's had success. And that's continued the first two months this year with Springfield.
Taveras has played mostly center field for Springfield but plays a game or two per week in right field. Most scouts think he will eventually land in one of the corner outfield spots before he reaches the Major Leagues.
But while he is known for his offense, Taveras has made big improvements in the other areas of his game. Not quite a five-tool player, Taveras runs decent for a power hitter and has made strides with his reads on balls in the outfield and has worked on the accuracy of his throwing arm as well.
"What I'm pleased about with Oscar is his other aspects of his game," Shildt said. "He's a work in progress based on his age alone but his secondary parts of his game, to be a complete player, to be a Cardinal player, to be a winning player, to be a championship player, to be able to be a good defender, throw to the right base, a good base runner – he's really making strides in those areas.
"I've seen improvements in his maturity, his comprehension of the game, how to go about his preparation and the process. That's the biggest thing. It's still a work in progress, but you can tell he understands what it takes to be successful. He's impressive."
Taveras enters action on June 8 hitting .312 with 12 home runs, 15 doubles, 42 RBI, 31 runs scored and five stolen bases in 56 games at Double-A this season.
But in addition to improving his baseball skills, Taveras has worked just as hard to improve his English. He takes a daily language class with the other Spanish-speaking players and while it's not perfect, he can now hold basic conversations in English.
Rarely seen without a smile on his face, Taveras has become one of the most feared hitters in the Texas League. Opposing players stop stretching to watch him take batting practice and often are stunned by some of the tape-measure home runs he routinely launches.
It's been a long road for Taveras and one that still seems to have plenty of pavement left. But with the improvements the 6-2, 180-pound Taveras has already made and the promise he's showing as a teenager at Double-A, few doubt his path will end in the big league outfield in St. Louis.
"It's a dream for everyone here to play in St. Louis," Taveras said. "I hope God gives me the opportunity to do that some day."
He seems well on his way to doing just that.