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Unknown Jeremy Hazelbaker has come a long way to reach the Cardinals

Jeremy Hazelbaker is 28 years old. He has been around for a while, even if you didn't notice until now.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

People say the Cardinals get lucky, and sure they have their share of luck. Pete Kozma hit like an All-Star for one month. Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Adams all came out of seemingly nowhere to contribute for the Cardinals. Ryan Ludwick was a minor league free agent brought in by the Cardinals, but none of those guys quite match Jeremy Hazelbaker. Kozma was a first round pick. Craig, Carpenter, and Adams were Cardinals draft picks who progressed steadily through the Cardinals' minor league system. Ludwick had played in parts of four big league seasons and hit 28 homers in the minors the season before. Hazelbaker's story is more unusual, more unlikely, and could make for one of baseball's more fascinating stories this season.

Hazelbaker has come to the plate 23 times:

  • 10 times he has gotten a hit, with five of those going for extra bases
  • Twice he has walked
  • Twice, he hit a sacrifice fly
  • Five times, he struck out
  • Four times, he hit the ball somewhere and he was not safe nor did a run score
He's also stolen two bases and played out in center field. If you want to know where he came from, you are not alone. Hazelbaker went to Ball State to play baseball. The Indiana school is not known for producing big leaguers, with Hazelbaker being the eighth player to make the majors since 1965, per Baseball Reference, with the best MLB players being Larry Bigbie and Thomas Howard, both of whom put 2.5 bWAR in their careers. Hazelbaker was drafted in the fourth round of the 2009 MLB Draft, and he received under $200,000 to sign with the Boston Red Sox. Here is an excerpt of his draft report from Baseball America:
The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder also has deceptive strength, hitting for the cycle against Kent State (doing most of the damage off prospect Brad Stillings) and driving some balls out of the park to the opposite field. Despite his strength, he understands his primary role as a leadoff hitter is to get on base and create havoc. His speed also allows him to chase down balls in center field, where his arm is playable. He made seven errors this spring, though it was his first year as a full-time outfielder. His limited track record bothers some scouts, but there aren't many college prospects in this draft who are legitimate up-the-middle players and have performed, so he could get picked as high as the third round.
As a 22-year old in Low-A during the 2010 season, Hazelbaker hit .265/.358/.452 with 12 home runs and 62 steals in 79 tries. He walked a lot, but there were questions about his contact abilities as he struck out in 27% of his plate appearances. The performance was good enough to get him noticed on prospect lists. Baseball Prospectus had him at 18th in the Red Sox organization, meriting a brief mention:
Hazelbaker showed power and speed at Low-A, but he was old for the level and had lots of swing-and-miss in his stroke.
Baseball America, after rating him the fastest base-runner in the South Atlantic League, had similar thoughts:
In addition to sheer quickness, he also possesses the best baserunning instincts in the system. More than just a speedster, Hazelbaker also has plus raw power to his pull side. He's willing to take walks, but his swing can get long at times and he needs to make more consistent contact so he can take advantage of his speed. Hazelbaker has the athleticism to handle center field, though he didn't get much of an opportunity to do so playing alongside superior defender Reymond Fuentes in low Class A last year.
After a brief trip through High-A, Hazelbaker held his own in Double-A during the 2011 season, hitting 12 home runs with 35 steals in just over 400 plate appearances, but he also struck out 26% of the time. It was the last season he saw significant time in center field. He received a few mentions in BP's Minor League Updates, but the last one from 2011 happened in July and noted,
Too many holes in swing have hampered him at upper levels.
Hazelbaker did not make any prospect lists after the 2011 season, and in 2012, he spent the entire season in Double-A. His walks went down and he did lower his strikeout rate a bit to 23% to go along with 19 homers, 33 steals, and a .273/.338/.479 line. Midway through the season, his tools were still there, and he made Kevin Goldstein's Monday Morning Ten Pack.
The day the Red Sox prospect list came out in the off-season, I got a call from a scout (and a non-Boston one at that) telling me I was crazy not to include Hazelbaker. Questions about his hitting ability made him a late cut for me, but the scout saw a big, toolsy outfielder with power and speed. With 73 strikeouts in 66 games, the questions about the hit tool remain, but with a 7-for-12 weekend that included three doubles, a triple, and a pair of stolen bases, he's up to .255/.338/.428. He'd be so much more valuable as a center fielder, but in a corner he still has future bench possibilities.
Goldstein left for the Astros shortly after this post, and the analysis on Hazelbaker runs dry. He was again left off the Red Sox prospect lists. Heading into 2013, Hazelbaker was already 25 years old and spent the entire year in Triple-A. Jumping up a level caused Hazelbaker to experience his first below-average season as a professional. He still hit 11 homers and stole 37 bases, but his power numbers declined, he struck out 27% of the time, and his OBP was just .313 in 480 plate appearances.

After the 2013 season, the Red Sox decided they had seen enough of Hazelbaker, trading him and cash considerations to the Dodgers for Alex Castellanos, the same Alex Castellanos that the Cardinals drafted in the 10th round in 2008 and then traded for Rafael Furcal in 2011 on their way to a World Series Championship. That trade worked. For Hazelbaker, the trade continued a downward career trend.

In 2014, Hazelbaker split his time between Double-A and Triple-A. His power recovered slightly with a .155 ISO, but his OBP was down to .305 for the year in 399 plate appearances. His strikeouts were not obscene at 24%, but he stole just 21 bases on 30 attempts. At 26 years old, he had little shot of making the Dodgers. After a slow start in 2015 in Double-A, The Dodgers let Hazelbaker go just 58 plate appearances into his season.

Then Hazelbaker waited. A week and a half went by before the Cardinals offered him a spot. From Derrick Goold's story this spring:
"It was definitely an interesting time period," he said this spring. "I was waiting for that team to pick me up or give me a second chance. A week and a half. It was a week and a half without any phone calls."
On May 14, Hazelbaker played his first game in the Cardinals organization, going 1-3 with a hit-by-pitch. The next night he went 2-4 with a homer. After 40 games, Hazelbaker's walks were at 10%, his ISO back near .200 and his strikeouts were under 20% to go along with a perfect 10 for 10 on stolen bases. The Cardinals did not fix anything with Hazelbaker as he had made a fix on his own, needing a team to give him a chance. Again, from Goold's piece:
He also was rebuilding his swing. Hazelbaker had identified a mechanical flaw in his swing, one that threw off his timing and made him rush the bat to the zone. At the time the Dodgers released him, he had found a correction that started with where he started his hands and when he moved them back before speeding forward.

"When the Cardinals picked me up, it kind of clicked," he said.

Once promoted to Triple-A, his strikeouts went up to 28%, but the walks remained high, he stole eight more bases, and hit ten home runs with a .261 ISO. Hazelbaker was not on the 40-man roster at the end of the season and could have signed with anyone who wanted him. Even then, it was not clear that he would be wanted. From Baseball Prospectus' Pacific Coast League recap, the scouting report is almost scathing.

"Hazelbaker is just a runner," says Al Skorupa. "He's inconsistent at the plate, doesn't see spin at all and doesn't track pitches well. There's a lot of swing-and-miss in his game. He'll show surprising raw power at times, but he doesn't bring it to games because of hit tool deficiencies. He can play all three outfield spots but despite the speed, he's not a good defender and the tools he shows are undermined by poor baseball IQ. He's a lower-end up-down/emergency guy who could provide some speed, but nothing more, off the bench." The oldest among the players mentioned here, Hazelbaker is also the least promising, as his chance at becoming something of value has likely come and gone.

Hazelbaker returned to the Cardinals, hit well in the spring and made the team when Ruben Tejada went down with a quad strain running to first at the end of Spring Training.

It is much too early to say how long this will last. The speed is there. The power is there. The playing time is there. Hazelbaker has always struck out a lot. If he keeps his walks up, the high strikeout numbers will not matter much. His projections are modest, as we would expect from a 28-year-old who struggled just two seasons ago. If there are holes in Hazelbaker's swing that have yet to be exploited by major league pitching, this might be just a blip and a neat story. If those adjustments he made closed down some of those holes and he can make just a bit more contact than expected, maybe he is the next stroke of luck in a long line for the Cardinals.

After seven seasons, three organizations, 751 games, 3,104 plate appearances, and 10 minor league clubs not including time in Mexico and Venezuela, Jeremy Hazelbaker has come a long way to make it this far. Here's hoping he can take it just a bit further.