In 2001, Bobby Bonilla strained a hamstring. That hamstring started the career of the best player the Cardinals have had on their team since Stan Musial. Albert Pujols had spent just a single year in the minors and had an insignificant 15 plate appearances at AAA. The plan wasn't for Pujols to launch his career to start the season but fate intervened and, in hindsight, it's impossible to argue with the results. (Here's an interesting look back at the 2001 logic surrounding Pujols arrival.)
Would the Cardinals benefit from a Bobby Bonilla situation in 2013? The Cardinals top prospect, Oscar Taveras, has significantly more experience in the minors and would enter the majors just 6 months younger than Pujols did in 2001. Carlos Beltran is not Bobby Bonilla and Taveras is unlikely to be Albert Pujols but the question still stands. Bernie Miklasz raised the question recently but in the context of finding Oscar Taveras at bats on an as available basis Joe Strauss says that Oscar Tavares' time is coming but that GM John Mozeliak "wants it to be for good" when the time is right.
But why wait? Is the time right now? Is Carlos Beltran, soon to be 36, really a roadblock to Oscar Taveras?
The Quantitative Case
Carlos Beltran found 2013 to be a case of highs and low. Early season performance saw Beltran perform at a level more on par with his best seasons. Posting a .388 wOBA in the first half of the season, those numbers plummeted to .313 in the second half. ZiPS projects Beltran for a .344 wOBA in 2013. That is about .025 points above average. The bat is still there for Beltran though the knee injuries have made his defense erratic.
Meanwhile, ZiPS looks slightly less favorably on the young Taveras. While still above average, it has Taveras posting a .334 as the average projection outcome for 2013. That difference between that projection and Carlos Beltran amounts to about half a win over the course of a full season.
Of course, Oscar Taveras is almost certain to play more frequently than Beltran who the Cardinals have indicated will receive time off this year and has already suffered his first injury of the year. Assuming that the backup for Carlos Beltran on days off and short rests will be Shane Robinson and his .290 wOBA. In a scenario where Beltran received 80% of the plate appearances that Taveras does and Robinson claims the remaining 20%, the value of the players would be roughly identical.
The Qualitative Case
It's hard to get past a push when evaluating the Beltran-Taveras case on paper. Reliance on assumptions regarding age and injury are the only real ways to level the projection discrepancy. A better, though more subjective, line of attack is certainly the scouting case behind Taveras. Scouts simply love him.
One common argument against prospects as they move up is that better pitchers will be able to fool hitters.Despite making the jump from the Quad Cities to Springfield bypassing High A baseball in Palm Beach, Taveras showed no signs of being fooled by pitchers often 2-3 years his elder. Taveras swung at more pitches in the zone and fewer outside of the zone than your average AA hitter.
Winning accolades for his bat control, power and general explosiveness at the plate, the subjective upside for Oscar Taveras well exceeds his projection. Ranked as a top five prospect in all the minor league systems, Oscar Taveras has the potential to be a core part of any team in the future.
What To Do
It's hard to make an objective argument to start Oscar Taveras over Carlos Beltran. Combined with the difficulty of having Taveras, Beltran and Shane Robinson on the roster simultaneously, the safe bet is to keep Taveras in AAA. Shane Robinson provides necessary if underwhelming insurance for Jon Jay in centerfield where many still think Taveras would be overexposed on a full time basis.
The better story line is having Taveras open -- and succeed -- in the majors to begin the season but that argument hinges on how much you trust scouting reports.
Taveras's time will certainly come and it will probably come in 2013 but in June or July rather than April and May.