MEMPHIS, Tenn.—It’s not always easy to manage a team where every time a player gets hot, he gets shipped off.
Pop Warner, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals Triple-A affiliate Memphis Redbirds, says it’s just part of the job.
“When the Cardinals come calling, it’s our job to have someone ready to go,” Warner said during a recent interview in his office in the clubhouse below AutoZone Park.
In his 13 years of coaching, he’s seen some good players come and go through the various levels of the organization. Right now, he says, there is a lot for Cardinals fans to be excited about.
Warner took some time to give his take on several of the farm system’s (and MLB’s) most prominent up and comers.
On Kolten Wong
He’s the real deal. Those were the first words out of Warner’s mouth when asked about the 22-year-old second base prospect.
“He’s got a lot of range,” he said. “He comes in on the ball really well. He goes to his right, goes to his left well. He’s a quick infielder.”
What Warner sees in Wong is exactly what he should be.
“That’s what you look for in a middle-infielder—quick feet, rangy guys with good hands,” he said. “He fits the mold.
Wong is known for his speed and his ability to always get a good jump on the ball. His defensive ability is well above average.
The night of the interview with Warner, Wong made a play from second base on a short hop that went to the left of the pitching mound and made the turn in time to get the first out of the game.
It’s not a play just anybody would make.
"He jumps on the ball really well,” Warner said. “With his foot speed and quickness, the result is a guy with good range."
Which young player has the highest overall ceiling?
With Matt Carpenter filling the gap at second base, Wong has been able to stay in Memphis honing his skills this season. That extra time to develop, Warner says, has been good for the Hawaii native.
While his day will come soon, Warner teaches his players to always keep their focus on today.
“Basically, all these guys want to be in the big leagues–obviously,” he said. “But the one thing we relate to them is that you cannot control that stuff. You go out there, do your job and when your time comes you’ll get the call—be ready.
“If you start worrying about that kind of stuff, stuff that’s out of your control, it starts weighing in on your brain and then it starts affecting your play. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of guys.”
With Wong, Warner doesn’t see that as a cause for concern and referred to his as “quite mature for his age.”
“He’s strong enough to know that he has a good future and that if he just keeps going straight forward he’ll get his time,” he said. “[Wong is] a pretty even-keeled guy. He has a good mentality and that’s what you need in this game.”
Wong is batting .300/.360/.461 in Memphis with seven home runs, 31 RBI, 15 stolen bases, 19 doubles and eight triples.
On Oscar Taveras
Oscar Taveras, the 21-year-old outfield prospect from the Dominican Republic, is arguably the most exciting prospect the Cardinals organization has seen since Albert Pujols.
That excitement comes with good reason. Taveras is yet to play at a level of the minor leagues and not win the championship.
Warner said when Taveras steps to the plate, his competitive nature really shines through.
“He gives you really good, competitive at bats,” he said. “He just gets in there and battles you.”
Warner said left-handers have been a struggle for him, but he feels it’s to be expected at that level.
“They’ve got guys that come in and specialize in getting left-handers out,” Warner said. “It’s been a good learning experience for him. I just wish he would have stayed healthy. Hopefully he can get healthy and get back to where he needs to be.”
Right now health is the key for Taveras.
He has spent the majority of 2013 battling an injury that has been classified as an ankle sprain. The injury has sidelined him three times—most recently during his rehabilitation assignment with the Cardinals rookie ball affiliate Gulf Coast Cardinals.
Prior to the injury, Taveras was off to a good start at Memphis batting .306/.341/.462 with five home runs and 32 RBI. It’s not quite on pace with his 2012 numbers from the Double-A Springfield Cardinals, but a slight drop early on is normal when making the jump between leagues.
Regardless, Warner said Taveras still needs a bit of polish on some aspects of the game.
“He’s obviously young and needs to work on the nuances of the game—the overall game like defensive stuff, base running,” he said. “Basically, he needs to work on the stuff that only experience can give you like throwing to the right bases, knowing when to take an extra base, and knowing when to stay put.”
In Dec. 2012, I suggested that Taveras could stand to benefit from spending time with Carlos Beltran—whom he will in all likelihood replace at some point in the future. I still believe that’s the right move.
To work on the areas Warner feels could stand for improvement, Taveras needs to be healthy. The preseason predictions of an All-Star break arrival in St. Louis missed the mark by a bit, but injuries can’t be predicted.
At this point, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Taveras not finish the season in Memphis. In fact, it might benefit him to simply be shut down for a longer period to have time to heal.
With that said, ankle issues can be tricky for players and until it improves, he needs to be resting. There’s no reason to rush him.
On Matt Adams
When the subject of Matt Adams came up, Warner had plenty to say.
He sees Adams as an impact player at the big leagues with a big future ahead of him—much more than just a backup first baseman.
“He’s pretty nimble for a big guy,” Warner said. “That’s one thing that really stuck out about him to me.”
When Adams first arrived in Double-A, Warner thought they were getting a guy who was going to really have to work hard to get him to be a playable big league defender.
“In reality, he’s a pretty polished defender,” Warner said, noting his initial surprise. “Obviously he still had some work to do, but he’s come a long way.”
That defense has carried over to the big leagues in 2013. While many—myself included—expected defense to be his weakness, he’s shows this year that he’s actually quite talented with a glove.
Adams’ swing, however, is what was most exciting to Warner.
“His swing—he’s so short to the ball,” he said. “We try to teach guys to go from A-to-B to the ball with no wasted movement in between. He had that. It’s very compact.”
A lack of wasted movement within his swing has a lot to do with why he’s seen early success at the big league level. When teams are scouting players, they look for problems with the swing. Can he hit a curve? Does he struggle inside? Where does he like the ball?
“You’re not going to have a lot of holes or ways to pitch him,” Warner said. “If a batter has a little loop or a little length in their swing they can get to them. Adams is just direct with a really compact swing—with power.”
Those characteristics don’t usually go together.
“A lot of guys who have that short, compact swing are just line drive guys, but he’s got power,” he said. “He has strong forearms and strong hands. He knows how to use them.”
Strike zone discipline was Adams’ biggest issue in Memphis, and while he has struggled with it to an extent in St. Louis, he’s shown signs of improvement.
His strikeout percentage has dropped from 26.4 percent down to 21.1 percent. At the same time, his walk percentage has increased from 5.5 percent in 2012 to 8.2 percent in 2013.
His SO/BB rate has also fallen by nearly half from 4.80 in 2012, to 2.57 in 2013. He’s improving across the board.
“If he ever got to where he can just make them get him out in the strike zone, he’s going to be dangerous,” Warner said. “Up there he’s doing it right now. For him to go up there, be a bench guy and still produce shows a lot about the kid.
“It just goes to show you what kind of aptitude the guy has for the game.”
Since he began playing every day over the last month, he’s been a bit exposed, but that’s just part of the adjustment to being a major league hitter.
Warner is confident he will only continue to grow. That’s largely due to the fact that he feels Adams is extremely coachable.
“He understands that what we tell him and what the St. Louis coaches tell him means something,” Warner said. “A lot of guys, you say stuff trying to teach them and it goes in one ear and out the other. He takes that and soaks it in.”
He said lots of players come along who think they know everything and don’t need to listen. Their young ego can be their own worst enemy on the trek to playing in the major leagues.
“If you get good at what people are telling you, it will make you a better player,” Warner said. “That is how Matt Adams approaches the game.”
All quotes obtained firsthand by the author.