KANSAS CITY • With a locker full of Futures Game goodies behind him and a clubhouse full of future star prospects around him, Cardinals Class AA infielder Kolten Wong could see in every direction Sunday how far he's come in 54 weeks since signing his first pro contract. An invitation to this annual All-Star week showcase of the minor leagues' top talents was a goal. He just didn't expect it to happen "well, this early."
Early has defined his first year.
Early to sign after the 2011 draft, Wong was early to a full-season club. Early to succeed at low Class A, he leapfrogged high Class A with a strong spring to arrive early in Class AA Springfield. With early success there — a .317 batting average in the season's first two months — Wong received one of the two invites the Cardinals had to the All-Star Futures Game at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium.
"That's the trend I want to go by: the earlier the better," Wong said. "The faster I can move up, the better for me. It just goes to show the confidence the Cardinals have in me right now as a player and where they see I'm at as a player."
And, yet, this might be when his pace slows from early to patient.
Wong and Class AA teammate Oscar Taveras, the two top position prospects in the Cardinals' system, represented the club in Team USA's 17-5 victory against Team World on Sunday in the first event of Kansas City's All-Star week. Wong started at second base and went 0 for two with a run scored. Taveras started in right field for Team World, going one for three with a sacrifice-fly RBI.
Their similarities only continued with Futures Games appearances.
Both prospects skipped high Class A after winning the Midwest League championship together at Quad Cities. Both have thrived in the Texas League. Taveras leads the league with a .322 average, Wong is third at .310. Taveras' .596 slugging percentage is the highest in the Cardinals' organization. His 17 homers and 63 RBIs have enhanced his profile, leaving some scouts to consider him the finest hitting prospect in that league. Wong is a candidate for the Arizona Fall League, an invitation-only finishing school for prospects. And, yet, both are likely to stay at Class AA, the Cardinals say.
"I don't know if there's anything specific they need to do to get to Triple A,'' farm director John Vuch said. "There's not a great deal of urgency for us to move them there right now. ... Just to get to Double-A this year (they) are one step ahead. Once you've made an aggressive move like that you don't want to be aggressive on top of aggressive."
A model the Cardinals are using for Wong and Taveras is Matt Adams, the slugger who won the Texas League's MVP award last year after skipping high Class A. He spent the entire season with Springfield despite solid offensive numbers, and he was able to move seamlessly into Class AAA this season and make his major-league debut when the Cardinals were in need of a first baseman.
Vuch described how the "urgency" to promote either would be different if they were poised for September callups this season or certain to be starters in St. Louis the next. The benefits of keeping them in Springfield now outweigh the urge to push.
Taveras, who just turned 20, offers an example. Vuch, Cards manager Mike Matheny and others challenged Taveras upon his arrival in spring training to earn a spot on Springfield's opening-day roster. They told the preternatural hitter that the rest of his game had to catch up for that promotion. By staying in Springfield, he's been able to improve his consistent effort beyond hitting and get regular turns in center field. Taveras played the entire Futures Game, guest manager Bernie Williams, a longtime New York Yankees center fielder, said, because of his versatility. Taveras played the final five innings in center field, where he was during Team USA's nine-run sixth inning.
"I really got my running (in)," Taveras joked. "That was a good experience."
Familiarity is another bonus the Cardinals see with letting Taveras and Wong ripen in the Texas League. They play in an intimate eight-team division, which leaves few secrets between hitters and pitchers. Opponents now regularly bring in the third baseman against Wong so he can't drop a bunt for a hit, a favorite tactic.
"They start to figure you out," Wong said. "They start to figure out your weaknesses. It can take a while to get going again. I think it's good to go through that. I think it's good to be in a league like this for a season. It allows you learn how to adjust real quickly."
Wong contributed to Team USA's breakaway in the game by racing for third when his ground out was thrown away by the pitcher. In the first inning, Taveras faced starter Jake Odorizzi, a Highland grad, and grounded out to Wong. Odorizzi, the 32nd pick in the 2008 draft, is 5-0 for Kansas City's Class AAA team. The righty allowed one run and struck out one in his only inning of work.
Taveras caught eyes during batting practice when he put a ball off the scoreboard in straightaway center and plopped two in the fountains beyond right-center field. With 17 homers this season, Taveras has more than doubled his career high for a single season. He is two shy of tying his career high of 27 doubles.
"We have no idea how he does it," said Texas prospect Mike Olt, who plays for the Rangers' Texas League affiliate. "There are some at-bats when he'll take a couple bad swings and then all of a sudden something clicks in his head and he makes an adjustment and then he hits a double. You can't teach that."
Two of the Futures Game players, World starter Yordano Ventura and Reds’ speedster prospect Billy Hamilton are going from it to a promotion. The midpoint is not an unusual time for movement. The Cardinals don’t want to force it, Vuch said. If there was playing time at their position in Class AAA or a need, the decision might be different. For now, they stay. Like Adams, both could still be in position to see the majors within 54 weeks or less of leaving Class AA.
The goal isn’t to arrive early, just ready.
"The Cardinals have an idea what they want from me, what they want to see from me," Wong said. "When the time comes and they need me (at the next level), then I'll be ready to play. That's what they expect from me.''