Oscar Taveras - Photo Credit (Midwest League Traveler - mwltraveler.com)
Sticking with the theme of writing about prospect-laden teams, I'm going to focus on the St. Louis Cardinals Double-A affiliate Springfield. Despite a handful of quality prospects to choose from (Rosenthal, Wong) there is one player on this team that demands to be recognized. Oscar Taveras signed with the Cardinals in 2008 for a mere $145,000. He proceeded to spend the next two years in rookie ball, posting mediocre numbers in '09 before exploding onto the scene in '10. Jason wrote about Taveras last week, but he's been so good, I wanted to take a look as well. There are a TON of reasons to be excited about a talent like Taveras, but there are also some reservations to be had.
Let's dig deeper after the jump...
Oscar Taveras - OF - Cardinals - I spoke of Taveras bursting onto the scene in 2010, but he truly established himself as a prospect last year. In '10 he posted a .322/.362/.526 slash line with eight home runs and a 41:12 K:BB ratio. He built on that in '11, improving to .386/.444/.584 in an injury shortened year. To say that Taveras can hit is an understatement, as his flirtation with .400 bordered on uncouth last year. He once again posted eight home runs, though he had almost 100 more at-bats compared to '10. He improved his plate discipline dramatically, upping his walks from 12 to 32, while only adding 11 strike outs to his totals from the previous year. That said, he's not going to walk much, as he is a high contact hitter. I wouldn't be surprised if last years' 9.2% walk rate is the highest of his career, but he balances that aspect of his game by keeping his strikeout rate in the mid-teens. Another note to keep your excitement about Taveras in perspective is that his BABIP last year was an astonishing .444. Though Taveras does a tremendous job of making hard contact, that rate will regress, and with it some of his overall rate stats. So far in 2012, Taveras might be having even more of an impressive season. Though his average and OBP are down, his slugging is way, way up. He posted an impressive .198 ISO in '11, and has upped the ante thus far in '12, hammering Midwest League pitching to the tune of a .667 SLG and an otherworldly .330 ISO with 7 home runs already. I'd expect regression on both those fronts because of his tools, but his ability to hit is absolutely legitimate and he is developing power as a 19-year old in Double-A. As with all 2012 stats, both major and minor, a small sample size warning is warranted. But when a prospect has the tools to back up most, if not all of his production, it's not unreasonable to expect that he might be able to keep his pace up.
Speaking of those tools, Taveras has them in spades. He's not a five-tool talent to drool over, but that doesn't mean you should ditch your handkerchief as there's a good chance you'll need to do a bit of touching up. There are a lot of adjectives used to describe a players swing. Generally, you'd like to see "sweet," or "quick" or even "explosive." What you don't often see, and you might not even WANT to see it...is "violent." And that is the word I often see associated with Taveras' swing. On the Up and In Podcast (highly recommended) Kevin Goldstein put Taveras' swing in the context of him defending himself from a chainsaw-wielding intruder. That should give you some idea of how hard he swings, as max-effort is ill-equipped to fully encompass the force behind such a swing. While this is usually a bad thing, Taveras blends that violent swing with an almost supernatural ability to barrel the ball on the bat. Taveras makes consistent, loud, hard contact thanks to incredible hand-eye coordination and fluid mechanics. He keeps his hands high and deep to start his swing, before unleashing them, using explosively quick hands to get his bat into the zone and punish balls to all fields. While he swings hard, that doesn't mean it's a swing geared for power. He's likely to generate power from the sheer effort he puts into each hack, but as someone (sorry, can't recall who) recently said of Jesus Montero, "he is a hitter with power, not a power hitter." Taveras could potentially be vulnerable to inside pitches as he moves up the ladder, due to a penchant for extending his arms no matter the location of the ball. He's been able to get away with it so far, but it's a potential speed bump in the future. To reiterate, Taveras doesn't walk much, but he doesn't strike out much either and if you could barrel the ball like Taveras does, you might not be patient either. It's rare to see someone with such a big swing succeed like this all the way up the ladder, but I recall the same concerns on Pedroia as he worked his way through the minors. A guy like Pedroia is the exception, not the rule and so it's something to watch with Taveras, but he does have the ability to overcome the standard obstacles. Speed is not a part of Taveras' game, though he is playing some center field these days. He's ticketed for a corner outfield spot in the future, and has enough chops to be average there but won't contribute much on that side of the ball. Quibbles like this are minor when you're discussing a 19-year old who is absolutely wearing out Double-A, but they need be noted for the future.
This was clearly a glowing review of Taveras, and the compliments are well earned. However, it's important to note that as impressive as he's been while skipping Hi-A, it's extremely hard for someone with a swing like Taveras to make it to the big leagues. As he faces better and better pitching, he will be forced to make adjustments, and we just don't know how he'll manage that task. The other concern is that he's yet to make it through a season, with 308 at-bats representing his career high. He's shown no signs of fatigue or injury so far, but it is early in the season. While I had numerous concerns on Taveras in the offseason, causing me to pass on him in my 20-team dynasty league minors draft, he's allayed many of those questions with his remarkable start to this season. Pass on him at your own risk.