PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. • One of the biggest bats the Cardinals have trying to dent the big-league roster during spring training, first baseman Matt Adams did not let a couple days of knee soreness disrupt his early show of force.
David Freese nearly had the bruise to prove it.
The Cardinals third baseman got an eyeful of the jolt Adams can put in a pitch during the second inning Wednesday when Adams scalded a line-drive single to right field that nearly skulled Freese as he broke from first base. The base hit was the first of two for Adams in the game. They came a day after he hit a home run to straightaway center field in his first at-bat since returning from knee trouble.
“Obviously he didn’t miss a beat,” Freese said. “Sending one 500 feet one day and then almost taking my head off the next. It’s good to see.”
The Cardinals scored at least 10 runs Wednesday for the third consecutive game, trouncing the New York Mets 12-4 in an exhibition game at Tradition Field. Adams, who started at designated hitter, was one of three starters to get two hits in the game. The tendinitis that kept him from playing for two days has lightened up, and he expects to be able to take the field at first base in the coming days. In the meantime, he continues to do what he does best.
“The bat plays,” general manager John Mozeliak said.
Where it plays is the question that could vex the Cardinals for the month they have before opening day in Arizona. Adams, 23, has been perhaps the second-most productive Cardinals minor-leaguer to Oscar Taveras the past two seasons. He punished the Pacific Coast League with a .329 average, a .624 slugging percentage and 18 homers last season despite having a bone spur and bone chips floating in his right elbow. Mozeliak said this winter Adams has “done all he needs to” at the Class AAA level. That does not mean he has a spot reserved in the majors.
The Cardinals signed Ty Wigginton this offseason to a two-year, $5 million deal to serve as the late-inning bat off the bench and a backup at several corner positions. Matt Carpenter, when not learning second base, is the slated backup at first base for starter Allen Craig, who had 92 RBIs and 22 homers last season. Manager Mike Matheny said this week that Carlos Beltran will not play center field this season, meaning the club probably will carry a backup center fielder on the bench, and there’s one less spot for Adams. There are many ways to write the major-league roster, but only a few that have a fit for Adams.
The reason the Cardinals would try is clear: He hits.
“I certainly think he’s accomplished a lot in Triple-A, and trying to find at-bats at the major-league level is important,” Mozeliak said. “We do believe he has a chance to have an impact bat at the major-league level, it’s really about trying to make sure that he continues to grow as a player and use him how it is most beneficial for his career.”
Adams made his major-league debut last season when the Cardinals needed a first baseman to fill in for Lance Berkman and Craig. Later in the season, the bone chips and spur in his elbow caused a shooting pain down his arm and into his wrist when he hit. Adams’ season ended early so that he could have the chips and spur removed and have a regular winter.
Well, regular when it came to getting his swing ready.
Not regular when it came to getting himself ready.
As they did with Lance Lynn, the Cardinals had Adams work with the team’s nutritionist on an improved diet and also helped him construct a workout plan that would drop weight. While his parents ate the lasagna or pasta he craved, Adams stuck to his fish or steak and veggies. He had no gluten. He cut carbohydrates. He dropped 15 to 20 pounds but was able to also add muscle to his burly 6-foot-3 frame.
“I told myself that if I want to be in the big leagues, I’ve got to make this improvement,” Adams said. “I got stronger. I got quicker. I definitely feel better now than a year ago. I knew I had to stick to this as strictly as possible to make it work. Health-wise this is big for me.”
Said Matheny: “It’s a different swing when he has everything right. He spent his winter wisely.”
Adams played nine innings in the Grapefruit League opener Saturday, and his left knee stiffened the next day. He missed two days to rest and has eased back into the lineup at designated hitter. He has not eased back into the box score.
On Tuesday, at Boston’s ballpark in Fort Myers, Fla. – one that has dimensions mirroring Fenway Park – Adams connected for a home run that cleared the 17-foot wall in center field. He drew a bases-loaded walk as well for three RBIs. Both of his singles Wednesday were bolts to the outfield – one off a lefty that buzzed Freese, the second off a righty.
“There is stuff I can get better at,” said Adams, who has five hits in three games, when asked what was left for him at Class AAA. “Plate discipline. Making sure I’m swinging at strikes. My defense has got to get better to be a starter in the big leagues. I’ve got some things to work on so wherever they put me, I’ll be ready.”
Adams presents the classic prospect puzzle: Is it better for him to be in the majors for sporadic at-bats or is it better for his development to get regular playing time at Class AAA Memphis? Adams could force his way onto the bench if the Cardinals opt to carry one less reliever into the regular season or if an injury hampers a regular. Or he could be coveted in a trade. Or he could be the valuable commodity – depth, depth with power.
“We’ve got a guy who has the potential to knock it out of any park,” Matheny said. “That’s always nice to have. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s nice to know you have guys who can put together major-league at-bats and have the potential to hit in big situations from the big parts of your order.”