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Taveras tasked with making up for lost time

Cards' top prospect healthy, impressive in spring debut as he vies for roster spot

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- For months, the Cardinals have been candid when asked about Oscar Taveras' chances of being on the Major League roster come Opening Day. The outfielder's April assignment, general manager John Mozeliak has said, will have much to do with how Taveras performs this spring.

Of course, to make his case, Taveras first had to take the field. That opportunity finally came on Friday.

After spending the first week of Grapefruit League play getting through the final mental hurdles of trusting his surgically repaired right ankle, Taveras made his spring debut in a 5-5 tie against the Mets. It was a positive first impression, too, for a 21-year-old outfielder who is considered one of the top prospects in the game.

He fell into an 0-2 count in his first at-bat and answered by lining Daisuke Matsuzaka's next pitch over the head of right fielder Curtis Granderson. It was Taveras' first in-game opportunity to run, and he reached second easily, with no obvious favoring of one ankle over another.

"I felt good coming out of the box," Taveras said afterward, with third-base coach Jose Oquendo translating. "When I hit the double, I felt good and had no pain turning around the bases."

The only activity he had on defense was in the fifth, when Travis d'Arnaud hit a ball over his head. Taveras took an awkward first step, but recovered well and planted his right foot hard as he threw back into the infield.

Manager Mike Matheny pulled Taveras from the game after the outfielder batted in the sixth. Taveras finished the game 1-for-3.

"I thought he ran real well," Matheny said. "We're at that point where we were hopeful he would be ready about now or sooner. We'll get him as much playing time as we possibly can."

Indeed, interest now shifts from Taveras' health to his performance.

For a player who has to prove his readiness for a Major League assignment, missing a quarter of the team's spring games has made that task more challenging. Twenty exhibition games remain on the Cardinals' schedule, and an overabundance of outfielders in Major League camp will make divvying up playing time a challenge until the Cardinals start sending some over to the Minor League side.

The Cards will prioritize playing time for Taveras, but only if he continues to show no hesitancy using his right ankle and if the organization feels he is a legitimate candidate for the Opening Day roster.

"This is my first game, but I still have plenty of time to show that I can be ready to play," Taveras said. "I'm going to take one step at a time. Come back tomorrow and work hard."

Though pleased to see his name in Friday's lineup, Taveras had been lobbying Matheny for days to let him play. The Cardinals remained insistent, however, that Taveras pass every test -- sliding, hitting the base with his right foot, changing directions on the surgically repaired ankle and getting a quick jump -- before being cleared to play.

It was after showing Taveras video proof that he was still favoring his ankle that the outfielder finally moved beyond those hurdles. He had an especially good showing during a workout on Thursday, after which Matheny told Taveras that he could make his debut on Friday.

"I wouldn't have him out there if he couldn't be 100 percent in his effort and how he goes about it," Matheny said. "He wouldn't be asking to play if he didn't feel like he could compete right now. He's not asking to go out as part of his rehabilitation process. He's going out to show what he can do. That's going to be part of it. He realizes he is being evaluated just like everybody else is right now."

Most of Taveras' spring playing time is expected to come in right field, though he'll likely also see a bit of work in left. With three big league center fielders in camp, Taveras won't have much opportunity to fill in there. It's also not so much a priority for the Cardinals now that Peter Bourjos is in the organization.

Regardless where Taveras, ranked by as baseball's third-best prospect, starts the season, every expectation is that he will be wearing a Major League uniform at some point in 2014. He likely would have been last year had an ankle injury not sidelined him in May and surgery become necessary in August.

He was batting .306/.341/.462 through 46 games in his first taste of Triple-A when he suffered the injury on a slide into second base. It was the first true setback Taveras has had since being signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2008. In both 2011 and '12, he was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year.

It's all a part of the growing resume that has so many so eager to see Taveras in St. Louis. The Cardinals, though, as they've demonstrated over the past week, are content to be patient, if necessary. All the while, all eyes will be on how Taveras continues to respond.

"Being labeled the top prospect and having all those expectations, he obviously had to deal with a lot with the ankle injury last year," Jon Jay said. "He's showing up. He's working hard. He's doing everything that he is supposed to be doing right now as a young guy, listening to the veteran guys and respecting the game. He's just really learning to be a professional."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.

St. Louis Cardinals, Oscar Taveras