St. Louis certainly has some long-range options for the left side of the infield and they were on display earlier this month during the club's Florida Instructional League program in Jupiter. Third baseman Roberto De La Cruz, whom the Cardinals signed in July, and shortstop Gerardo Mannbel, who signed in February 2007, made their first appearances in the United States during instructs, and St. Louis was thrilled at being able to expose the duo to such a setting.
"It's an important thing, getting them in here in a less-pressured environment," said Cardinals director of Minor League operations John Vuch. "If they come for extended spring or for the Gulf Coast League [in 2009] it will be for a longer period of time and they will be familiar with the complex and the instructors. This is an extended orientation that provides a comfort factor. It enables them to get a feel for what it's like when they come over and play. It's a good experience on and off the field."
De La Cruz, who is also known as Roberto Pina, won't turn 17 until next month. He has yet to suit up in an affiliated game for the Cards but was a high-profile signing and considered by many scouts to be the best available bat in Latin America during the summer signing period. He is believed to have been a given a bonus of just over $1 million.
Jeff Luhnow, the club's vice president of scouting and player development, said that De La Cruz could start next season at Rookie-level Johnson City based on what he showed in the instructional league.
"Originally, the conversation was that he was a Dominican Summer or Gulf Coast League player, but now he is a Johnson City or Batavia player, to be honest," Luhnow said. "A lot can change between now and when he shows up next spring and by the time we make decisions. But Johnson City could be where he starts if I guessed now.
"He was a little banged up during instructs, but even with that, he was the most impressive player there offensively and defensively. He looked like he belonged. His talent was well ahead of his years. He showed a combination of patience at the plate and an ability to attack the ball when it was in the hitting zone. He got a lot of hits."
Luhnow also raved about De La Cruz's play at third, citing good footwork and hand coordination. The club also was more than pleased with his first-step reaction, the smoothness he displays on the transfer and his ability to start a double play.
Mannbel turned 18 in May and spent this year in the Venezuelan Summer League, where he hit .302 with four homers and 29 RBIs in 67 games.
"Mannbel is a kid that can swing the bat," Vuch said. "Defensively, he's played short and third, but he can handle the middle infield. He's an athletic kid who runs OK, but that's not his strongest suit. That would be his bat and his defense.
"De La Cruz is certainly capable of staying at third base. There's no reason to think that he couldn't. Long-term, I think he's going to go pretty far in the organization. Both these guys impressed people during their time here. Obviously, their stock didn't go down during instructs."
Luhnow praised Mannbel's approach at the plate and his ability on the bases. He doesn't have the speed to get a great many steals, but he knows how to move on the bases and generates many opportunities as a result.
"For a middle infielder, he has a enough pop where we think he profiles not just as a catch-and-throw guy but a good defender, who, if his bat continues to develop, it will be enough to make him a dangerous hitter," Luhnow said.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.