JUPITER, Fla. • From literally the day Tyler Greene was drafted, the Cardinals haven't exactly known what to do with him.
That uncertainty may be drawing to an end.
Once projected as the franchise's shortstop of the future, Greene took ground balls at second base Friday, just as he has done regularly since learning in a December phone call from manager Mike Matheny that his future with the organization probably resided on that side of the bag.
Second base represents the defending world champions' lone position riddle. With pitchers and catchers reporting to camp today, the 28-year-old Greene represents the presumptive leader in the clubhouse at a position the club three years ago force-fed outfielder Skip Schumaker.
"It's different," readily admits Greene, a veteran of only 230 major-league innings at second base. "Coming over from the other side, it's almost like a fresh breath of air knowing you have an opportunity. There's more time. You're a little more relaxed with what you're doing. If you don't take a quick first step, you can still be OK at second base. That's usually not the case at short."
"I think it's overly dramatic to call this a leap of faith," asserts general manager John Mozeliak, long a Greene advocate. "Yes, the sample size at second base is small. But when you look at his assets it's not too difficult to envision him being successful over there."
This year's chance comes without the safety net of minor-league options. Should Greene fail to break camp on the 25-man roster, the Cardinals would have to expose him to outright waivers, meaning any rival could claim him.
"I think you need to see all the pieces fit together," Matheny says. "There are going to be other people competing. There is more that goes into it."
Greene is undeterred by the challenge or the stage of his career.
"I think it's a better situation. I feel like I'm good with everything," says Greene, a .218 hitter in 316 career at-bats. "I feel like I have a good understanding of what it will take to play and be successful at this level. The timing's good as far as I'm concerned."
Timing, it seems, has always been an issue with Greene.
The Cardinals conditionally agreed with Greene on a signing bonus before the 2005 draft. Set to take the Georgia Tech shortstop with the draft's 28th overall pick, the club abruptly changed course when then-general manager Walt Jocketty learned that the Florida Marlins were prepared to take prized high school talent Colby Rasmus with the 29th selection. Since the Cardinals also held the 30th overall pick, a draft-room audible was called.
The Cardinals took Rasmus No. 28, then selected Greene two slots later.
Greene reached Class AA Springfield in his third professional season and Class AAA Memphis in his fourth. He debuted with the Cardinals in 2009 as the club struggled with shortstop Khalil Greene's social anxiety disorder. Brendan Ryan eventually secured the job instead as the Cardinals won the NL Central.
Greene received a chance to unseat Ryan as opening day shortstop two springs ago after Ryan arrived in camp admitting to a previously unreported offseason wrist operation. However, Greene's skittishness in the field led to him being optioned from major-league camp.
Ryan returned earlier than anticipated from surgery and endured a troubled season.
Some within the organization theorize Greene did not mesh well with the pressurized environment former manager Tony La Russa often created for younger players. La Russa admittedly thought it better to learn a player's tendencies in February and March rather than have him be exposed by a stretch drive's intensity.
Greene, insisting he isn't looking for excuses, admitted being disoriented by his perpetually uncertain status.
"I've felt like I could play at this level. What's frustrating for me is there were times I'd slip into a funk and I didn't really get the chance to bounce back from it," Greene says. "I know myself. I know I can bounce back from something and be back where I've always been with my ability and my talent. I know you have to perform. But I also know that I can get to where I need to be. Sometimes not getting that chance was what was most frustrating to me."
Greene broke camp last season with the parent club, made 23 starts, and was optioned while hitting .198 on June 17. Exiled for a fourth summer to Memphis, Greene responded with a radically different mental approach.
Rather than yield to frustration about what might appear an erratic organizational plan for him, Greene batted .323 with 14 home runs and 43 RBIs in 66 games. He compiled a 1.001 on-base plus slugging percentage that dwarfed his career .795 minor-league figure. He also stole 19 bases on 21 attempts.
"He brings a dynamic we don't have a lot of," Mozeliak said. "In terms of having a middle infielder as a legitimate power threat, that's also a rare commodity. Giving him an opportunity to play every day was something we thought was important."
Said Matheny: "I think there are a lot of things you can do with somebody who brings what he has to the table."
Schumaker and Daniel Descalso, both lefthanded hitters, will receive exposure at the position. The Cardinals are hardly guaranteeing the position to Greene, who bats from the right side, but appear willing to project him as at least part of a flexible bench.
"We talked about it as an opportunity. We talked about the chance to compete," said Greene in recalling his conversation with Matheny. "Everybody here is a competitor. So the message was to come ready, stay loose and play the game. There's an opportunity there."
Greene's speed has always been an asset. He stole 33 of 36 attempts between Class A clubs in 2006 and 31 of 34 attempts at Memphis in 2009. Last year Greene became the answer to a bar bet by leading the Cardinals with 11 steals despite getting only 121 plate appearances, including just four after June 17.
When the Cardinals recalled him after the Class AAA season, Greene arrived in St. Louis to expectations of liberal playing time. He instead received only two plate appearances in the season's final three weeks.
Greene appeared in seven September games, five as a pinch runner, one as a replacement left fielder that led to a crucial RBI double against the Philadelphia Phillies, and one as a pinch hitter.
"Solely regarding Tyler Greene, (lack of opportunity) was disappointing. But based on the outcome, it was completely rewarding," Mozeliak says. "If playing time and at-bats had to be sacrificed to win a world championship, we completely understand."