At the outset of the Cardinals’ postseason run, manager Mike Matheny announced that Randal Grichuk, who entered the 2014 season without a plate appearance above Double-A and the eighth-ranked prospect in the St. Louis organization, had won the everyday right-field job for October—elbowing out Oscar Taveras, who entered the season coming off an ankle injury and a consensus top-five prospect in all of baseball. Matheny remained faithful to Grichuk even as the rookie batted .171/.194/.343 (.237 wOBA, 48 wRC+) in the playoffs. During the NLCS, general manager John Mozeliak offered further explanation for the club’s decision not to play Taveras: his conditioning.
Mozeliak said hopefully his use this October is a "wake up" for Taveras, who will he given conditioning suggestions for offseason #cardinals— Derrick Goold (@dgoold) October 12, 2014
During their 2014 postmortem press conference, Mozeliak and Matheny sat together and further and doubled down on just how out of shape Taveras was for this season. Stan McNeal of Fox Sports Midwest recited management's talking points:
At their season-wrap-up press conference Monday, general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny did not disclose everything they told Taveras before he headed into the offseason, but "improved conditioning" and "losing weight" likely were part of the conversation.
Asked how Taveras responded to the suggestions, Mozeliak said pointedly: "I don't think we suggested. I think we gave him good advice."
He then turned to his manager, "Would you agree?"
"I agree," Matheny replied.
OK, then. Sounds like Taveras has his marching orders for the next four months. If he intends to do more than pinch-hitting and spot starting in 2015, reporting to spring training in better shape would be just about mandatory.
Management’s criticism of Taveras’s conditioning is a new development in the season-long drama involving the organization's top prospect and right field. Aside from its recent emergence, what's odd about Mozeliak and Matheny's newest rationale is that it stands in contrast to reports from January—at least by my reading.
The annual Winter Warm-Up the Cardinals hold in January provides a bevy of updates on the various players during that time of the year when baseball news is all but impossible to come by. The most recent Winter Warm-Up offered fans a welcome update on the status of Taveras post-season-ending ankle surgery. As is so often the case at the Winter Warm-Up, the news was good. Not only was Taveras recovering well from ankle surgery, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article by Derrick Goold, but his offseason strength and conditioning work earned compliments from veteran slugger Matt Holliday (a ballplayer I would consider to be an expert on the subject) and closer Trevor Rosenthal:
The visits to St. Louis allowed the team to monitor Taveras’ rehab directly, as opposed to through reports from his native Dominican Republic. But the results of the trips go deeper than the health of his ankle and, in the words of two teammates, may have helped Taveras "grow up" as he nears his major-league debut. The Cardinals have steered Taveras to the Central Institute for Human Performance (CIHP), a Kirkwood-based training facility that has a connection with the team. Former Cardinals David Freese and Chris Carpenter have trained at CIHP, and Taveras has had his workouts at CIHP viewed by two current players who also train there, Matt Holliday and Trevor Rosenthal. Both said they’ve seen Taveras’ strength and conditioning improve since he first went to CIHP in November at the club’s urging.
"It seems like he’s eager to make it happen this year, like he learned a lot from the injury last year, from watching, from going through adversity for probably the first time in his career," Holliday said. "I think he grew up a little bit. I’m excited to see where it goes. He’s real young. He’s had this experience with the uber-prospect tag placed on him and that isn’t easy. The raw talent — it’s there. But I think he’s learning that it takes more than just that."
Said Rosenthal: "The most impressive thing is how his body has changed from when I first saw him. He’s pretty solid. He was already a strong kid, but it’s impressive. You can definitely tell he’s really been working hard."
Could Holliday and Rosenthal lied through their teeth to Goold when discussing Taveras’s strength and conditioning in January? Perhaps. For what it’s worth, my firsthand observations dovetail with Rosenthal’s. I saw both Rosenthal and Taveras when they were in Low-A playing for the Quad Cities River Bandits. Back then, Taveras was a skinny kid who manned center field; in the spring of 2014, he had matured into a man. And not in the sense that he had plumped from drinking Budweiser on the couch after work. Taveras had certainly bulked up, but in the "Woah, that dude is jacked" sense of manhood.
Is it possible that Taveras got fat and out of shape between January 19 and February 10, when he reported (a week early) to Jupiter? I guess. Of course, Taveras was hindered in camp by his surgically repaired ankle and a hamstring issue that meant he only played in a couple of St. Louis exhibition games during spring training. To the extent that Mozeliak and Matheny's statements to the press addressed Taveras's body, they were on the subject of his ankle and hamstring and not his conditioning. There was no indication, at least in the media reports I recall or could find googling, about Taveras's strength or conditioning.
Rather than Holliday and Rosenthal fibbing or Taveras becoming portly, it seems more likely that the general and field manager are again blowing smoke in an attempt to justify the way they’ve handled a player. Given the double standards and outright nonsense Mozeliak and Matheny have spouted to fans by way of the media in support of their decisions during the 2014 season, should we be surprised that they are seemingly attempting to retcon a narrative about Taveras's physical fitness entering the season? The Cardinal Way sure has involved a curious style of leadership this year.