Before every Memphis Redbirds season, there is picture day. On Monday, March 31, the Redbirds held an open workout at AutoZone Park, but first, players lined up like school kids in the first-base dugout to don a Redbirds jersey and cap and get their pictures taken.
Outfielder Oscar Taveras had hoped to avoid this ritual. Judged the top prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization by Baseball America, the plan called for Taveras to tear up the Pacific Coast League in 2013, earn a call-up to St. Louis no later than September, and then step into the starting right field job at Busch Stadium this year after Carlos Beltran left via free agency.
But an ankle injury suffered when sliding into second base last June 23 changed everything. Taveras got just 173 at-bats for the Triple-A Redbirds, and though he hit .306, it was clear his game still needed more polish before a promotion to the big leagues.
Still, spring training offered him a very outside chance to force his way onto the big-league roster. But a hamstring injury, plus recovery from the ankle injury, limited his playing time. And so there Taveras was on Monday, bouncing around, kidding with teammates and laughing.
And, yes, again having his picture taken in a Redbirds cap and jersey.
“Everything’s good. I feel much better,” Taveras, 21, said in his limited English (he was signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in the fall of 2008). “The ankle’s much better, my hamstring feels 100 percent. I feel good for the season.”
Baseball America felt good enough about Taveras to again rank him the Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect. His chance to prove himself starts on Thursday, April 3, when the Redbirds open the season at Iowa.
When last Taveras was healthy for a whole season, he earned Cardinals Minor League Player of the Year honors in 2012 when he batted .321 with 23 home runs and 94 runs batted in for Double-A Springfield. The left-handed-hitting Taveras also collected 37 doubles, seven triples and stole 10 bases.
“There’s no doubt he can play this game and be a really productive major-league player,” said Redbirds manager Pop Warner. “All the hype people put on him, that’s all it is, really. We just need to get him on the field, get him healthy, and let him do his thing.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny called Taveras “a special talent” but also made clear that because Taveras missed so much time this spring, he got longer looks at Redbirds outfielders Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, and both made strong impressions.
“He just needs to play,” Matheny said. “We need to see him play good defense, need to see him take the kind of at-bats we know he can take. He’s gonna have to be able to stay on the field and continue to improve.”
St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak rejected the “fragile” label for Taveras, yet Matheny seemed to do everything but use that very word.
“I don’t know if I’d go that far yet,” Mozeliak said. “He had one injury (the ankle) and it was significant. Other than that, he’s always played.”
But Mozeliak, too, stressed the importance of endurance, pointing to the Cardinals’ leftfielder as an example: “If you’re looking for definitions of careers, guys that can do this day in and day out, they are the ones that end up looking like Matt Holliday.”
Warner said Taveras would be used in all three outfield spots at Memphis but probably would start in left. Taveras seems eager to begin, wherever he’s placed.
“I’ll be ready to play the three positions,” Taveras said. “I was a little frustrated (with the injury last season), but I feel good. That’s the past. I play here, take good at-bats, play hard the game, and go to the big leagues.”