JUPITER, Fla. • Inasmuch as catcher Yadier Molina, not baseball’s fleetest performer, was the team leader in career steals at 47, the Cardinals upgraded that part of their game by signing outfielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million contract.
Fowler has 127 steals entering this season and the Cardinals have brought another player into camp who also jumped ahead of Molina in career steals. As odd as it was that Molina had been topping the charts, consider that the No. 2 man in that category is a lefthanded relief pitcher.
Jordan Schafer, a former third-round pick by Atlanta in the 2005 draft, is in camp as a reliever/outfielder/pinch runner. Schafer has 103 steals in just more than five big-league seasons.
But, of all his abilities (Schafer has a .228 batting average) it is his pitching that most intrigues the Cardinals. They have seen the other skill sets on a more extensive basis because Schafer has been a pitcher for just one season.
The lefthanded-batting Schafer, after he was signed in December to a minor-league contract, was told by the Cardinals’ front office to prepare for work both as a pitcher and as an outfielder. He plays all three outfield positions.
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“It’s been a very busy offseason,” said the 30-year-old Schafer, who worked out in the Atlanta area with Los Angeles Dodgers lefthanded reliever Grant Dayton.
Schafer made the trip from pasture to pitching mound last spring in the Dodgers’ camp. “I pitched in high school, but it’s definitely different,” he said.
The 2015 season, Schafer’s last as a full-time position player, ended with Minnesota when he went on the disabled list with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee in May, and when he got healthy, he was released in July after just 69 at-bats. In January a year ago, Schafer signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers and Rick Knapp, the minor-league pitching coordinator who previously had been with the Twins, said to Schafer, “Hey, have you ever thought of giving pitching a shot?”
“Not really,” was Schafer’s initial response. But he decided to try it as the Dodgers indicated they were thinking of him as a hybrid player. Schafer, however, never did play the field much last year for Class AA Tulsa and Class AAA Oklahoma. In his new day job, Schafer pitched 49 1/3 total innings of relief, posting a 3.83 earned-run average. But he struck out 59 and walked only 18, holding lefthanded batters to a .189 average.
As a position player, it has been mostly downhill for Schafer after his first big-league plate appearance when, with Atlanta, he homered off Philadelphia’s Bret Myers in 2009, becoming the first big leaguer to homer in his initial plate appearance on Opening Day.
His best big-league season probably came in 2014. Schafer struggled in hitting .163 at Atlanta, but he rebounded to bat .285 for Minnesota in 130 at-bats, stealing 15 bases in 17 attempts at both stops.
Schafer, trying to explain why he never made it as a swatsmith, said, “Every time I got something going as a hitter, I’d have a ton of injuries — whether it was breaking my hand (2009) or hurting my ankle (2013) or breaking my finger (2011). Every time I finally got it going in the right direction, I’d have an injury that would sidetrack me.
“But ... I feel like when I was younger I let a lot of the hype get to me. Being the No. 1 prospect in our organization, taking over (center field) after Andruw Jones, I put a lot of pressure on myself. Some of this stuff, unfortunately, you don’t learn until you get older. You’ve got to let the game come to you. I didn’t do too well when I was younger. Some of the things I didn’t do right as a position guy.”
One of those things was getting busted and sat down for 50 games in 2008 for violating baseball’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Schafer said he has thrown as hard as 94 mph and he mixed a curveball into his assortment in his first season as an outfielder. Now, he is trying to incorporate the two-seam sinkerball, changeup and a slider he used successfully late last season.
“It’s not really the velocity of the ball,” Schafer said. “It’s the movement and location of the ball. Having been a position player has helped me pitching-wise. Especially pitching against lefties, I try to do what I didn’t like as a hitter.”
Schafer almost became a pitcher at the start of his major-league career. He said Atlanta executive John Hart, who was the GM at Texas in 2005, told Schafer that he would have been drafted by the Rangers as a hurler if he weren’t already taken. The Braves chose Schafer on the pick ahead of Texas.
Later on, after Hart had joined the Braves, he suggested that Schafer could come back as a reliever when he was through as a position player. At the moment, Schafer said he didn’t think that time necessarily had come.
“But that was something that sunk into my head,” he said, “especially when someone who’s that much respected in the game says that.”
Asked if he ever had appeared in the field and pitched in the same game, Schafer smiled and said, “I have not, but I’ve been told to be ready to do that. There’s tons of possibilities.”
And perhaps a new career to supplant the one which really never got off the ground.
“Rarely in this game do you get a second chance,” said Schafer. “I feel this is an opportunity for me to right those wrongs.”