Hawksworth back on Cardinals' radar

Hawksworth back on Cardinals' radar

JUPITER, Fla. -- Three years ago, Baseball America's annual ranking of the Cardinals' top 10 prospects included some names that are now very familiar to St. Louis fans. No. 3 was Yadier Molina, now the club's starting catcher. No. 8, Daric Barton, became a key piece of the Mark Mulder trade. Rated ninth was Tyler Johnson, now a key member of the Redbirds' bullpen.

But ranked ahead of all of them, in the No. 1 spot, was Blake Hawksworth. The right-hander was coming off a strong year split between low Class A Peoria and high Class A Palm Beach. Baseball America wrote in December 2003 that Hawksworth "projects as a front-of-the-rotation starter."

Hawksworth's path to the Majors was derailed soon thereafter, though. He made only two starts in 2004 as he battled shoulder trouble, and he underwent shoulder surgery in July of '04. Things didn't get any better in 2005 -- Hawksworth began a rehab assignment but never made it higher than short-season Class A before shoulder discomfort sidetracked him again.

Now, finally, Hawksworth is on the 40-man roster and in big-league camp. He enjoyed a successful and healthy season at Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield in 2006, making a career-high 27 starts while going 11-4 with an ERA under 3.00. He's back on the radar, possibly ticketed for Triple-A Memphis. Hawksworth is no longer the No. 1 prospect, but he may be the pitcher in the organization who is closest to the Major Leagues.

"Last year surprised a lot of people, including myself," Hawksworth said. "But I don't take as much for granted now. Just being healthy is the No. 1 key. I think the rest will follow."

In two appearances this spring, Hawksworth has held his own. He's pitched five innings, allowing an unearned run on four hits. It's never wise to read too much into Grapefruit League stats, but suffice it to say there's nothing in Hawksworth's performance this March that has been discouraging.

He's still only 24, even after five years in the Cardinals system. A 28th-round pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, Hawksworth was a "draft-and-follow" player, signing with St. Louis the following May. At the time, club officials considered his signing tantamount to bringing in a first-round draft selection.

His initial performance made their decision look like a great one. Hawksworth blew through the rookie-level Appalachian League and made a brief stop at short-season New Jersey, then dominated in his introduction to full-season ball at Peoria in 2003. He battled ankle trouble throughout '03, but it didn't limit his effectiveness.

When the shoulder troubles started, though, Hawksworth couldn't overcome them. He lost the better part of two seasons and is only now back where he should have been at the start of 2004. And he's enjoying every minute of where he is in 2007.

"It's just a blessing," he said of being on the roster and in camp. "[In 2006], they didn't protect me [from the Rule 5 Draft]. It kind of fired me up a little bit -- but they had no reason to. I hadn't pitched in two years. All the adversity just makes you hungry, makes you dig in a little deeper."

Hawksworth says he's more of a pitcher and less of a thrower than he was when he was first climbing the prospect ladder. His velocity, once easily in the low 90s and occasionally ranging up to 96, has dropped. His feel for pitching, however, has improved.

"I talked to [Chris Carpenter] about that," he said. "After the arm surgery, you become smarter. He told me ... he has half the stuff now that he had [before the surgery]. I guess I feel the same way. I don't throw as hard and I have to be a little more crafty."

By having a clue, as well as a good arm, Hawksworth has drawn some notice -- even though he's not really in the competition to make the Opening Day roster.

"Things about him intrigue me," said pitching coach Dave Duncan. "He's got a good changeup. He's got a pretty good breaking ball. Yeah, he's kind of an interesting guy. I think he's a little ways away from being somebody you're really looking seriously at."

Hawksworth is wisely paying attention to Carpenter's work and habits.

"I just try to watch the veteran guys like Carp and emulate as much as I can, just pick up anything I can," Hawksworth said. "I've been around a while in the Minor Leagues and I know what I need to do."

And the main thing he needs to do, right now, is just keep taking the ball every five days. If he does that, chances are he'll no longer be a ranked or unranked prospect. He'll be a big-league pitcher.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.