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.”
Memphis manager Pop Warner said comparisons to Guerrero or any other former Major League All-Star is unfair to a 20-year-old kid who has ultra talent but isn't that far removed from being a teenager.
“You're talking about comparing him to potentially future Hall of Fame guys. That's unfair,” Warner said. “Seeing him in spring training he competes hard. He puts the bat on the ball consistently, which gives him a high ceiling. We're just going to let him go play.”
Teammates said Taveras has handled the hype extremely well.
“He's so consistent and has a great work ethic,” Wong said. “He could easily have a big head because everyone tells him how great he is. He works hard every single day and doesn't let all that all other stuff go to his head which would be pretty easy to do.”
The Cardinals signed Taveras at age 16 to a $145,000 bonus. Taveras quickly proved it was a big-time bargain in a day and age high first round draft picks receive $4 to $5 million signing bonuses.
In some organizations Taveras might already be in the majors similar to Bryce Harper with the Washington Nationals or Mike Trout with the Los Angeles Angels.
The Cardinals gave Taveras a long look in spring training. He compiled a team high 76 at bats, hitting .289 with two homers and 10 RBIs.
St. Louis, though, has a veteran outfield. Jon Jay is a solid center fielder flanked by All-Stars Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran.
Since this is the final year of Beltran's contract, Taveras figures to start next season at Busch Stadium. But Taveras is so talented he might force the Cardinals to promote him at some point the next few months. He would be an automatic call-up if Jay, Holliday or Beltran suffered an injury.
For now, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak prefers Taveras play every day in Triple-A and learn all three outfield positions.
Speaking through teammate Jermaine Curtis, Taveras said his focus is to play hard and not be concerned when he might reach the majors.
“He just goes out and plays his game and doesn't feel he has any pressure,” Curtis said, translating Taveras' Spanish. “He tries to leave that to the side and whatever happens is in God's hands.”
Some predict Taveras will adjust quickly in the majors where pitchers consistently are around the strike zone, pitches Taveras routinely squares up.
“Playing in the big leagues is a different animal but he's definitely special,” Garcia said. “From what I've seen I don't see any reason why he won't be ready when he gets his chance.”