Oscar Taveras was widely regarded as the top offensive prospect in baseball headed into the 2013 season and was expected to make an immediate impact upon reaching the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals.
But Taveras’ highly anticipated campaign didn’t unfold as expected, as he suffered an ankle injury that limited him to only 46 games at Triple-A and ultimately required season-ending surgery.
However, according to a recent report from MLB.com, the 21-year-old outfielder’s ankle feels “100 percent” in advanced of spring training.
Though Taveras isn’t a lock to make the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster, he’s still expected to compete for a job as the team’s everyday right fielder in spring training. Even if he doesn’t break camp in the major leagues, Taveras is poised for a breakout Rookie-of-the-Year-caliber season in 2014.
After a strong showing between a pair of rookie levels in 2010, Taveras was moved up to Low-A Quad Cities the following year for his full-season debut. The then-19-year-old jumped on the prospect radar by tearing the cover off the ball at the more advanced level, batting .386/.444/.584 with 40 extra-base hits (eight home runs) in 347 plate appearances.
As a result of his overwhelming success, Taveras was promoted directly from Low- to Double-A for the 2012 season, where he destroyed Texas League pitching to the tune of a .321/.380/.572 batting line with 67 extra-base hits (23 home runs), 94 RBI and a 56-42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 531 plate appearances.
It also marked the third consecutive season in which the left-handed hitter posted a .300-plus batting average and .500-plus slugging percentage.
Moved up to Triple-A Memphis for the 2013 season—a season in which he was expected to make an impact in the major leagues—the 21-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain in late May that continued to bother him throughout the season and led to two separate stints on the disabled list.
There was a glimmer of hope in mid-August when reports had Taveras nearing a rehab assignment, fueling the belief that the outfielder could still receive a September call-up. Unfortunately, it was announced a few days later that he needed season-ending surgery.
The surgery went well, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, though Taveras was restricted to a walking boot for the following eight weeks.
Overall, Taveras batted .306/.341/.462 with 17 extra-base hits last season, but was limited to only 186 plate appearances with Memphis.
Taveras features an explosive, yet well-balanced, left-handed swing that enables him to keep the bat head in the zone for an extended period of time. As a result, he seemingly always achieves a favorable point of contact, while his extension through the ball allows him to generate backspin carry to all fields and amass a significant number of extra-base hits.
Though Taveras has plenty of strength and raw power, his in-game power is more so a product of him being a pure hitter.
However, it’s Taveras’ unparalleled hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball ability that separates him from other highly regarded young hitters. Additionally, the 21-year-old’s ability to drive the ball the other way is already more advanced than a lot of big league hitters and only stands to improve with additional experience against top-notch pitching.
Over the last two seasons, he has drawn an increasing number of comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero due to his aggressive, free-swinging approach, as well as his knack for consistently centering pitches throughout (and even outside) the strike zone.
Taveras simply hits everything: fastballs, breaking balls, off-speed pitches, same-side pitching, pitcher’s pitches—you name it and he can barrel it, effortlessly. And while his approach may be challenged more at the major league level, Taveras should always make enough contact to negate any strikeout-related concerns.
Though he has considerable experience in center field, Taveras’ defensive profile is better suited for a corner outfielder position—likely right field given the presence of Matt Holliday in left. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ offseason acquisition of Peter Bourjos eliminated any temptation for the team to deploy Taveras in center field during future seasons.
2014: What to Expect
The question isn’t if Oscar Taveras will make an impact in the major leagues next season; rather, it’s a question of when.
As previously mentioned, the Cardinals are likely to open the 2014 season with Holliday in left field and Bourjos in center. Meanwhile, the need to have both Allen Craig and Matt Adams’ respective right- and left-handed bats in the lineup means Craig is likely to get the nod in right field next season.
So, where does that leave Taveras?
Well, Taveras will get the chance to compete for a job this spring, presumably in right field, though the team may offer him playing time at both corner spots to ensure he receives consistent (and much-needed) at-bats.
However, based upon the strength of the Cardinals’ probable outfield configuration of Holliday-Bourjos-Craig, not to mention the fact that Taveras had only 186 plate appearances in 2013, the 21-year-old is likely to open the year at Triple-A.
But that could change in a hurry this spring if Adams or Craig were to suffer an injury, or if Adams struggles at the plate and forces the organization to use Craig almost exclusively at first base to open the year. Regardless of what transpires with his future teammates, Taveras will have to do his part by tearing the cover off the ball during spring training in order to secure a spot on the Opening Day roster.
That being said, the Cardinals aren’t known for rushing its offensive prospects to the major leagues. This is especially applicable for Taveras, who is expected to rake upon reaching the major leagues whenever that ultimately occurs.
The two main statistical projection models (per FanGraphs), Oliver and ZIPS, both suggest that Taveras will enjoy sustained success in the majors next season. (Note: The Oliver projection model works under the assumption that a player spends then entire season in the major leagues.)
As one can see, both models believe that Taveras will post an OPS in the .779 to .789 range to go along with a .300-plus BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and solid strikeout and walk rates.
If Taveras doesn’t open the season in the major leagues, then he’s unlikely to be promoted until May, at the earliest, unless there’s an injury to one of the team’s aforementioned outfielders. If that is the case, then the ZIPS projections provide an accurate idea of what to expect from Taveras next season.
However, based on the 21-year-old’s offensive prowess and track record against advanced competition, he’s more likely to surpass those statistical expectations than disappoint next year. And so long as Taveras spends a good chunk of the 2014 season in the major leagues, it’s hard to envision him not make a strong bid for Rookie of the Year honors in the National League.