JUPITER, Fla. — The post-Albert Pujols era began with prospect Matt Adams making the start at first base Monday in the Cardinals’ Grapefruit League opener against the Marlins.
And while Adams doesn’t figure to be in the big league plans this season, the departure of Pujols does open up a spot for the slugger in the near future.
The Double-A Texas League Player of the Year from last year batted sixth Monday, recording the Cardinals’ first hit of the spring on a single up the middle in the bottom of the second inning.
Surprised even to see himself in the lineup, Adams hopes to make the most of his chances with the big league club this spring.
“I just want to take full advantage of the opportunity and go out there and play ball like I know how to play,” Adams said. “It’s a little nerve-racking at first, but the excitement takes over once the game starts and the first pitch is thrown.
“It’s an opportunity, and I want to take full advantage of it and show the coaches what I can do.”
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Adams hit .300 with 32 home runs and 101 RBI in 115 games with Double-A Springfield last year. That followed a 2010 season in which he hit .310 with 22 home runs and 88 RBI in 121 games for Low-A Quad Cities.
He’s a career .316 hitter in three minor league seasons since the Cardinals drafted him in the 23rd round of the 2009 draft, and he has 54 home runs in his past 236 games.
The left-handed masher has opened some eyes early in camp, leading in part to his inclusion in the lineup for Monday’s game.
“He’s impressed a lot of people,” manager Mike Matheny said. “First his makeup and the way he’s gone about it, the work he’s put in, it’s been real impressive. The talent is there; I don’t think anybody doubts that or has doubted that for a long time.”
Adams has taken full advantage of the invitation to big league camp, spending time talking to and absorbing information from first baseman Lance Berkman on multiple occasions.
The 23-year-old also has picked the brain of both Matt Holliday and David Freese, hoping to learn as much as possible as he continues his ascent through the Cardinals system.
“I’m just trying to pick Lance’s mind,” Adams said. “He came up to me and was talking to me and just said basically it’s the same game I’ve always been playing. You have to go out there and do it the same way. Matt Holliday and David Freese have been good guys also, just giving me advice about handling off-field issues and things like that.
“It’s great. You grow up watching these guys play and then you’re actually sitting in the same clubhouse and putting on the same uniform and going out and playing in the same game with them. It’s a nice feeling.”
Said Matheny: “I know he’s jumped all over that opportunity to just talk to everybody. It’s certainly a good learning opportunity for him and will continue to be so.”
With the Cardinals lacking any resemblance of a power threat on the bench, Adams potentially could play his way into consideration to start the year on the big league bench while Allen Craig remains out with a knee injury.
But that scenario seems remote, given the fact the Cardinals would have to start his arbitration clock while potentially delaying his growth with less-than-regular playing time. He’ll likely spend 2012 as the starting first baseman for Triple-A Memphis but could be in line for a call-up later in the year.
With Berkman on a one-year contract, the spot at first base could be open with the big league club as early as next season. And Adams plans to do everything he can to be ready to win it.
“I’m just trying to keep what’s been working and keep it the same and go about my business the way I always have been,” Adams said. “My goal this year is just to continue to progress. There’s always room for improvement.”