St. Louis Cardinals star outfield prospect Oscar Taveras has been likened to a left-handed version of Vladimir Guerrero.
Starting the season in Triple-A with the Memphis Redbirds, Taveras is ranked the second best hitter in the minors behind Texas Rangers shortstop Jurickson Profar.
The Cardinals most celebrated outfield prospect in a generation, Taveras already has won three batting titles at age 17, 18 and 19. All three teams won league championships.
The reason Taveras, 20, has been compared to Guerrero is he's a free swinger that finds a way to make solid contact on pitches several inches out of the strike zone. It's a unique talent to square up a pitcher's pitch.
“He has superb hand-eye coordination,” said Memphis infielder Greg Garcia. “He hasn't seen a pitch he doesn't like to hit, but he can barrel up a lot of balls. It doesn't really matter where the pitch is he makes good contact.”
Taveras displayed those skills Friday night at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in the opening game of a four-game series against the Oklahoma City RedHawks.
Going 4 for 5, Taveras lined opposite-field singles to left his first two at bats. In his fourth at bat, Taveras turned on an inside pitch, yanking it down the right-field line for a double. In his final plate appearance, he beat out an infield single on a roller to short.
“He's a special player,” said Memphis teammate Kolten Wong. “He can bunt, run, hit and throw, basically does everything very well.”
Wong, a first-round pick who projects to be the Cardinals second baseman of the future, has played with Taveras the past two seasons at Class A Quad Cities and Double-A Springfield.
Taveras hit .322 his first full season. Two years ago he won the Midwest League batting title with a .386 average, the highest in the league since 1956.
Last season Taveras skipped a level, won the Texas League Player of the Year award, batting .321 with 23 home runs and 94 RBIs in 124 games.
He did all that in n Double-A. At age 19.
Memphis pitcher Tyler Lyons, who played at Oklahoma State, played with Taveras last season in Springfield.
“He's been tagged as a free swinger, but it's worked for him,” Lyons said. “But he doesn't strike out a lot. Not only does he make consistent contact, he squares it up a lot. I'm glad I don't have to face him. He's a really tough out.”
Garcia said the free-swinger tag is a little overblown.
“He used to swing at about any pitch,” Garcia said. “Now he's created an approach. It makes it that much tougher for pitchers to get him out. He's working hard every day to become a good center fielder. He has a good arm. He has all the tools.”
Ron Brand, a scout for the New York Yankees the past 20 years, said five-tool prospects like Taveras who can cover a lot of ground in center field are rare.
“A lot of guys that come into the game hit, but they don't know why they hit,” Brand said. “(Roberto) Clemente was like that. (Orlando) Cepeda was like that. Guerrero was like that. Unless someone messes with his head he should continue to hit... He's very advanced for his age.”