May 31, 2014
The Situation: The Cardinals need an offensive boost and Taveras bleeds rocket fuel.
Background: The Cardinals signed Taveras on the international free agent market in 2008 for just under $150K, a cheeky and smart opportunity created by Taveras’ move back to the Dominican Republic after several years spent living in some place called “Canada,” where he would’ve been eligible for the draft. The then-16-year-old was well regarded for his offensive upside, as scouts were enraptured by his natural bat speed, but this wasn’t a no-brainer prospect, and the world outside the industry walls would not take notice for several years.
As a 17-year-old, Taveras made his professional debut, putting up a solid performance in the always adventurous Dominican Summer League, a place where statistical output requires more context than any other level of any sport I can think of; strike zones are as schizophrenic as Syd Barrett, and the level of talent ranges from raw with promise to straight-up Salmonella on sight. Taveras made the jump to stateside ball as an 18-year-old in 2010, putting himself on the prospect map with a standout performance in the rookie Appalachian League. I first became aware of him while he was with that Johnson City club, but I wasn’t even officially writing for Baseball Prospectus at the time, so unless my Rangers-centric audience wanted to know about some random teenager raking in a short-season league, my soapbox was a slice of wicker.
The next year, 2011, was when Taveras’ name first appeared alongside other mythological gods of the game, as the 19-year-old did very terrible things to Midwest League pitching, hitting close to .400 in his full-season debut and showing off the type of bat speed and barreling ability usually found in major-league all-stars. His stock soared throughout the season, and Taveras eventually found himself ranked no. 23 overall that offseason, an incredible jump from relative obscurity to premium prospect.
It was more of the same in 2012, as Taveras made the jump all the way to the Double-A level and hit .321 with 67 extra-base hits in 124 games. I took over the prospect pulpit that fall from the departed Kevin Goldstein, and with all the power vested in me, ranked Taveras no. 2 overall in the game (behind only Jurickson Profar), essentially suggesting that he was a surefire superstar in the making,
Injuries marred most of Taveras’ 2013 season and prevented the hitting sensation from making his major-league debut, thus changing the fortunes of the parent club during their postseason run. Perhaps too aggressively rushed back to the field after his initial ankle injury, Taveras just wasn’t the same force, as he managed only 47 games during the minor-league season and slugged under .500 for the first time since he was an 18-year-old at the complex level. Taveras went under the knife in August to repair the damaged ankle, and the world was concerned. I was concerned as well, but steadfast in my belief that Taveras was a future superstar at the highest level. I ranked him no. 3 in the minors last offseason despite the injury-plagued 2013 campaign.
Scouting Report: Taveras’ story begins and ends with his bat; he’s a tour de force with the stick, a violent storm of bat speed, balance, and pure badassness. The hand-eye coordination is elite, as are the aforementioned bat speed and balance, which allow that murderous rampage of a swing to connect with the desired target despite pitch location or type. Getting to watch Taveras take rips in the batting cage is like getting to watch Hemingway drink or recklessly hunt exotic animals. It’s an experience that requires a suspension of disbelief and an acquiescence to a spectacle that is both difficult to fathom and difficult to forget.
The hit tool could end up being a true 80 on the 20/80 scale, which suggests that he could be a perennial batting title contender and one of the best pure hitters in the game. That’s an incredibly bold statement, one I rarely feel comfortable standing next to, except in the case of Taveras. He has yet to be tested by major-league quality pitching, the kind of arms that can push the boundaries of his balance and bat speed by mixing pitches, changing speeds, and forcing weak swings. He’ll have to make adjustments that you just can’t simulate in the minors or project with any accuracy, but I do feel comfortable enough in his skill-set to suggest that he’ll make them and remain ahead of the competitive curve.
The raw power is double plus because of the strength, bat speed, and ability to create the loft in his swing necessary for over-the-fence distance, but the actual game power might be slow to reach its potential. In a perfect outcome, Taveras could eventually eclipse the single-season 30-homer mark, which in combination with his projected .300-plus batting average would basically make him the left-handed Albert Pujols, a future Hall of Famer who has a case for being the best right-handed bat in modern history. Let’s take it easy with that comparison for now, as dominance in the majors is a completely different animal from dominance in the minors, and until he proves it year after year, the outcomes placed on Taveras will remain abstract and optimistic to a fault.
Based on paper projections, Taveras is a five-tool talent, but that’s a liberal assessment given the present grades on his glove and run. He’s a good athlete but not a catalytic type, and his average speed can play down on base because he’s a fringe-average baserunner with occasional disinterest in the action. The same can be said about his outfield defense, which can flash average but often plays below, with several scout sources citing his general detachment and disinterest in the field. If you had a reason to hold Taveras back in the minors, it would be to improve on these specific baseball actions. They will not be impact attributes in the majors.
Deficiencies in the field aside, Taveras was born to hit, and that’s the reason the Cardinals are bringing him to St. Louis. The lineup needs a talent infusion that can offer impact, and you won’t find a better bat in the minor leagues to choose from, so this isn’t exactly rocket science so much as it is rocket appreciation. Taveras’ bat is primed for something special, and in the coming years, his name will remain on the tongues of even the most casual of baseball fans. Oscar Taveras is must-see-TV. –Jason Parks
Fantasy Impact: Well, it looks like Super Two season started early this year. Taveras had occupied the no. 2 spot on the Stash List for the last few weeks in anticipation of this day, and even though the Cardinals floated out a soft date of June 4 (the start of a string of games in AL parks), we will all gladly be treated to an extra four days of the top fantasy prospect expected to see major-league time in 2014. And yes, he's still above Gregory Polanco for me overall; Polanco was ahead of Taveras on the Stash List because of playing time concerns for Taveras. If Taveras has seen the minor leagues for the last time, he’s left it in rags, hitting .462 with five extra-base hits and three strikeouts in his last 10 games (39 at-bats).
The skills are clear, and as you can see from Jason's write-up above, they're pretty special. As you'd expect, his fantasy upside is as well. However, due to both the Cardinals' status as a contending team and their extreme depth, Taveras isn't as guaranteed to stick in the majors as his talent should dictate. With Matt Holliday locked into an outfield corner and Allen Craig heating up, Taveras has two roads to full playing time: 1) He reduces Matt Adams to a bench role with Allen Craig sliding to first, or 2) He shows enough in center field to stick over the two-headed fantasy migraine of Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay.
If Taveras can get 350 at-bats over the remainder of the season, he could realistically be looking at a .280 average with 12-15 homers, 50-60 RBI, and a handful of steals. In the long run, this is a .300-plus hitter with 25 home run power—so while that likely won't manifest itself immediately, his preternatural barreling ability gives him a better chance at hitting the ground running than even other elite prospects.
Practically, Taveras needs to be owned in all leagues regardless of size or format, although there's a pretty good chance that he's already on someone's roster in yours. In NL-only formats, he's worth a substantial bid (in the $35-40 range), and any FAAB bidding is sure to be interesting with more top prospects in the National League expected to hit the majors over the next couple of weeks on both the hitting and pitching side. In dynasty leagues, he's the guy you spend on this year. Whether it's an exorbitant amount of FAAB or your top waiver priority, go the extra mile to get Taveras. –Bret Sayre
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProfessorParks