Cardinals Oscar Taveras Draws Vladimir Guerrero Comparisons

SPRINGIELD, Mo.—When Oscar Taveras briefly lost his position as the Double-A Texas League's batting leader in early August, even the player who leapfrogged him said not to worry.

"He'll win it," Springfield Cardinals teammate Jermaine Curtis said. "That kid's unbelievable."

Many would probably nod in agreement.

In a season when the parent Cardinals jumped the then-teen sensation over an entire level as a reward for his blitz through spring training, Taveras solidified himself as a bona-fide elite prospect.

Early in 2012, his coaches urged gravitation from a hitter-only persona. By season's end, they saw a player nearing complete-player status. Scouts did too.

Through 457 at-bats, Taveras owned a line of .319/.379/.571 and ranked in the top five of nine statistical offensive categories. More compelling, Taveras, who bats lefthanded and has one of the minors' most violent (but controlled) swings, was in a dead heat for the batting title one year after hitting .369 for low Class A Quad Cities—the highest average in the Midwest League since 1956.

"He has all the tools that you look for in a player, and a lot of those tools are rapidly becoming skills," a veteran scout of an American League team said. "And when he gets those five skills up to the maximum, he's going to be a fine player."

Taveras, signed in 2009 for $145,000, was not a shoo-in for St. Louis' Texas League affiliate this season. Instead, farm director John Vuch met with him upon his arrival to spring training.

The story goes that Taveras' name was positioned between the rosters of high Class A Palm Beach and Springfield. If he wanted to skip a level, he had to earn it.

"It doesn't have anything to do with your bat," Vuch said, later recalling the meeting. "It's going to be how hard you work on your defense, how hard you work on your baserunning. Because those aspects of your game are just as important as your hitting. Your bat is easily Double-A caliber. But the other part of your game is barely A-ball.  So we can't send you to Double-A if you're not taking that part of your game seriously."

Taveras, who turned 20 on June 19, has made those strides according to Springfield manager Mike Shildt, a former scout. Early in the season, Taveras positioned himself defensively only after eyeing batting coach Phillip Wellman. That faded away.

"He's become a more consistent outfielder in terms of his positioning, learning how to play hitters, and he's gotten better jumps and he's taken better routes. His consistency of being alert has mostly improved, and his throwing has become more accurate," Shildt said. "And his baserunning has gotten better."

The veteran scout, who says Taveras has struck out just four times in 65 at-bats when he was on hand, says Taveras still shows frustration with groundouts or flyouts and could enhance his game by pressuring the defense in those situations.

"He's got good raw running speed, which is usable," the scout said. "He's got a strong arm, which is accurate. He reads the ball well off the bat and makes the plays in the gaps. A good defensive center fielder. I like him better in center than I do in right."

Taveras' baseball IQ was somewhat stunted as an amateur, the prospect said earlier this year. A native of the Dominican Republic, he spent four years—from age 12 to 16—living with his dad in Montreal, where winters limited outdoor playing time.

But he turned the Texas League into his summer playground. Much of his success has come from a selective eye at the plate, allowing Taveras to hit from line to line but also show power. His swing reflects one positive of having lived in Montreal, though. To hitting coordinator Derrick May, it evokes former Expos great Vladimir Guerrero.

Taveras also has drawn 40 walks and struck out just 56 times. From April 16-Aug. 28, his average dipped below .300 only once.

"The comparison would be, if there was anyone, it would Vladimir Guerrero," May said. "I played with Vlad. You had to worry about him getting hit by pitches because pitchers couldn't pitch around him. They tried to bounce pitches, and he'd still hit them. They couldn't throw a waste pitch away," May said. "And that's kind of the same way with him (Taveras)."

Kary Booher covers baseball for the Springfield News-Leader