Oscar Taveras probably should have hit his first major league home run a month ago. Shane Robinson, one of the five outfielders to break camp with the Cardinals over Taveras, went 5-for-36 with a .404 OPS over 23 games with the Cardinals before he was sent down to Triple-A this weekend. Randal Grichuk, the man just called up to replace Robinson, went 3-for-21 in nine games in his first major league stint in late April and early May. After five more plate appearances this week, Grichuk's OPS sits at .502.
Meanwhile, Taveras, Major League Baseball's third-best prospect according to Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com, was tearing up the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Before the Cardinals called him up for Saturday's game against the Giants, Taveras owned a .325 batting average with seven home runs and an .897 OPS. He quickly showed his surgically repaired ankle was just fine. With outfielders like Grichuk, Robinson and Peter Bourjos (.584 OPS in 124 plate appearances) struggling and the Milwaukee Brewers out to their best start in franchise history, the question quickly became how long the Cardinals could afford to keep Taveras in the minors.
The final straw for the Cardinals was a calf injury suffered by first baseman Matt Adams. With Adams on the disabled list, the Cardinals were finally out of reasons to keep Taveras down on the farm. Taveras debuted Saturday, and in his second at-bat, through a downpour in the fifth inning of a scoreless game against MLB-leading Giants, Taveras clubbed a solo home run to right field for his first major league hit:
Taveras became the first Cardinals player to homer in his first major league game since Steven Hill on Aug. 15, 2010. It was the only game Hill played for the Cardinals in 2010, and he took just 10 more plate appearances with the club in 2012, his last season in professional baseball. Many of the Cardinals to homer in their first games -- Hector Luna, Chris Richard and Keith McDonald, for example -- had unremarkable careers like Hill's. The Caridnals and their fans will be hoping for a career more like Ken Boyer, who homered in his debut game on April 12, 1955 and proceeded to reach seven All-Star Games and win the 1964 MVP award in 11 years as a Cardinal.
More importantly, Taveras's blast was the only run the Cardinals would need on Saturday. They rolled to a 2-0 victory behind the home run and six shutout innings from second-year starter Michael Wacha, a pairing St. Louis fans can dream on for the next five years. The Cardinals have had just one sub-.500 season since 2000, and they haven't had a playoff drought of longer than two years since 1997-1999. The ability to routinely promote impact players from the minor league system -- from Albert Pujols to Yadier Molina to Allen Craig to Matt Carpenter -- has allowed the Cardinals to maintain success without any sort of extended rebuilding phase.
Taveras should fit right in with that group. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says he's the club's best hitting prospect since Pujols. Baseball Prospectus's Jason Parks says his "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." Baseball America's report in their 2014 Prospect Handbook says "Taveras has a preternatural gift for hitting" and "electron-quick bat speed." When a player has scouts inventing new metaphors to describe him, it's usually a good sign.
When Adams returns, the Cardinals will have a most enviable dilemma. Between Matt Holliday, Taveras, Adams and Craig, the Cardinals will have four hitters who would be clear starters on any other team for the two corner outfield spots and first base. Given the health issues both Craig and Adams have dealt with, the Cardinals could use them in a platoon-type role at first base to keep legs fresh. Or they could head to the trade market and see what's out there, as the phones in St. Louis would be ringing off the hook if it was clear a hitter of either player's caliber was available.
St. Louis enters play Monday four games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central. The question with Taveras is much less whether he belongs than it is whether the Cardinals waited too long to bring him up. The at-bats Robinson and Grichuk took over the first two months may not have been plentiful, but they were important, as the pair combined for an awful -1.1 WPA in just 63 plate appearances. If come October the Cardinals find themselves a game or two out of the race, or forced into a wild card game by a game or two, expect plenty of questions about what Taveras could have done to allay the club's slow start in April and May.