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Oscar Taveras, the lineup card, & player development

Manager Mike Matheny has presented a false choice in his frame of his decision to relegate Oscar Taveras to the role of bench bat.

Jason O. Watson

As Matt Adams climbed up the St. Louis Cardinals organizational ladder, I maintained a healthy level of skepticism about the slugger’s ability to develop into a middle-of-the-order bat in the big leagues. Adams won the Texas League Player of the Year award in 2011 with a .300/.357/.566/.923 line that included 32 homers and 101 RBI in 115 games to boot. Daniel Descalso hitting .326/.397/.520/.917 in the Texas League over 82 games between 2008 and 2009 was still somewhat fresh in my mind, so I took Adams’s swollen slash line with a Descalso-sized grain of salt. Sure, Adams demonstrated prodigious power and posted high batting averages, but he was an aggressive hitter who didn’t walk all that much and I wasn’t sure how this approach would translate to the majors.

Early in 2012, Lance Berkman injured his knee while Allen Craig was also on the disabled list. The Cardinals needed an everyday first baseman, so the organization turned to the reigning Texas League Player of the Year, promoting Adams from Triple-A Memphis. In his first exposure to big-league pitching, Adams struggled. But as Adams struggled to a cumulative 2012 MLB line of .244/.286/.384/.669 over 91 PAs, Cardinals radio announcer Mike Shannon gushed about the slugger’s lefthanded swing—how short to the ball it was, how easily it generated power. Shannon’s assessment was completely independent of results. He was convinced Adams had a bright future.

Entering 2013, the Cardinals proclaimed that Adams had nothing left to prove in the minors. This after Adams hit .329/.362/.624/.986 over 67 games—his minor-league season shortened by a call-up and injury. Adams made the opening-day roster and served as a potent bench bat, an apprentice of sorts to Allen Craig, who manned first base, and Carlos Beltran, the veteran right fielder. After Craig suffered an injury, Adams took over as the Cards’ primary first baseman. At the end of the year, Adams had a healthy .284/.335/.503/.839 line that included 17 homers in 296 PAs. Adams’s 2013 performance made it much easier for the Cardinals to let Beltran leave via free agency, shift Craig to right field, and install Adams as the club’s primary first baseman.

Adams’s 2013 performance also made Shannon’s 2012 assessment look good, but the slugger’s 2014 to date has the Moonman looking downright prescient. With that short, powerful swing, Adams has developed into a middle-of-the-order bat in spite of the fact that he has walked in just 2.7% of his PAs this season. (For comparison, Matt Carpenter has drawn a walk in 12.2% of his PAs. My great hope is that 2014 ends with Carpenter’s BB% ten percentage points higher than Adams’s. That would be fun, even if I still find the lack of walks fairly concerning.)

This was the path Adams’s development as a big-leaguer took. And it’s one not all that different than those of fellow Cardinals like Jon Jay, Allen Craig, and Matt Carpenter. Such a path also appears to be the developmental course manager Mike Matheny (and perhaps general manager John Mozeliak) have fitted super-prospect Oscar Taveras for this year.

At the time of Taveras’s recall to the majors’s Jenifer Langosch reported that Matheny pointed to Adams in 2013 as the model for Taveras in 2014:

"We just always kept in conversation about who would be the likely fit, about who would come in and bolster our offense. And how can we find time? With the DL to [Matt] Adams [earlier this month], it was pretty simple, let’s just let [Taveras] play and see what we’ve got. After that, trying to incorporate him pushed the need for a little creativity, not a lot unlike what we did with Matt Adams a year ago. I think that proved to be really beneficial with how that did help our bench. Every day we had a real nice bat off our bench regardless of how it played out.

"A lot of this is going to come down to, we’re going to throw him in some opportunities, but he’s going to have to produce. And if he produces, just like any of the other guys, you keep swinging it right, you’re going to have the opportunities."

It’s clear that Matheny was predisposed back on June 30 to install Taveras in the Adams 2013 role of bench bat. This is the path of least resistance among the established players, who might bristle at an unproven prospect taking playing time away from a veteran with proveyness. Additionally, such an arrangement serves the twin goals of helping the 2014 Cardinals win ballgames and developing Taveras as a big-leaguer. This is just what Hall-of-Famer Tony La Russa did with Craig in 2011, Matheny did with Carpenter in the utility role did in 2012, and repeated again with Adams a year ago. So I was confused by Matheny’s comments, as tweeted by Chris Hrabe of KMOX, on Tuesday regarding Taveras and playing time:

Matheny creates a false choice between winning now and developing a player as a big-leaguer. The illusory nature of this frame has been established by Matheny’s own deployment of Carpenter and Adams in years past. It also indicates that Matheny legitimately believes that Craig, in his current state, gives the Cardinals a better chance to win than Taveras or even Peter Bourjos.

It’s hard to reconcile Matheny’s stated priority of winning with him penciling in Craig over Bourjos, who is presently batting .228/.289/.356/.645 to Craig’s .242/.294/.354/.648. To be sure, both players have posted putrid hitting lines so far this season. One is a plus baserunner and a plus-plus fielder; the other is the worst baserunner on the team (and one of the worst in the majors) as well as a well below-average defender. So, if winning is the focus, it would be interesting to hear why Matheny is predisposed to a Holliday-Jay-Craig outfield instead of a Holliday-Bourjos-Jay outfield. The answer appears to be that Matheny, Leader of Men, prioritizes loyalty to his guys somewhere near as much as winning.

The zigzag of Matheny’s logic in playing Craig doesn’t end there, though. It also reflects the same small-sample-size myopia that led him to bench Kolten Wong in favor of David Freese as summer turned to autumn a year ago and to relegate Wong to the minors in favor of Mark Ellis (after the veteran had a one-game rehab stint in the minors) earlier this season. Matheny indicates that Taveras has nothing left to prove in the minors. He also states that player development is not his job; winning is. Yet there’s no reason to believe that Taveras won’t hit if given the opportunity, that his development as a big-leaguer won’t help the Cardinals’ win a postseason berth this year.

Sure, Taveras has posted a .205/.239/.277./.516 line in 88 PAs so far. But 88 PAs is meaningless in every sense. To watch Craig take PAs nowadays is to see a player who looks old, defeated, and lost. It’s painful. To watch Taveras is to see potential. This brings us back to Mike Shannon, who on last night’s broadcast declared that he did not care what anyone says, Taveras will hit. It was the same results-independent endorsement Shannon consistently gave Adams two years ago. And Mozeliak agrees:

Taveras is an inevitability, unless the Cardinals trade him. It would be a strange decision indeed for the Cardinals to ship Taveras elsewhere, for it would be a double-down on the manager’s preference for Craig, a player who looks not only lost at the plate but defeated with a bat in his hands. And while David Price would undoubtedly fit right in with the manager’s stated "win now" priority, playing Craig almost daily certainly does not. And that’s what a Taveras trade would ensure. Instead, the Cards should begin phasing out Craig, a player whose only baseball talent is hitting, because he isn’t hitting and nothing about his at-bats indicates that will change anytime soon.

Matheny may not believe that his job is to develop players. That’s fine, because the only development Taveras needs is for Matheny to write his name on the lineup card. Talent will take care of the rest.