On the last day of February, in a seemingly meaningless Spring Training game against the Marlins, most if not all eyes were on the Cardinals' Oscar Taveras, and not just when the bat was in his hands. Taveras, a 20-year-old phenom ranked as baseball's No. 3 overall prospect, has that menacing but measured swing, while his ability in the outfield is also superlative though not nearly as innate. On Feb. 28, he was being watched from St. Louis' dugout by the man he might soon replace in center, Jon Jay, and the man who would make that decision, Mike Matheny. He had their full attention.
"Jay was watch-dogging him all day today, watching his positioning," Matheny, the second-year skipper, said that afternoon. "I was watching [Taveras] before each pitch to see if he was changing, and he was. He was thinking at least with what he knew about the guys, which isn't a lot. He was trying to be proactive in that.
"I'm glad he's thinking. There's a lot of guys who go out there and just plant their feet like in cement. He's moving around. He's thinking."
Talk to enough people inside and outside the organization and you find that Taveras isn't always thinking of the right thing to do. There are implications that he still acts his age, had withheld effort in the past and, until recently, did not totally understand what it meant to play defense well. They all more than intimate, however, that he has the talent. In the words of an envious scout with a rival National League Central club, Taveras "has very good actions with a plus, plus arm" and "glides to the ball."
Put another way: The athleticism is there, but the so-called baseball smarts are sometimes missing. Like on those occasions -- both in the Minors last season and at times during big league camp this spring -- when he has played too shallow, too confident in situations that demand greater caution.
"The times he was doing it were with guys who probably could have gotten [the ball] over his head and he didn't realize it," Matheny said. "That just takes some time. But right now we just want to see him play the game and trust his instincts."
Which is where Jay helps. Baseball instincts can be taught. Taveras has been taking on the assignment of center field in Florida, but he's very likely ticketed for right field -- the outfield position where most power-armed throwers land. Maybe that's why Jay has been so helpful. He could be playing alongside him as soon as this summer.
"He's given me a lot of good advice about playing on defense, the positioning, how to look for pitches in the outfield that will help with the jump," Taveras said of Jay. "I'm working a lot on my defense and the focus I have to have day in and day out in the game."
Mike Shildt saw Taveras when he was 16, working out and learning organized baseball for the first time at the Cardinals' academy in the Dominican Republic, not far from his hometown, Puerto Plata.
"He had virtually no understanding of how to get in proper position, how to get off the ball, how to take his routes, how to come in on ground balls, how to throw," said Shildt, who also managed a 17-year-old Taveras at short-season Johnson City in 2010 before reuniting with him last year at Double-A Springfield. "You would expect all that. It's been an evolution."
In addition to maturity gained through experience, both on the field and off it, Taveras has honed his craft with the help of Shildt and others. Hitting coach Phillip Wellman worked with him and other Springfield outfielders last season, and roving coordinator Mark DeJohn has emphasized the usefulness of tracking the ball off the bat during batting practice. (Where have we heard that before?)
Gone for good are the days, Shildt hopes, that he sees Taveras circle a high fly ball or, worse, throw to the wrong base.
"With [those] kind of tools, it's normal to want to show it off," Shildt said. "He's learned to harness it.
"Two-thirds of the way through the season, he started taking more ownership. We allowed Oscar to take it from there, positioning himself based on situation. He started to put it together. He is more understanding [that] the expectation is to be as complete a player as possible."
The ballgame is a complicated thing; the fielder's movements don't have to be. That's because every situation that can happen in the game already has happened in the game, giving, say, a right fielder a how-to-react guide to every possible play on the diamond.
When shouldn't Taveras play shallow, for example?
"If we're in the eighth inning and we're up by two runs, it's OK to play a little bit deeper because a single is not going to score that a run," said Chris Swauger, who played right field and left last year next to Taveras' center in Springfield. "If we play shallow and [the batter] hits a double over our head, now there's a guy who's on second base that is the tying run and the other run scored."
Aside from calling his teammate "a left-handed Vlad Guerrero" and talking ball in the clubhouse, Swauger has trouble relating to Taveras. Swauger's a 2008 26th-round Draft pick who is entering a crucial sixth season of pro ball. And on the last day of February, he was preparing for Minor League camp -- he wasn't invited to the Cards' Spring Training like the teammate six years his junior.
So perhaps Swauger's vantage point is most valuable. He saw Taveras play his developing brand of defense up close at Springfield (and very likely will see it at Triple-A Memphis next month). After Taveras collected one of his six assists with a laser-like throw or tracked a ball to the wall, Swauger found himself thinking more than once, "No, I can't do that."
"He plays the outfield with absolutely zero fear," Swauger said. "He plays shallow, he's not afraid to go back on the ball, he's not afraid to get burned -- and occasionally, he will. That is something that I picked up. I learned from him to be less scared, and I think he learned from us that there is a time and a place where we need to play smart.
"He's so young and he's playing the game like a kid. And he is a kid and he's so good at it. But once he starts thinking like a man -- and his head catches up to his physical skills -- there is no limit to what this kid can do."