Is Oscar Taveras the St. Louis Cardinals' Best Hitting Prospect Since Albert Pujols?

Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

Do Oscar Taveras's hitting statistics support general manager John Mozeliak's description of the outfielder as the organization's most prolific hitting prospect since Albert Pujols?

Shortly after the St. Louis Cardinals lost to the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the NLCS, general manager John Mozeliak held a press conference at Busch Stadium to discuss the future of the franchise. When looking to the Cardinals' future, one figure dominates the landscape: outfield prospect Oscar Taveras. It was therefore unsurprising that Mozeliak fielded a question on the franchise's top prospect making his big-league debut in 2013. Mozeliak called Taveras "an unbelievable hitter" and hinted that the Dominican may make his Cardinals debut next year. BJ Rains of Fox Sports Midwest transcribed Mozeliak's answer:

He's the most prolific hitter I've seen in this organization since probably Albert (Pujols). When his time comes, Imagine he's here for a while so I think we have to just see how we can best use his skills. He's still developing but he's certainly made strides this year in a positive way. Do I think he plays in the big leagues at some point in 2013? I wouldn't rule it out.

Mozeliak is a man of careful phrasing, so cautious that fans have come to call his manner of expression "Mospeak." Given Mozeliak's usual style, to hear him compare Taveras to Albert Pujols, one of the great players in franchise history, was a bit jarring. The statement further grew the already high expectations facing the young lefthanded hitter. It also made me wonder if Taveras is the best hitting Cardinals prospect since Pujols. Is Mozeliak's characterization of Taveras the hitter a fair one?

Taveras hit for a .257 batting average (BA), .338 on-base percentage (OBP), .392 slugging percentage (SLG), and .731 on-base plus slugging (OPS) in 2009 as a 17 year-old in the Dominican Summer League. At age 18, he came to the United States for his first season of pro ball stateside. Taveras split time in the Gulf League and with Johnson City in the Appalachian League. In John son City, he hit for a .322/.362/.526 line, which was good for an OPS of .889 in 229 plate appearances (PA). He finished tenth in the league in OPS.

In 2011, Taveras went to Davenport and played for the River Bandits in the Midwest League, where the median age is 22 years old. The 19-year-old dealt with injuries that limited him to 347 PAs. And what a 347 PAs they were. Taveras won the Midwest League batting title with a .386 average and led the league with a 1.028 OPS. Taveras's gaudy production with the Quad Cities landed him on the radar of many a prospect watcher.

Other than the jump to the majors, there is a belief that the hardest step for a prospect to take is the one to Double-A. Last year, the Cardinals aggressively promoted Taveras from Low-A to Double-A, skipping High-A Palm Beach. Taveras took to the Texas League like a fish to water. The median age for the Texas League is 24 years old. At age 20, Taveras won the Texas League batting title with a .321 BA and finished second in the league in OPS to Rangers prospect Mike Olt. Taveras posted a .953 OPS in 531 PAs to Olt's .977 OPS in 421 PAs. Taveras also had about half as many strikeouts (56) as Olt (101).

This is the résumé of Oscar Taveras as he enters the 2013 season. In this post, I want to give Taveras's numbers some historical context by comparing Taveras's hitting stats to those prospects that have come before him. In this exercise, we will go back 15 years to 1998.

The MWL does not have a reputation for being a particularly hitter-friendly league. Part of this is due to the high-level leagues Cardinals affiliates play in such as the TXL and Pacific Coast League, which have reputations for being paradises for hitters. This is part of the reason why Taveras hitting .386 and OPSing over 1.000 caused many to take note. Taveras did it while being young compared to his peers in a league that is not known for its hitter-friendliness.

Putting the chart together to compare Taveras's 2011 for the Quad Cities to other Cardinals prospects in the MWL was a wonderful trip down Memory Lane. It was so much fun that I doubled the chart's length, from the top 10 Cardinals prospect hitting seasons to the top 20. A look at the players on this chart make the fact that Taveras posted the highest single-season OPS for a Cardinals hitter in the MWL over the past 15 years all the more impressive.

TOP 20 MWL SEASONS FOR ST. LOUIS CARDINALS PROSPECTS BY OPS (1998-2012)

Rank

Player

Team

Year

Age

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

1

O. Taveras

QC

2011

19

347

.386

.444

.584

1.028

2

B. Buckman

QC

2007

23

284

.341

.384

.590

.974

3

N. Stavinoha

QC

2005

23

279

.344

.398

.564

.962

4

D. Barton

PEO

2004

18

393

.313

.445

.511

.956

5

A. Pujols

PEO

2000

20

440

.324

.389

.565

.953

6

C. Walsh

QC

2012

22

425

.314

.419

.530

.949

7

T. Rahmatulla

QC

2012

22

210

.322

.389

.546

.936

8

T. Greene

QC

2006

22

256

.287

.375

.552

.927

9

P. Vasquez

QC

2008

23

159

.331

.389

.535

.924

10

C. Duncan

PEO

2001

20

337

.306

.386

.529

.914

11

K. Wong

QC

2011

20

222

.335

.401

.510

.911

12

B. Wallace

QC

2008

21

177

.327

.418

.490

.908

13

M. Adams

QC

2010

21

510

.310

.355

.541

.896

14

D. Ingram

QC

2010

22

214

.324

.399

.497

.896

15

P. Ozuna

PEO

1998

23

592

.357

.400

.494

.894

16

C. Rasmus

QC

2006

19

341

.310

.373

.512

.884

17

R. Ankiel

QC

2005

25

223

.270

.368

.514

.881

18

S. Williams

QC

2005

23

220

.287

.411

.470

.881

19

A. Garcia

QC

2012

20

444

.280

.354

.525

.879

20

R. Roth

QC

2006

24

418

.307

.354

.523

.878

The chart at once causes visions of OPS sugar plums to dance in our heads and offers some caution. Many names on this list stick out as being good or even great big-leaguers. Others are vaguely recognizable, if at all, because they failed to pan out as a prospect. In 2011, Taveras hit for a higher average and posted a higher OPS than any Cardinals prospect from 1998-2012, a group that includes Pujols, Chris Duncan, Colby Rasmus, and outfielder Rick Ankiel (who was 25).

Also of note is the lack of high-OPS seasons from the Jocketty era. Only three prospects from 1998-2004 posted a top 20 OPS. The vast majority of high-OPS seasons from Cardinals prospects in the MWL were drafted by Jeff Luhnow.

After looking at how Taveras's OPS in the MWL compared to those from Low-A by other Cardinals prospects, I thought I'd see how Taveras's impressive line compared to all MWL players from 1998-2012. The following charts shows the top 20 MWL hitting seasons by OPS for the last 15 seasons.

TOP 20 MWL SEASONS BY OPS (1998-2012)

Rank

Player

Team

Year

Age

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

1

I. Kinsler

CLI

2004

22

255

.402

.465

.692

1.157

2

J. Sands

GRL

2010

22

287

.333

.432

.646

1.078

3

J. Stokes

KNC

2002

20

406

.341

.421

.645

1.066

4

H.S. Choi

LNS

1999

20

344

.321

.422

.610

1.032

5

K. Vargas

BEL

2012

21

186

.318

.419

.610

1.030

6

O. Taveras

QC

2011

19

347

.386

.444

.584

1.028

7

C. Ansman

SBN

2001

23

396

.330

.402

.623

1.025

8

J. Bay

CLI

2001

22

373

.362

.449

.572

1.021

9

C. Nicolas

SBN

2005

23

400

.302

.428

.594

1.021

10

J. Morneau

QDS

2001

20

269

.356

.420

.597

1.018

11

B. Darula

BEL

2000

25

293

.384

.491

.523

1.015

12

L. Burkhart

BEL

2000

25

245

.282

.388

.624

1.012

13

C. Pettit

CDR

2007

22

266

.346

.429

.579

1.008

14

E. Welsh

DAY

2000

23

163

.282

.368

.634

1.002

15

I. Gac

CLI

2002

22

298

.310

.403

.592

.995

16

A. Mottram

SBN

2005

24

245

.309

.376

.618

.993

17

S. Kirby

BEL

1999

21

300

.304

.417

.575

.992

18

J. Perez

BEL

2011

23

316

.337

.413

.580

.992

19

S. Hairston

SBN

2002

22

468

.332

.426

.563

.990

20

J. Darnell

FWA

2009

22

283

.329

.468

.518

.986

The greater MWL chart further highlights how great a season Taveras had for the River Bandits in 2011. At 19, Taveras is the youngest prospect on this list. With 347 PAs, Taveras has the sixth-largest sample size on this chart. He has the second-best BA, behind only Ian Kinsler. Taveras also has the sixth-highest OPS in the MWL over the last 15 years.

The relatively low number of PAs for Taveras in the MWL left him open to the expectation of a significant regression in 2012, even if he was moving to the hitter friendly TXL and playing his home games in the lefthanded-hitter haven of Springfield. His 2012 numbers were not as eye-popping as they were in the Quad Cities, but they were still excellent. Because of the larger sample size for Taveras in Springfield, I've filtered the TXL sample to which we'll compare him to include those players with 400 or more PAs.

TOP 20 TXL SEASONS FOR ST. LOUIS CARDINALS PROSPECTS BY OPS (1998-2012)

Rank

Player

Team

Year

Age

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

1

T. Horne

ARK

1998

27

520

.312

.402

.605

1.007

2

A. Bevins

ARK

2000

24

478

.321

.383

.577

.960

3

T. Minges

SPD

2005

25

486

.324

.392

.564

.956

4

O. Taveras

SPD

2012

20

531

.321

.380

.572

.953

5

C. Rasmus

SPD

2007

20

556

.275

.381

.551

.932

6

C. Richard

ARK

1999

25

499

.294

.363

.563

.926

7

M. Adams

SPD

2011

22

513

.300

.357

.566

.923

8

M. Carpenter

SPD

2010

24

472

.316

.412

.487

.900

9

A. Brown

SPD

2010

25

407

.291

.371

.526

.897

10

A. Luna

SPD

2010

23

408

.270

.426

.470

.897

11

S. Hill

SPD

2010

25

406

.280

.352

.543

.895

12

J. Richardson

SPD

2006

27

501

.311

.382

.500

.882

13

A. Craig

SPD

2008

23

568

.304

.373

.494

.867

14

T. Henley

SPD

2009

24

473

.303

.367

.482

.849

15

J. Richardson

SPD

2007

28

488

.291

.369

.472

.841

16

J. Jay

SPD

2008

23

427

.306

.379

.457

.836

17

A. Herr

SPD

2005

24

456

.298

.336

.498

.834

18

G. Garcia

SPD

2012

22

504

.284

.408

.420

.828

Taveras ties Rasmus as the youngest player on this list of Cardinals TXL prospects and ties Andy Bevins as the second-highest BA. The .953 OPS Taveras posted in 2012 is the sixth-hghest OPS posted by a Cardinals prospect in the TXL since 1998.

Now, here is a look at how Taveras's OPS compares to the best TXL seasons by OPS from 1998-2012 with a minimum of 400 PAs.

TOP TXL SEASONS BY OPS (1998-2012)

Rank

Player

Team

Year

Age

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

1

A. Piatt

MDL

1999

23

585

.345

.451

.704

1.155

2

K. Ginter

RRK

2000

24

569

.333

.457

.580

1.037

3

C. Robinson

NTA

2010

25

548

.335

.410

.625

1.035

4

B. Berger

WCH

2001

26

515

.308

.383

.648

1.031

5

J. Lane

RRK

2001

24

610

.316

.407

.608

1.016

6

A. Gordon

WCH

2006

22

576

.325

.427

.588

1.016

7

C. Headley

SAN

2007

23

522

.330

.437

.580

1.016

8

C. Carter

MDL

2009

22

593

.337

.435

.576

1.011

9

T. Horne

ARK

1998

27

520

.312

.402

.605

1.007

10

M. Quinn

WCH

1998

24

432

.349

.424

.581

1.004

11

S. McNally

WCH

1999

26

543

.282

.411

.591

1.002

12

R. Shealy

TUL

2004

24

552

.318

.411

.584

.995

13

K. Luuloa

MDL

1998

23

579

.334

.419

.572

.991

14

J. DaVanon

MDL

1999

25

440

.342

.424

.567

.991

15

J. Hart

MDL

2000

22

626

.326

.401

.582

.983

16

L. Berkman

JAC

1998

22

517

.306

.424

.555

.979

17

M. Olt

FRI

2012

23

421

.288

.398

.579

.977

18

T. Blanco

TUL

2008

26

441

.323

.385

.587

.973

19

C. Febles

WCH

1998

22

531

.326

.441

.530

.971

20

J. Cust

ELP

2000

21

568

.293

.440

.526

.966

21

M. Groppuso

ELP

1998

28

510

.300

.392

.572

.964

22

A. Bevins

ARK

2000

24

478

.321

.383

.577

.960

23

M. Ensberg

RRK

2000

24

592

.300

.416

.545

.960

24

R. Brown

WCH

1998

25

469

.318

.402

.557

.959

25

N. Gold

FRI

2006

26

522

.292

.376

.582

.958

26

M. Trout

ARK

2011

19

412

.326

.414

.544

.958

27

T. Minges

SPD

2005

25

486

.324

.392

.564

.956

28

O. Taveras

SPD

2012

20

531

.321

.380

.572

.953

*Players in italics are non-Taveras Cardinals prospects.

The thing that immediately jumped out to me when making this chart was the fact that 17 of the top 28 TXL seasons by OPS came between the years of 1998 and 2001. Three of the top six seasons by OPS posted by Cardinals prospects also came from this time span. The second thing to jump off the chart was that Taveras is the second-youngest name on it, behind only Mike Trout. That Taveras has a top 30 TXL season by OPS from 1998-2012 at such a young age is very impressive.

Given where Taveras's offensive production ranks in the recent histories of Cardinals prospects in the MWL and TXL respectively, it is clear that he is one of the most prolific hitters the organization has seen in the last 15 years. It is also fair to say that his hitting in the MWL and TXL is some of the finest for any prospect, regardless of organization, from 1998 to 2012. Taveras has won both a MWL and TXL batting title en route to posting a career minor-league line of .321/.381/.525 over 1,410 professional PAs. It is a slash line that compares well to Albert Pujols's .314/.378/.543 career line over 544 minor-league PAs. Taveras is likely not the next Pujols, but Mozeliak was correct when he described Taveras as the most prolific hitter in the Cardinals system since the future Hall-of-Famer burst onto the scene 12 years ago.

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