Why Oscar Taveras Is Hyped as MLB's Next Great Hitting Superstar

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterMay 31, 2014

USA Today

The working title for this column was simply "Oscar Taveras: 'Bout Damn Time."

That's because, at long last, the St. Louis Cardinals are calling up Taveras, a 21-year-old outfielder who is the crown jewel of their formidable farm system and one of the best prospects in Major League Baseball.

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2008, Taveras has risen through the ranks primarily on the strength of his bat and pure hitting ability, which is considered among the very best in the minors, if not the best. He is ready—and has been for some time now—and the next-great-hitter hype is for real.

Taveras, who swings from the left side, sports a career slash line of .321/.377/.519. He was batting .325/.373/.524 for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds this year and was particularly hot over his past 10 games, going 18-for-39 (.462).

News of the promotion first came late Friday from Rob Rains of StL Sports Page, who points out that Taveras initially was penciled into the lineup for Memphis, only to be scratched during a rain delay so he could head to St. Louis.

Taveras is expected to be with the Cardinals in time for Saturday's contest and in the lineup as they take on the San Francisco Giants, who have won the first two of the four-game set.

Incidentally, Rains also notes that on the very same date last year—May 30—the Cardinals brought up Michael Wacha for his big league debut. The right-hander, who has since become the team's second-best pitcher behind ace Adam Wainwright, is slated to start Saturday.

The corresponding move to get Taveras on the Cardinals' 25-man roster is placing first baseman Matt Adams, who leads the team with a .325 average, on the disabled list due to a calf injury that has bothered him since earlier in the week, according to Alex Halsted of MLB.com.

With Adams on the shelf, Allen Craig will shift from right field to first base, opening up a spot for Taveras. And starting Wednesday, the Cardinals play in American League parks for seven straight games, which allows them to expand their lineup via the designated hitter.

Oscar Taveras' Prospect Ranking By Various Sources (Preseason)
Baseball AmericaBaseball ProspectusBleacher ReportESPNMLB.com

Given his immense potential, Taveras wasn't called up not to play every day. With his hitting ability, the hope—if not expectation—is that he can make an immediate impact for a Cardinals club that has struggled offensively so far. St. Louis ranks in the bottom half of baseball in runs scored, primarily due to having hit only 29 home runs (second-fewest) and slugging .369 as a team (seventh-worst).

Taveras can help with that. Prior to the season, Baseball America (subscription required) rated him as the Cardinals' top prospect—and No. 3 overall in baseball:

Taveras has a preternatural gift for hitting, one honed by trying to hit the caps of water jugs spun fast to veer like a Frisbee, and thousands of swings against a tire lashed to a fence. He has electron-quick bat speed. He barrels pitches in the zone, and he can drive any pitch he can reach, sometimes going outside the zone to do so. He’s a bad-ball hitter who doesn’t strike out often. 

Here's Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) dishing on Taveras:

The bat is very special, with electric hands, ferocious bat speed, and contact so easy and natural that it’s conceivable that Taveras shares a genetic relationship with the bat in his hand. He’s ready to hit at the major-league level...so whenever he gets to promotion, be prepared to watch a future batting champion and perennial All-Star.

But enough with the words. Let's get to some footage of Taveras' so-violent-it's-sweet swing, which has earned comparisons to former MVP Vladimir Guerrero for his outstanding plate coverage and ability to barrel up just about any pitch in any location.

Here's a double from this past spring training against Daisuke Matsuzaka of the New York Mets:

At the very beginning of the clip, you can hear announcer Ron Darling mention that Taveras has won multiple batting titles in the minors. He hit .386 in 2011 to lead the Midwest League, and while his average dipped to "only" .321 in 2012, that was good enough to finish atop the Texas League. Plus, Taveras nearly tripled his homer output from eight to 23 that year.

For a closer look at what makes Taveras such a gifted hitter, here's video from his four-hit game against the Minnesota Twins back in spring training of March 2013:

It's worth pointing out that Taveras collected those knocks against four different pitchers, with two coming against right-handers and two against left-handers.

That second hit shows Taveras keeping his bat in the hitting zone while generating crazy bat speed at the point of impact and into his high finish. The third hit, meanwhile, displays his uncanny ability to make an adjustment to a breaking ball from a southpaw literally while the pitch is in flight. (Pay particular attention to the slow-motion replay shown from the side angle.)

Is Taveras the perfect prospect? No. He's battled injuries over the past year, including a hamstring strain this past spring that cost him any chance to make the club out of camp. He also suffered an ankle injury last season that limited him to only 47 games (188 plate appearances) and ultimately required surgery.

His defense remains a work in progress too, and his effort and focus have been called into question in the past. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold wrote for Baseball America (subscription required): "The other elements of his game, including attention to detail and constant effort, are catching up to his hitting. Taveras’ zest is at the plate, and his game can wander away from it."

While Taveras has been getting time in center field of late, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak recently told CBS Sports Radio 920 in St. Louis, "He's a nice corner outfielder. He's got some improving to do if you really want to put him in center field. I think it would be a tough place to play day in and day out at the Major League level."

Whether Taveras sees any action in center once he's up, though, will be key. If he proves he can handle the position, that will be the best-case scenario for both him and the Cardinals, as it's his easiest path to stick around once Adams returns. At that point, Craig would have to shift back to right field, and veteran Matt Holliday is set in left.

In center, though, Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos aren't exactly roadblocks, given the former's defensive struggles and the latter's lack of production with the bat.

Given the situation—the Cardinals offense is in need of a spark, especially after losing Adams, and there's a potential opening in center field—the timing of Taveras' promotion makes a lot of sense. Now, it's about damn time to see what he can do.

Statistics are accurate through May 30 and come from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11


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