(Baseball StL) -- If Matt Carpenter wins the job as the St. Louis Cardinals second baseman, other major league baseball teams cannot overlook the significance of that development.
For the second time in the past six years, the St. Louis Cardinals have trained someone to play second base, as opposed to filling the position via one of the standard three ways clubs acquire position players- minor league development, trade or free agency.
The trade and free agent market have been noticeably lean. Teams with exceptional second basemen like Chase Utley cling to them like grim death.
But middle infielders are seldom a draft priority. In recent years, most major league teams draft arms, speed and power first, often using Los Angeles Dodgers super scout Glen Van Proyen’s five tools to guide draft decisions.
Van Proyen, a legendary scout in northern Illinois for many years, identified five key tools a prospect could have and determined that in order to be draftable, he must have at least three of them.
Those five are hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, throwing ability and defense. Most second base prospects lack the required three. They seldom have gap power and though they may have quick releases, do not necessarily have potent throwing arms. With the exception of the very best to play the game, most don’t hit for high average and while they often have quickness and range, don’t necessarily have the blazing speed that outfielders often display.
That makes middle infielders less of a priority in the draft and second basemen in particular because shortstop is the dominant skill position in any infield.
So without a minor league system stocked with second basemen and limited opportunities in the trade or free agent market, the Cardinals have experimented to great effect in training someone to play second.
Skip Schumacher made the transition under Tony LaRussa and it appears Carpenter is well on his way to making the same change for Mike Matheny.
Teaching a skilled athlete to play a different position is not as easy as one might imagine. Even the change from second to short and vice versa can be difficult.
The ball bounces differently from a right-handed batter to second base than it does to shortstop. The spin on the ball generally means a ground ball will not pop up to a second baseman as it often does to the shortstop.
Footwork at second base can be most difficult to learn as basemen are taught to stay on the outfield side of the base to avoid the sliding runner but pivot to the face first base when the ball is released.
Hours of exchanges between the shortstop and second baseman and throws to first from different angles occupy spring training.
Additionally, the second baseman and shortstop exchange information on which pitch is called so each shades to an area of the field depending on the pitch and the scouting report for that hitter. Curveballs are often rolled over to the second baseman and with a runner at first, some teams change steal coverage responsibility, for example.
Bunt coverage, cut-offs and relay positioning and pick-off plays require concentration not always necessary in the outfield where the game comes to the player, unlike the infield.
Carpenter has played first base and is therefore used to balls arriving at high speed. But unlearning everything associated with that position to learn a separate one is not as easy as fans often assume it would be.
If a talented hitter with a strong throwing arm like Matt Carpenter can be retrained to fill a need at a skilled position, it may cause other clubs to rethink trading young talent or paying high dollar, long term contracts for positions they may already have the talent to fill.
But there’s one thing the Cardinals have that other teams do not; a proven and effective teacher like Jose Oquendo whose value to the organization becomes more apparent each year.