A seamless spring for Taveras could create tough decisions for Cardinals

News-DemocratDecember 17, 2013 

— A significant ankle injury limited outfielder Oscar Taveras to 47 minor-league games last season.

But the St. Louis Cardinals are open to the idea of their No. 1 position prospect making the Opening Day roster, even if that creates some difficult decisions for manager Mike Matheny.

"Playing time is critical, especially (considering) how much he missed last year," Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said Tuesday at Busch Stadium. "You would have to find a way to get him at-bats, because you certainly wouldn't want to slow down development just to have him on the major-league roster."

The Cardinals, whose offseason work is complete, have Matt Holliday in left, recently acquired Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay in center and Allen Craig in right. Craig will fill Carlos Beltran's former position, which will open first base for power-hitting Matt Adams.

If Taveras impresses during spring training and comes north with the Cardinals, Adams could be squeezed out.

"It becomes a balance of at-bats," Mozeliak said. "(But) I always hate trying to answer questions hypothetical. For me, it's much easier to react once we get to camp and see how things unfold and then make a rational decision. My hope is we have some difficult decisions, because if we do, that means everybody's playing well."

Mozeliak said the 21-year-old Taveras, a left-handed hitter, is expected to be cleared to resume baseball activities in early January.

"The first test is going to be, 'Where is he physically?'" Mozeliak said. "I got to see him about two weeks ago here in St. Louis. He's progressing very well. All arrows point to him being ready to go when camp opens, so that's exciting.

"But he hasn't played baseball in a while, so getting his feet under him, getting his timing back, I think is critical. How he ends up contributing will really depend on how he plays this spring."

Taveras batted .306 (53-for-173) with 12 doubles, five home runs, 32 RBIs and five stolen bases in 46 games at Class AAA Memphis. Will his injury-riddled season hinder his development?

"I'm hopeful it's just a bump in the road," Mozeliak said. "Obviously, when you miss that kind of time, that isn't ideal."

Ellis fills need

Mozeliak also addressed for the first time in public the signing of veteran second baseman Mark Ellis.

Ellis signed a one-year, $5.25 million free-agent contract Monday and is projected as the backup to rookie Kolten Wong.

"It gives us protection at second base," Mozeliak said. "We wouldn't be afraid to have him take ground balls at third base as well. He's just somebody that I think brings energy. (He's) the right kind of player for this type of club. When you look at all the intangibles he brings, it's just a nice fit for us. Giving us some flexibility between second and third does help."

The Cardinals are confident the left-handed-hitting Wong can handle the everyday job at second base. But there is reason for pause; he batted .153 (9-for-59) in 32 games last season.

"I don't think I have to sit here on Dec. 17 and define expectations for him," Mozeliak said. "All of us who have gotten to see Kolten play the last couple of years at the minor-league level believe in him and believe he's capable of being an everyday player at the big-league level. When I look at those six weeks as a sample size of his production, I wouldn't read too much into it."

Mozeliak acknowledged that giving the 36-year-old Ellis a $5.25-million deal was a bit steep.

"Part of that's market-driven," Mozeliak said. "I also think when you look at trying to improve ... at times the cost of playing poker goes up. In this case, it was market-driven. Frankly, I feel fortunate that we got him."

All right vs. lefties

The Cardinals have added three right-handed bats this winter in Bourjos, Ellis and shortstop Jhonny Peralta.

Mozeliak hopes that will help address the Cardinals' struggles against left-handed pitching, against which they were 19-23. Bourjos batted .256 vs. lefties, while Ellis batted .282 and Peralta hit .352 with a .404 on-base percentage.

"I certainly think we have better odds today than we did yesterday when you put those guys in the lineup --especially when you look at their splits and the success they've had against left-handed pitching," Mozeliak said of Ellis and Peralta. "I would throw Bourjos in there, too, frankly.

"Everybody's scratched their heads when we've faced left-handed pitching over the last few years -- with no real definitive answers. We're looking at players that have had success. That makes that natural transition to matching up better."

Bell on board

Former Cardinal David Bell, who coached third base for the Chicago Cubs last season, will be the Cardinals' assistant hitting coach under John Mabry. Bell, 41, replaces Bengie Molina, who went to the Texas Rangers to serve as their first-base coach and catching instructor.

"For all of us that have known him, he understands what Cardinal baseball is about, so I think that's just a natural fit," Mozeliak said of Bell. "His relationship with Mabry has been strong. I always think of that job as, one, you sort of have to be a working bee. But you also have to have great appreciation for what the hitting coach is teaching.

"Hopefully, they can work well together and can be a collaboration of ideas. But ultimately, you have to respect the stance and the philosophy of the hitting coach. In this case, they have a very good rapport and I imagine it will be a very seamless transition."

Contact reporter David Wilhelm at dwilhelm@bnd.com or 239-2665. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMWilhelm.

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