Taveras, Wong taking different courses at Memphis finishing school

Revue de presse

Joe Strauss, St-Louis Post Dispatch, June 25, 2013

Oscar Taveras MEMPHIS • One is long, Dominican, an outfielder barely old enough to drink and still learning nuances that go beyond consistently hitting a ball very hard.

The other is compact, Hawaiian, a middle infielder who traveled to the mainland to play before his 10th birthday.

Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong share the same clubhouse and are the two Cardinals position prospects closest to reaching the major leagues. They share the same goal but confront different challenges.

This spring the chattering class had Oscar Taveras so close to St. Louis he should’ve been able to taste a vanilla concrete. Never mind that the Cardinals experienced a similar, most instructive rush with another outfield prospect five years before. Taveras, a week removed from turning 21, is so preternaturally gifted he incites amnesia.

Wong is two years removed from being made the Cardinals’ first-round draft pick. He projects as a No. 2 hitter, a line-drive hitter considered better than advertised defensively. More important is that Wong is billed as a potential long-term solution at the organization’s turnstile position, second base. He has what scouts call “good feet” and gives what scribes consider good interviews.

Oscar’s bat is so live that reports of his exploits were enough three months ago to cause some to lay on train tracks demanding he be part of the Cardinals’ opening day 25. A few protesters even had seen him play.

Because Taveras is hitting .306 at Triple-A, his legend continues to swell even after missing four weeks because of what eventually was diagnosed as a high right ankle sprain.

Now it’s a Sunday night at AutoZone Park. Taveras is hitting .271 since returning from the disabled list. He still moves with a limp. Saturday night he jogged out a ground ball in his first at-bat then, after singling in his second plate appearance, peeled out of the way rather than slide into second base to disrupt a double play.

On Friday, Oscar granted an extended radio interview in English. Sunday he is the last player to reach AutoZone Park and opts to speak in Spanish through an interpreter. Already reprimanded by his manager and a coach for tardiness, Taveras’ body language is distracted two hours before first pitch. Eventually a bad day will grow worse.

Four hours and a classification away, the Springfield Redbirds are meanwhile promoting a Taveras bobblehead giveaway. (The S-Cards drew 6,009, the first 2,500 of whom received a future ebay keepsake. Memphis announced a crowd of 6,569; however, nowhere near as many saw the real Oscar as those who glimpsed the toy version.)

The Cardinals learned a lesson with Colby Rasmus’ progression. Rasmus reached the majors in 2009 — a year after his strong spring training justified his promotion to some fans and perhaps himself. Yet minus some of the cultural issues Taveras faces, Rasmus still grappled with dynamics within a veteran clubhouse upon his arrival at 22.

Taveras signed at 16. Three years later he remained as raw defensively as he was precocious at the plate. At his next level mental lapses in the outfield and on the bases won’t be tolerated.

Asked what separates Taveras from the major leagues, Memphis manager Pop Warner replies, “Oscar can hit. He can hit up there right now.”

A pause ensues before Warner finishes the thought.

“There’s also more to playing up there than that,” he said. “Oscar likes to hit. But he’s also got to stay focused on things like defense and base-running. That’s expected when you get there.

“Here, it’s part of the development process. You learn. But up there it’s about winning. If you throw to a wrong base or run into an out it has consequences.”

Wong admits his challenge is to achieve greater defensive consistency while becoming more disciplined at the plate.

“I’ve always been a very aggressive hitter, and that hasn’t always meant working counts,” he says. “I know that part has to come.”

Rather than fixate on a .316 average, Wong speaks more proudly of working four walks in a game during the team’s last trip.

“It’s not just getting hits. It’s getting on base,” Warner says. “If you’re a top-of-the-order hitter there’s emphasis on working counts and situational hitting. It’s just part of the process.”

Wong, raised with a batting cage rather than a swing set in his backyard, has the aptitude of a coach’s son. He also maintains perspective about a potential logjam involving Matt Carpenter, David Freese and himself within the parent club’s infield.

Carpenter, perhaps seen as a stopgap at second base before the season, is now challenging for an All-Star selection. To move Carpenter to third base next season would necessitate a tough call on Freese.

“I realize there’s a business side to the game and that opportunities may take you elsewhere,” Wong says. “If they feel it’s better to trade me, I know that possibility exists. I know they could do something else as well. My concern is to do what I can here.”

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak reflexively terms Taveras the most talented hitter to come through the organization since Albert Pujols.

Taveras led his league in batting the last two seasons. He managed 23 home runs among 67 extra-base hits at Springfield last summer. He almost certainly will be in St. Louis before turning 22.

Scouts compare Taveras’ aggressive approach to former AL Most Valuable Player and potential Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero. His on-balance lefthanded swing carries little wasted motion. His plate coverage is other-worldly as he effortlessly smokes outside pitches to left.

“I’m working every day to show them I can play,” Taveras said. “It doesn’t matter what league I’m playing in. I just want to show the Cardinals I can play for them.”

What some thought might be a pit stop for Taveras at Triple-A has become something of a painful layover.

The ankle sprain was supposed to keep Taveras out of the lineup for only several games but instead derailed him for almost a month. Several times the club thought him a day or two away only to have Taveras cite renewed discomfort. The Redbirds played a man short for almost three weeks before finally putting him on the disabled list.

Taveras for the first time has struggled against lefthanded pitching. While dominating righthanders with a .364 average and a .566 slugging percentage, Taveras is laboring for a .222 average and a .306 slugging percentage against lefties.

“He’s got to tighten his (hitting) zone a bit,” Warner says. “Oscar has a world of ability, but at this level pitchers can work him more than what he’s seen before.”

“I’m dealing with more veteran pitchers here,” Taveras explained. “I’m getting more fastballs than I expected. I’m adjusting. It’s hitting.”

Taveras played down his heavy playing time in center field, reminding it’s where he has played much of his career.

On the night Springfield dispensed his bobblehead, Taveras drilled a three-run, opposite-field double to give pitching super prospect Carlos Martinez all the support he would need.

Scrambling to second on a pickoff attempt, Taveras reached for the bag with his right foot. The damage didn’t become obvious until he limped home on first baseman Brock Peterson’s homer.

As Peterson accepted congratulation’s from teammates, Taveras hobbled to the far end of the dugout, slamming his helmet so hard it could be heard in the press box. A trainer approached as Taveras grabbed at the aggravated area. From the third-base box, Warner motioned for a substitute.

Taveras, thought so close several months ago, did not start Monday night against Iowa because of the ankle. It’s been that kind of season.

Revue de presse publiée par Jacques Lanciault.

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