COMMENTARY | There's no such thing as a can't-miss prospect.
But the St. Louis Cardinals have had more than their fair share of blue-chip prospects flame out over the last decade and a half. Is it just a matter of bad luck? Or are the Redbirds asking for too much, too soon from fragile young players.
St. Louis fans are eager to see Oscar Taveras, a lefty slugging outfielder currently ranked third among big-league prospects by MLB.com, start taking hacks at Busch Stadium. While he tore up Class-AA pitching last year with a .321 average and 23 homers, Cardinals fans need to remember that Taveras has played only 124 games above the Class-A level -- and that he's not even going to be old enough to legally drink a beer until the second half of June.
Cardinals top prospects Rick Ankiel, Anthony Reyes and Colby Rasmus all seemed to have the physical ability to be top producers. But each one of them seemed to be overwhelmed by the mental side of the game because they were rushed to the majors before they were properly prepared.
Ankiel was the same age as Taveras is now when he was awarded a job in the Cardinals' starting rotation in 2000. He was drafted in the second round in 1997, straight out of high school. Ankiel was 25-9 in less than two full minor-league seasons when the Redbirds could no longer resist temptation and called him up to the majors. At the time, there was only one younger player in the big leagues.
It went well for a while. He racked up a respectable 11 wins over the regular season with a 3.50 ERA. But, despite periodic bouts with wildness, former manager Tony La Russa was forced to press Ankiel into service for Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. The Cardinals had a weak starting rotation with three journeyman pitchers who had ERAs of 4.49 or higher. The spectacular yet raw Ankiel seemed like the best chance to win.
La Russa obviously knew the move was a risk of putting too much pressure on Ankiel too fast because he went through all the trouble of employing the ruse of sending veteran Darryl Kile to the Game 1 pregame press conference to face the media. But it was Ankiel who had to face Atlanta and its ace, Greg Maddux. Just 2 2/3 innings later, Ankiel had thrown a record five wild pitches and walked six. His confidence -- and his career as a major-league pitcher -- was basically ruined.
Once touted as the best lefty starter developed by the Cardinals since Steve Carlton with 194 strikeouts and 137 hits allowed in 175 innings his rookie year, Ankiel won only two more games over the next four seasons before retiring from the mound and trying his hand as a slugging outfielder. Even when Ankiel was released by the Washington Nationals in the middle of the 2012 season and lingered over the offseason on the free-agent market, Ankiel said he would rather end his baseball career that try to pitch again. Who knows how many more wins the Cardinals might have had in the first decade of the 21st century had they taken things more slowly with Ankiel.
It was almost undoubtedly the biggest mistake of the La Russa era. And the Cardinals seemed to feel responsible, giving Ankiel every chance to come back as a hurler before being very patient in converting him to become a position player.
Reyes was by far the superior prospect to current Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright as they stood on the verge of the major leagues in 2006. He was an accomplished college pitcher at the University of Southern California who was considered to be close to major-league ready when he was drafted in 2003. But, while Wainwright worked diligently with his coaches in the minors to iron out his mechanics and hone his pitches, Reyes was promoted to the big leagues after only 42 minor-league starts over less than two full seasons. And when he arrived in St. Louis, he steadfastly refused legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan's instructions to pitch low in the strike zone instead of trying to strike out major-league hitters with high fastballs.
Like Ankiel, Reyes was brought up because of team needs more than what was best for him. Mark Mulder's shoulder was going bad, retread Sidney Ponson was washed out and Jason Marquis had lost 16 games with an ERA over 6.00. So the Cardinals were desperate for starting pitching help, and Reyes was allowed to keep going out to the mound to struggle while his major-league career evaporated. Ironically, the best performance of his career came in a gem of a start in Game 1 of the 2006 World Series when Reyes shut down the Detroit Tigers. But it only seemed to reaffirm his sense that he didn't need to listen to coaches, and Reyes did things his was in 2007 while putting together a 2-14 record with a 6.04 ERA.
In 220 innings with the Cardinals, Reyes compiled a 10-24 record with the Cardinals and a 5.38 ERA. He allowed 37 home runs in that span, and the Redbirds finally threw up their hands, trading their former top pitching prospect in 2008 to Cleveland for a minor-league pitcher named Luis Perdomo, whom they would expose later that year in the Rule 5 draft. Reyes hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2009.
While Ankiel and Reyes were pitchers, the similarities are undeniable between where Taveras currently stands and where Colby Rasmus once rated on the blue-chip prospect landscape.
Like Taveras, Rasmus was a lefty outfielder with power who rated third on MLB.com's top 100 prospect list prior to his rookie season. People raved about his combination of power and speed.
Rasmus made his major-league debut in 2009 at 22 years old. It immediately became apparent that he wasn't emotionally ready to contribute to a major-league club. He complained to the press that his manager and teammates were mean to him and that they did outrageous things like trying to tell him how to play.
After his rookie campaign in 2009, Rasmus sat in a room at the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America annual awards dinner where Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson told Rasmus he really needed to learn to hit the ball to the opposite field because major-league pitchers would eat him up if he didn't adapt. Rasmus, to the shock of reporters and baseball luminaries in the room, told Gibson he knew what he was doing and that he was confident he could pull hard stuff away.
Rasmus never changed. He refused to listen to coaches, pouted when he was benched. And then there was the matter of his father calling St. Louis sports radio to complain that the Redbirds were trying to turn Rasmus into an "opposite field slap hitter like Skip Schumaker." But the Cardinals let his talent and expectations dictate that he stayed in the majors instead of letting him grow up in the bush leagues.
After 2 1/2 years in St. Louis, he was dumped in a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. There he's publicly stated that he doesn't want to be a star and that he's happy just to be one of the guys. His batting average has plummeted to .213 since he was shipped north of the border. And word is that coaches in Toronto aren't having any better luck getting through to Rasmus as his star continues to fade.
Simply put, the Cardinals can't afford to make the same mistakes in the development of Taveras as they did with these other top prospects in their farm system. They're counting on Taveras to be their marquee player for the rest of this decade.
Instead of rushing him to the major leagues, the Cardinals need to take their time and make sure that Taveras has time to grow up and be in the best position to handle what he'll face from major-league pitchers. If he needs to spend a couple of years at Class AAA Memphis to make that happen, so be it.
It seems lately that the Cardinals are doing a better job of putting players in a position to succeed.
Lance Lynn was a highly thought-of prospect for the starting rotation before Shelby Miller came along and distracted fans. Out of the spotlight, the Cardinals were able to take their time letting Lynn work his way out of the minors. After four seasons and 441 1/3 innings in the minors, he was allowed to graduate to the big leagues -- as a reliever. He did that job for a year before getting a crack at the rotation, And when he started to falter late in 2012 as a starter, it didn't matter that Lynn was an 18-game winner. He was put back in the bullpen for his own good.
The Cardinals collected dividends by letting Jon Jay, a middling prospect, mature in the minor leagues. He went from a guy whom was thought to have a ceiling of being a fourth or fifth outfielder to a starting center fielder and leadoff man by the age of 25.
With the high price of free-agent talent and the clock ticking on the amount of time teams can keep drafted talent under their control, the pressure is high to bring players up to the 25-man roster as quickly as possible.
But, while Redbirds fans are hopeful Taveras will burst on the major-league scene like Albert Pujols did 12 years ago, not every player has the mental toughness, raw talent and drive of Pujols to make the huge jump to the big leagues without significant time in the upper minors. Maybe Taveras will be that rare natural talent who can handle it all at once. But if he has to spend all of 2013 in Class AAA Memphis, so be it.
And if he's still there in 2014, that might not be the worst thing in the world, either. What's important is that when he arrives he has all the tools to handle major-league pitchers, major-league pressure and major-league expectations.
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.
- Sports & Recreation
- Rick Ankiel
- Anthony Reyes
- Colby Rasmus