Do you know that it’s been almost five years since Oscar Taveras died? Three days from now, in fact, we will pass the fifth anniversary of the young outfielder making a terrible decision and paying the worst price anyone can. Even worse, he took his girlfriend with him, and we should remember that. Killing yourself by your own stupidity is a tragedy; killing someone else in that fashion is not just tragic, but unfair.
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years, honestly. I wasn’t even watching the World Series that night, and hadn’t checked baseball news at all that day. The Cardinals’ loss to the Giants had left a bitter taste in my mouth, and I had been taking a short break from thinking about the game as a result. I had been on the road all day as well, taking an annual late-October pilgrimage to Osage Beach for some outlet mall Christmas shopping. I was very much out of the loop.
My friend Chris texted me that evening out of the blue, with something along the lines of, “This is just making me sad now.” Chris and I have always shared baseball in common more than just about anything, and fully 90% of our conversations probably revolve around the game. I assumed, rightly, he was talking about watching the Giants taking on the Kansas City Royals. I assumed, wrongly, he meant it was sad seeing a team the Cardinals should have beaten playing rather than gearing up for a repeat of the I-70 series of 1985.
I replied with something along the lines of, not even watching, Giants in the series again is gross, blah blah blah. But then I thought maybe he meant something specific had happened, so I pulled up the Cardinals’ website on my phone. There was the headline. A second later Chris sent me a link to a story, and my stomach flipped over. The Cardinals losing to the Giants suddenly seemed very secondary.
I’m not interested so much in the personal tragedy of Taveras’s death. Or rather, I am, but am completely unqualified to speak to the reality of it. He left behind a family who loved him and a young son named Yadier who will never know his father. Those are human tragedies, and personal. I don’t know those people, will likely never know them. I could tell you the story of how my mother’s best friend died in March of this year, and how much I’m not looking forward to Thanksgiving, because without Diana the table is going to seem much too quiet. My mom will probably cry at least a couple times during the day, and it will be a dark November afternoon overall. I can tell you that, but I don’t expect you to understand. Sympathise, even emphathise, perhaps, but not understand. Every happy family is alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own special way. Joy is universal, pain is specific and singular.
What I am interested in, in this brief consideration of a five-year gone tragedy, is the fact that in 2019 the Cardinals’ worst position was probably right field. Admittedly, I’m not going by strict WAR totals here, so it’s possible some other position was actually a bigger negative, but I think it’s pretty clear right field was the most problematic spot on the field. Third base was rough, with Matt Carpenter enduring a sudden decline from MVP vote-getter to fringe major league starter, but between Carp’s near-average bat and the second half wonder that was Tommy Edman, it felt like most days you were getting at least something from the hot corner. Left field contained Marcell Ozuna’s two and a half win season, and was really only a problem when he was hurt.
Center could be in this discussion, as Harrison Bader fell on his face offensively, but between his continued defensive excellence and Dexter Fowler filling in quite capably, it was more or less fine. Right field, on the other hand, featured Fowler struggling defensively, hitting to a roughly league-average line, and sharing time with Jose Martinez, and Yairo Munoz, and noted non-outfielder Tommy Edman. If there was a position on the field for the Redbirds this year that seemed to be begging for a solution, it was right field.
Right field has, in fact, been a problem for years now, basically since that day Taveras stepped off the stage. Five years, and the Cardinals have completely cycled through multiple generations of options in that position. Randal Grichuk showed well early, but the plate discipline never came and he was moved to Toronto. Stephen Piscotty came and went, largely through his own personal tragedy and a trade the club will eternally deny was made for anything other than baseball reasons. Tommy Pham came up, exploded, was moved to center, struggled, and was traded to open an opportunity for Harrison Bader, pre-face-falling. Dexter Fowler was signed as a center fielder, proved unfit for the position, moved to right, and is not the answer there either. And once upon a time, in the immediate aftermath of Taveras’s death, the Cardinals’ front office pulled off a trade for Jason Heyward, at the time perhaps the best right fielder in the game, to try and fill the vacuum.
The trade cost the Cardinals Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, then an exciting, high-ceiling young pitching prospect the club thought a lot of. Jenkins’s own career was derailed by persistent shoulder issues that never put him out for a full season, but always seemed to pop up and interrupt his development any time he started to get some traction. When he was drafted Jenkins was a strikeout-and-grounders beast, with a big curveball and a deceptive fastball that had a little Mike Soroka in it. By the time he got to the big leagues in 2016 with the Braves, his stuff was a pale imitation of what it had been, and he leaned more on a weak changeup to try and prop up a fastball that had lost about five ticks since high school, his arm speed no longer enough to create the break that had once made his curve so enticing.
Miller himself was another tale of player development gone wrong, or at least player development hitting a wall. Shelby came in to the draft a classic Texas smoke artist, a Kerry Wood for the 2010s. There were some off-field issues, but the biggest problem for Miller was simply the fact he never really developed any other pitches but his fastball. His curve in high school showed huge potential, but it never really emerged beyond a tantalising tease. The Braves managed to snag the best season of his career by getting him to incorporate a sinker into his repertoire, but that success proved short-lived in the face of elbow surgery. In the end, the Cardinals did not lose players that would have contributed long term, most likely, but they did still spend that present capital on filling a position, only to watch that solution walk away to Chicago following a single season wearing red.
Heading into 2020 there is hope for the position, either in the person of Dylan Carlson, the Cards’ latest can’t-miss outfield prospect, or Tyler O’Neill, the intriguing ultra-powerful Mr. Canada who really needs to make more contact if he’s going to use that maple syrup-powered pop for good. Maybe this time things will turn out right. Then again, maybe not.
There were those who believed the Cardinals could have, really should have, solved their right field problem this past offseason by signing Bryce Harper, and I can see that point of view. Harper ended up having a very good season this year, though definitely not an MVP-type season, and would have given the Cards a big boost over what they actually got from the position. On the other hand, Harper would have required a contract covering three presidential terms, and his 2019 season was helped greatly by defense that looks like a complete outlier, and thus likely unsustainable, going forward. Then again, if the defense really is good now, and he was just sandbagging his last couple seasons in Washington, that presents an entirely different set of questions regarding whether you really want him on your team or not.
Speaking of Washington Nationals outfielders, the young, precociously talented Juan Soto has made an incredible impact this postseason. It’s hard not to watch him and think of what could have been for Taveras. A different type of hitter, certainly, but the same level of remarkable talent.
I don’t have a great way to wrap up this column, honestly. I could make something up, try to dress it up with a really artfully turned phrase or two and throw on some cheap sentiment, but that would feel disingenuous to me. Not that I’m averse to cheap sentiment in all cases; see my previously published works for many, many examples. But it struck me this morning that we’re coming up on the five year mark of this particular dark moment in Cardinal history, and I was then further struck by how many different avenues the club has tried to fill in the blank left when Taveras died. That October afternoon five years ago has echoed over the ensuing seasons, even now casting a shadow over the position Oscar vacated. He never really got his career started; a handful of highlights were all he left behind, speaking to both the enormity of his talent and the irregularity with which we saw those bursts of what could have made him so special.
Five years, and the Cardinals are right back now where they were then. An undignified exit from the NLCS, a club with exciting talent bubbling up to hopefully supplement an aging core, and a feeling that the team was approaching a crossroads. Matt Holliday would play two more injury-riddled seasons for the Redbirds after 2014, but it was final really good campaign. Jhonny Peralta was brilliant in ‘14, showed some scary signs of decline in ‘15, and was done two years later. Taveras was supposed to be the harbinger of a new era. Instead, he became a phantom, an unfulfilled promise, and so much of what the Cardinals have done over the past five years has seemed to reflect that loss.
Five years is a long time, but also no time at all. The Cardinals have had a hundred win season, half a dozen right fielders, a managerial change, several coaching changes, and three years of wandering in the wilderness since October of 2014. I wonder how things might have been different, is all. I often wonder the same thing about Rick Ankiel the pitcher. In both cases, we’ll never get any answers, so all we can do is wonder.