3/5/2013 12:37 P.M. ET
Taveras on a fast track to bigs thanks to talent, tools
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
JUPITER, Fla. -- Perhaps the story has been embellished over time, as has so much of Oscar Taveras' growing legend. But Jeff Luhnow remembers the tale going something like this:
It was November 2008, and Luhnow -- now the Astros' general manager, then the Cardinals' vice president of scouting and development -- had just returned from the Dominican Republic, where he had seen a showcase of Latin teenagers. Some had been eligible to sign back on July 2 of that year, but for varying reasons, they hadn't. Others were trying to impress in advance of the next signing period.
Among those who had been invited was a 16-year-old outfielder named Oscar Taveras, who, though born in the Dominican city of Puerto Plata, had played baseball mostly under the radar because of a family arrangement that had him living in Canada on and off during his formative baseball years.
The staged tryout at the Cards' complex marked just the fifth time anyone from the organization had watched Taveras on a baseball field. The impression was instant.
"It was clear from that workout that there was one player that stood out," Luhnow recalled last week while watching Taveras play. "And that was Oscar."
Luhnow returned to the U.S. liking what he'd seen but also unnerved by what Taveras might be demanding. At the time, there were no international spending caps for clubs but rather a system that fostered shady negotiation tactics and bidding wars ballooned by buscones, who are essentially talent brokers in Latin America.
Luhnow cautioned Moises Rodriguez, the Cardinals' director of international operations, that he needed some more time to consider how the team would proceed. Luhnow went to sleep, not anticipating the imminent interruption.
"I woke up a few hours later, in the middle of the night, thinking, 'I don't want to lose this kid,'" said Luhnow, aware that Taveras was also being courted by the Mariners and Rockies. "I called Moises back [the next day] and said, 'Go ahead. Do whatever you need to do to get this done.'
"And he did."
An emerging star
Nearly 52 months after they lured Taveras into the organization for a bargain of a signing bonus -- $145,000 -- the Cards have an outfielder who has taken the raw talent that was so striking at 16 and used it to mold himself into one of baseball's most highly touted prospects.
MLB.com recently ranked Taveras as baseball's third-best prospect, as did Baseball America. He's on the cusp of the Major Leagues, too, after excelling during an expedited climb through St. Louis' Minor League system. It was a fast track that, from the get-go, was deliberate.
Taveras made his pro debut with the Dominican Summer League Cardinals in 2009, and although his numbers weren't all that flashy, the tools were. He made a lot of contact. Taveras hit the ball with authority, especially to the opposite field. He played solid defense. And he was filling out his now 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame nicely. So when it came time for Rodriguez to propose promotions for the 2010 season, he pushed Taveras.
"We loved him all around that year for a kid that age," Rodriguez said. "I would be lying to you if I said we knew he was going to be a star, but we knew he was a guy with a lot of potential."
Results were again deceiving in the Gulf Coast League, as Taveras recorded five hits in his 30 at-bats in the States. The numbers weren't nearly as good as those put up by the outfielders playing alongside him, but that didn't prompt any hesitation when Steve Turco, manager of that GCL club, was told that the organization needed to bump an outfielder up to low Class A Johnson City (Tenn.)
"No question in my mind," Turco told Luhnow, "Taveras is ready to come."
Luhnow asked Turco about Taveras' slow offensive start, to which Luhnow remembers being told, "It doesn't matter. He's the best player on the team, and if you need somebody, take him. You won't regret it."
Taveras went on to hit .322 in 53 games with Johnson City, which captured the Appalachian League crown that season. He's won a championship each year, and at each level, since.
Harnessing the hype
With success comes expectations, and with expectations emerge comparisons. Taveras has been swallowed up in it all.
John Hart, former Indians and Rangers GM and current MLB Network analyst, tossed out the name Barry Bonds when talking about Taveras in January. The name Vladimir Guerrero has also been tossed around. Last October, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak evoked images of another great slugger when he described Taveras as "the most prolific hitter I've seen in this organization since, probably, Albert."
It is noise that many within the Cards organization hope Taveras isn't hearing.
"People like to compare players to big league players in their prime, and that's not fair to the young player," said center fielder Jon Jay, who has become a mentor to Taveras. "He's not going to be expected to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 during his first year. Maybe a couple years later, he might develop into that player, but for now, just play defense and do the little things right. As the years go on, he'll continue to develop, and we can see what type of player he can become."
What Taveras is becoming, though, clearly is special.
Taveras won league batting titles in each of the past two seasons while accruing 272 hits in 202 games. In 2012, he led the Texas League in doubles (37) and extra-base hits (67). He drove in 94 runs, hit 23 home runs and batted .346 with runners in scoring position during a full season in Double-A.
Those numbers followed a year in which Taveras batted .386 in 78 high Class A games. His on-base percentage that season was silly high, at .444. He was less than three months past his 19th birthday when the season ended.
There's already an obvious maturity, one that has nothing to do with years, in how Taveras approaches his at-bats.
"It just doesn't look like there's a pitch that shows up that he's not prepared to hit," manager Mike Matheny said. "As soon as he walks into the box, he has a presence. Just watching his timing and recognition -- he has something there that you really can't teach."
"I've seen enough of him to know that he's a high-quality hitter," said first-year hitting coach John Mabry. "Mechanically and fundamentally, he has a pretty swing. He does things naturally. He has the ability to square the ball up. He has quick hands, everything is fluid. He's got all the equipment to succeed."
Impact in the immediate
This spring, the Cardinals offered Taveras his first invite to Major League camp, where he has been the youngest of the 59 participants. The organization's intention was not to thrust Taveras into a competition for a big league roster spot (he's slated to begin the year in Triple-A), but rather to let him walk alongside those much more advanced in both age and accolades.
Taveras has trailed Carlos Beltran -- whose starting spot many project Taveras will take in 2014 -- and has found guidance from Yadier Molina. Jay, though, has been the most intentional in his discussions with Taveras, and hopes to be playing alongside him for years.
"Oscar is a tremendous talent and is someone who is going to have a bright future in baseball," Jay said. "It's going to be up to him how hard he works. From what he's shown so far in spring, he's on the right path. Like I told him, I'm not trying to reinvent the game for him. He obviously has gotten to this point on his own. I'm just going to help him with little things that I see that I think can benefit him."
Primary among those has been defensive positioning, a facet of the game that Taveras has been studying intently with Jay for weeks. Tutorials take place both on field and off, where Jay has made himself readily accessible.
"I feel more confident out there now," Taveras said, with catcher Tony Cruz serving as a translator. "I'm happy to be here and learn from those guys. I know that people compare me to other players, but I don't pay much attention to it. I just go out there and play my game aggressively."
The Cards, aware that Taveras could likely hold his own offensively in the Majors now, have highlighted the areas that need polishing before St. Louis becomes the permanent home of its most prized prospect.
The defensive work will continue in the Minors, where Taveras is expected to get playing time at all three outfield spots. He's been challenged, too, to improve his baserunning. Receiving instruction from the likes of Willie McGee and Lou Brock has been one of Taveras' many gains from Major League camp.
Then there's the aspect of maturity, something that those who have spent extensive time with Taveras this spring insist he exudes. He's listened to advice, they say, made the requested adjustments and appropriately followed the veterans' lead. There's been no obvious sense of entitlement or hubris.
"I have nothing but praise to say about him on the field and with how he's gone about his business," Jay said. "It's nice to see someone with that much talent work that hard. Those are the type of players who become special players. Hopefully, he keeps on that path."
Thus far, the path has been smooth, lined by steady success. It's also one that could lead Taveras to St. Louis before the end of the season.
"I know I'm close by," Taveras said, "and I'm trying to take advantage of the opportunity I'm getting here."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.