ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals had a lot of young players rise to prominence in 2014, but none was as highly anticipated baseball’s top prospect Oscar Taveras. Taveras was heralded as the next great star waiting in the minor leagues, and in 2014 he managed to split fans right down the middle.
“I think he can be a star, and I think he showed some things all season long that proved that,” Mike Matheny said Monday morning.
That hypothesis prompted Taveras’ promotion to the majors this season, and his reputation at 21 years old built expectations never fully realized. He homered in his first game on May 31, then hit .176 in 10 games in June. In July, he picked up 14 hits in 63 at bats, slugging just a whisper over .300. For the next great hitter in St. Louis’ organization, he was having a rough start.
Once Allen Craig was traded to Boston, Taveras got plenty of action in August, starting in 24 games and appearing in 26. He raised his average to .244, but posted a gruesome .244/.292/.289 slash line with 16 strikeouts. Supporters of Taveras had cheered the deal, hoping it would push Matheny to play the rookie, as the manager had been giving Craig steady work in an attempt to break him out of his offensive funk. With a full month of mediocrity in the books, the pro-Oscar camp was losing steam. Even Mozeliak, who referred to the Dominican as “a perennial prospect,” acknowledged after the season Matheny’s movement away from Taveras and toward Randal Grichuk at the end of the season was the correct course.
“He got every opportunity to play and guess what? He didn’t perform,” the GM said. “I’m an advocate for young players, so is Mike, but he has to be performance-driven at that moment.”
Taveras had begun to come around at the plate in September but his defense had not, and the club leaned toward Grichuk heading into October.
“I think from a defensive standpoint, he didn’t play up to what we had hoped. I think you can point to a variety of issues, if you will. One was his physical conditioning and two was maybe his passion for defense. Both need to be addressed,” Mozeliak said.
“He’s never been pushed, and never naturally had that passion for the defensive side of the game,” said Matheny, who added Taveras also seemingly lacked passion for many of the small things the Cardinals clubhouse view as essential to victory, such as base running. “That’s part of his maturing.”
The organization has a plan for Taveras heading into the winter, hoping Grichuk’s October playing time will be a wake up call for the now-22-year-old. Matheny and his GM both met with the prospect after the season and mapped out a path they believe will help him compete for a regular spot in right field.
“We’re hopeful that he’s going to spend the month of November in Jupiter to train there,” Mozeliak said, referring to the team’s spring training facilities.
From there, the plan would be to have Taveras play winter ball in the Dominican Republic before returning to Jupiter in January.
Both men said the young player was very receptive, and handled the call to action well. Throughout the season, there was speculation about how Taveras was fitting into the clubhouse and how the veterans were handling him. Over a series of answers, Matheny told reporters about the pre game meetings held at second base before batting practice. In those gatherings, players address issues within the team ranging from performance to attitude to in-game decision making. The manager said Taveras was “called to the carpet” along with several others over the course of the season, handling the criticism and improving his work just like any other member of the team.
The takeaway was the organization believes Taveras has the talent, but he must show the drive. Management seems to think 2014 opened his eyes to the performance-driven nature of MLB life, and seems to be eagerly awaiting his response to the first challenge of his career he couldn’t swing his way past.
“I don’t think either one of us know that answer today,” Mozeliak said, referring to next season’s right field situations. “My hope is Oscar and Grichuk both show up ready to fight for that job. If we see a healthy competition, that means both guys prepared properly.”