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Cardinals v San Francisco Giants

St. Louis Cardinals' Oscar Taveras waves his helmet for a curtain call after hitting a solo home run in his second major league at bat in the fifth inning during a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants on Saturday, May 31, 2014, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

PHOENIX • About five years into the Cardinals’ effort to reinvigorate their presence in Latin America and assert their ability to harvest talent, director of amateur scouting Jeff Luhnow and field coordinator Mark DeJohn discussed the breakthrough they needed.

The process had to have a face, a singular talent who personified their results.

That was about the time one emerged: Oscar Taveras.

“I think we all recognized that the system was starting to produce players and they were coming over, they were playing in the Appalachian League, they were playing in the Gulf Coast League,” Luhnow said, recalling the conversation from around 2009. “But we really needed That Guy. We needed the guy who is going to be the man who is going to represent the Cardinals’ Latin American program, who was going to be the face of the Latin American program and our progress there.

"It was about that time that we had that conversation that Taveras started to produce at a high level and it became obvious that he was going to be a top prospect, not just in the Cardinals’ system but throughout baseball.”

Luhnow, now the general manager of the Houston Astros, spoke about Taveras on Tuesday at the annual general manager meetings. He was at home watching the World Series on Oct. 26 when the first reports came: Taveras had been killed with his 18-year-old girlfriend in a single-car accident in the Dominican Republic. He was 22.

Like many throughout baseball, Luhnow was stunned by the news. Luhnow declined initial invitations to discuss Taveras and when recalling the young talent he helped procure for the Cardinals, he spoke of a loss felt throughout baseball.

As the Cardinals’ farm director and director of amateur scouting, Luhnow championed a return to the Dominican and other Latin shores. In 2004, the Cardinals did, and their first steps were hesitant. He recalled being “terrified” by spending $60,000 to sign Donovan Solano. With current director of international scouting Moises Rodriguez as one of the point men in identifying Taveras’ ability, it took $145,000 to land Taveras in 2008.

The Cardinals did offer some million-dollar bonuses to players in the Dominican as a show to the agents and players there that they were serious about investing in the island’s talent.

But Luhnow said Taveras was the proof they needed back home.

If the bonuses sold the Cardinals to the people in Latin America, it was Taveras and his storm through the lower minors that validated the talent all that time and effort could unearth.

Luhnow once said Taveras is the player “who sells tickets in the future.”

A year after signing Taveras, the Cardinals finalized a deal with Carlos Martinez. That gave the Cardinals the top-shelf hitter and pitcher as evidence of the importance of the market. Their presence there has grown ever since. The team is in the process of opening a new academy complex in the Dominican with a better location and facilities.

Alex Reyes, a righthanded pitcher, is one of the team’s top young prospects and is heralded by scouts with opposing teams. Outfielder Magneuris “Mags” Sierra, who starred with a .386 average before his 19th birthday at the GCL this past summer, is poised to be the next headliner from the Latin program.

Luhnow said Taveras gave them that first star they needed.

“We had that someone we could talk about ... there was reason to be excited,” Luhnow recalled. “It’s shocking when someone with that much promise doesn’t get to fulfill it. It’s really a blow to the entire game, not just to the Cardinals the people who knew him. We’re left to wonder about what his career would have been like.”

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