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
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.
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.
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.
Too many holes in swing have hampered him at upper levels.
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.
"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."
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.