Oscar Taveras is the best prospect to come through the Cardinals' system since Albert Pujols. He could be the best hitting prospect to come through the Minor Leagues since Pujols graduated to St. Louis in 2001.
Linking a 21-year-old who has yet to reach the Majors to one of the greatest hitters in baseball history might seem like a stretch, but it happens all of the time with Taveras. Rather than shrink from the comparison, he's honored by it.
"A lot of the fans are happy -- a lot of them telling me that they're waiting to see me in St. Louis, that they think I'm going to be a good player and that they think I can be another Albert Pujols," Taveras said through a translator. "That makes me and my family really proud."
Like Pujols, Taveras turned pro without much fanfare. He signed with the Cardinals for $145,000 as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2008. In his debut the next summer, he hit a less-than-scintillating .257/.338/.392 in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League.
Since then, Taveras has racked up batting titles and league championships. He hit .322/.362/.526 while leading Johnson City to the Rookie-level Appalachian League championship in 2010. In his first taste of full-season ball, he batted .386/.444/.584 -- the highest average in the low Class A Midwest League since 1956 -- and carried Quad Cities to the MWL title in 2011.
Though he skipped a level to Double-A, Taveras won another batting title and playoff championship in the Texas League in 2012, and MVP honors as well. Not only did he hit .321/.380/.572, but he also answered any questions that may have existed about his power by increasing his career high in home runs from eight to 23.
"He's been a very good hitter at every level," Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque said. "The interesting thing about Oscar is that when he starts in a new league in April, he plays up to the level of the league. He's right to the league or above the league right away. That's really impressive, especially for someone 19, 20, 21."
Taveras makes hitting look easy. He has a quick left-handed swing and a sound approach, and scouts have raved about his ability to barrel balls seemingly at will since he was in the Appy League. He's capable of hitting .300 consistently and contending for batting titles at the Major League level, while hitting 25 or more homers per season.
Asked if his hitting ability is an innate skill or the product of hard work, Taveras said both.
"Work and talent; my dad, too," said Taveras, whose father Francisco signed with the Brewers before an elbow injury truncated his career. "He was a good hitter, too, so that comes from my roots also, as they say. I work every day on that."
Taveras continue to hit at the outset of the 2013 season, batting .317/.351/.480 in the first five weeks at Triple-A Memphis. Some club officials had lobbied for him to make the big league club out of Spring Training, and he wasn't far from getting his first call to St. Louis. But he injured his right ankle running the bases on May 12, and his season was essentially over.
Taveras sat out a month, returned for two weeks in mid-June, then missed three more weeks before trying to come back again. He played one game in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League before getting shut down. A healthy Taveras might have taken over the Cardinals' center-field job and played in the World Series, but instead he had surgery in August to repair ligament damage and remove cartilage.
Taveras has spent most of the offseason working out in the Dominican, also making regular trips to St. Louis to work with the club's trainers. He hasn't been cleared to run yet, though general manager John Mozeliak said Taveras should be 100 percent by Spring Training.
"I feel really good, thank God," Taveras said. "The ankle feels good. I'm working out in the Dominican. I'm working on hitting and I'm in the gym, with the program the team assigned me. I feel good, trying to jog and with no pain in the ankle."
There really isn't much doubt about whether Taveras' bat is ready for the Majors, though where he'll fit in the Cardinals' productive lineup remains to be seen. An average runner with a strong arm, Taveras is best suited for right field but capable in center.
St. Louis has two potential starting center fielders in Peter Bourjos, acquired from the Angels in a November deal for David Freese, and Jon Jay. The Cardinals could create more at-bats for Matt Adams at first base by shifting Allen Craig to right field. Though he's unproven, Taveras should be a much better hitter than Bourjos or Jay, and he'd be a much better defender and likely more productive than Craig or Adams.
Mozeliak said that the Cardinals don't know how they'll deploy Taveras in 2014. The GM called his outfielder "an amazing talent" and said he's excited to see a healthy Taveras in Spring Training.
"When Pujols was coming up, I don't think anybody had him on Major League radar," Mozeliak said. "He kind of came out of nowhere. A lot of us who were here, we knew we had a talent. But we didn't know he was going to have the career path he took. Taveras, I think, most of us have felt all along he's been on that path."