Coming into the 2014 season, the Cardinals had the potential for two players to get significant votes in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. David Freese had been dealt in the offseason to make way for former first round pick Kolten Wong to join the infield while Matt Carpenter made the transition to his more natural position at the hot corner.
Oscar Taveras never got much of a chance to make the opening day roster due to the ankle injury that ended his 2013 season with Memphis, but the thought was that Taveras would be up in the big leagues at the first sign of trouble or to form some sort of platoon with Allen Craig for the right field duties, with his talent eventually winning over the corner outfield job for good and forcing Craig into a platoon with Matt Adams at first base with occasional starts in right field against left handed starting pitchers.
As it turns out, neither of those plans really came to fruition. Wong struggled for a few weeks, lost playing time to an equally feckless Mark Ellis and was then demoted to "work on overcoming adversity". After tearing up AAA for two weeks he was back up but still couldn't quite get a handle on regular playing time until the last two months of the season, where he put up a couple of two week stretches that gave Cardinal fans a peek at what his true potential might be.
The consternation over Taveras has been that he's never really been given a fair shake to get things going at the big league level. After the trade of Allen Craig, it seemed likely that he would get most of the innings in right field and the plate appearances to go with them. At first, this was true, and those three weeks were a real struggle: Taveras got 92 PA's in the month of August and hit .244/.292/.289 over that stretch. BABIP? .297. He wasn't unlucky, he was just bad.
Thing is, that's not that uncommon for players getting their first taste of big league pitching. Gregory Polanco crushed the International League to the tune of .328/.390/.504, got promoted, and fell flat on his face, hitting just .235/.307/.343 in 312 PA's in the big leagues this season.
The difference, of course, is plate appearances. Pittsburgh was in it until the very last day of the season and found a way to get their top prospect 74 more plate appearances despite having similar outfield depth as the Cardinals for most of the season.
Should Taveras have played more despite his struggles? If you compare his playing time and usage to former top prospects in the Cardinal organization it's not necessarily as cut and dry as we'd all like it to be.
2009 (Age 22): .251/.307/.407, 86 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR
Rasmus is the best comp for Taveras that's somewhat recent. A consensus top 10 prospect across baseball, Rasmus' 5 tool blend of skills were as anticipated as anything St. Louis had seen in a position player since J.D. Drew's initial cup-of-coffee a decade earlier. More on Mr. Drew a bit later...
Rasmus made the club out of spring training, played in 147 games in his rookie season, starting most of them in CF, and racked up 520 plate appearances despite being a below average hitter. The difference between this situation and that of Taveras' in 2014 is that the Cardinals outfield in 2009 was a mess. Ryan Ludwick struggled after having a career year in 2008, Chris Duncan flat out stunk coming back from neck surgery, and Rick Ankiel's resurgent bandwagon began to see the wheels fall off. Until the Cardinals traded for Matt Holliday in July, Rasmus was the team's second best outfielder in terms of production, putting up 2.6 fWAR despite his below average batting line on the strength of his defense (11.6 runs) and baserunning (4.6 runs).
Tony LaRussa didn't have a lot of good options in the outfield in 2009, and that likely led to Rasmus getting a lot of playing time despite long stretches of bad production at the plate, but I think if Oscar Taveras was an above average defender and baserunner like Colby Rasmus was he'd likely have played far more this season despite his struggles at the plate.
1999 (Age 23): .242/.340/.424, 95 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR, 430 PA's
If you're like me, you remember Drew's initial call up in the fall of '98 better than his forgettable rookie season in '99. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were in the middle of the great home run chase of '98 and the Cardinals called up Drew after just 200 PA's in the minors and stuck him in the second spot in the lineup for a good chunk of the final 15 games of the year. He proceeded to hit .417/.463/.972 with 5 homers in just 41 PA's while seeing more fastballs than he probably ever saw for the rest of his career over any 15 game stretch. Who is this petulant kid from Florida State who spurned the Philadelphia Phillies by playing in an independent league for a year and has the facial expressions of a manikin? Is it Roy Hobbs?
Much like Rasmus, Drew got much of his playing time in CF that season and created the majority of his value with defense and baserunning. Bracketed by two aging former All-Stars, Ray Lankford in LF and Eric Davis in RF, when they weren't hurt that is: Lankford played just 122 games that season, Davis only 58. Drew had a few injuries himself that year (a sign of things to come), putting Darren Bragg and a 40 year old Willie McGee on fill in duty wherever they were needed.
Certainly not a similar depth situation to 2014, but, again: Taveras didn't have the 23 year old Drew's utility, defensive skills, or baserunning prowess and didn't hit near as well either. Had he put up even an 85 wRC+ this season with above average defense and baserunning it's hard to see how he would not have gotten 400+ PA's for the Matheny-led Cardinals.
1991 (Age 24): .251/.301/.392, 95 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
Lankford, like Drew, had a successful cup of coffee prior to his rookie year, playing in 39 games in 1990 and putting up a .286/.353/.452 in 139 plate appearances. His success the year before put him in the driver's seat to win the starting CF job in spring training of 1991, which, when you think about it wasn't too surprising. With Willie McGee gone to Giants in free agency, the only competition Lankford had for the CF job that spring was from Rex Hudler....which isn't really much competition. Lankford was a consensus top 10 prospect in baseball at the time, but it's not like he set the world on fire in 1991: Just 1.7 fWAR, average defense in CF, but he did steal 44 bases (while being caught 20(!) times) for the remnants of the Runnin' Redbirds team of the previous era.
The common theme among these former top prospects is that many of them got their playing time as rookies due to lack of depth at their position and/or because, while they struggled a bit offensively, they were able to bring enough other value to the table to offset those struggles and continue to play. You can even make a similar case for his teammate, Kolten Wong: Per PA, Wong was one of the best baserunners in the entire league this season and played above average defense at second base where the other options were an all-but-finished Mark Ellis and talent-constrained Daniel Descalso.
Should Taveras get the benefit of the doubt come next spring? I believe so, as he's clearly the most talented of the potential starters in RF. But there are other options to play there: Grichuk, Pham, Jay, Piscotty. All those guys bring some other skills to the table that Taveras doesn't possess and add value in places that he doesn't.
If you're Oscar Taveras, the answer is simple. Hit.