Schafer offers flexibility in outfield, on mound

February 26th, 2017

JUPITER, Fla. -- After playing the outfield in the Cardinals' Grapefruit League opener, will plant himself elsewhere on the field Monday as he begins building his case as a two-way player.

Eight years after making his Major League debut in center, Schafer, 30, hopes to extend his career by returning to his roots. He signed a Minor League deal with the Cardinals last fall, shortly after wrapping up his first professional season as a pitcher. The suggestion to return to the mound -- a place Schafer once thrived -- came after a right MCL injury shortened his 2015 season in Minnesota.

The idea of resurrecting his career as a pitcher didn't seem so far-fetched to Schafer, who had expected to be drafted as one out of high school. But the Braves had other plans back in 2005, and, Schafer said, pitching "was really never spoke of again."

That is, until Schafer realized that his days as a big league position player could be nearing an end.

"You don't really get a second chance in this game," Schafer said. "You either make the most of it when you get your opportunities, or it kind of passes you on by."

The Cardinals took notice of Schafer's transition to the mound last season and were intrigued by the flexibility that a two-way player could offer on a 25-man roster. Having him as an available outfielder/pinch-runner on days he'd be unavailable out of the bullpen would enhance Schafer's value.

"It's just such a creative tool to have in your toolbox, if it works," general manager John Mozeliak said. "I think it's really interesting. I hope the manager thinks it's equally as fun. The biggest question is, 'Will it be effective?'"

For it to work, Schafer has to prove he's ready as a pitcher. Last season's results suggest that he's getting there. Over 40 games at three different Minor League levels for the Dodgers' organization, Schafer posted a 3.83 ERA. Most notably, he struck out 59 batters and walked only 18 over 49 1/3 innings.

Pitch command, which Schafer said was his strength as a high schooler, returned almost immediately. Arm strength developed over the course of the season. His fastball, which sat around 88-90 mph last spring, registered 91-94 mph by its end.

"It actually came back a lot quicker than expected," Schafer said. "Then, the more success I had, the more confidence I got."

Schafer believes he can add a few more ticks to that fastball velocity this year. He's also adding a slider, sinker and changeup into a repertoire that, last season, featured a heavy four-seam fastball-curveball mix.

The Cardinals will be creative with their use of Schafer this spring, putting him in the field, occasionally, between pitching assignments. His first test from the mound will come on Monday, as he's scheduled to pitch in the team's split-squad road game against the Red Sox.

"I think we're going to be challenged to just watch him and see if he can be a part of the mix," manager Mike Matheny said. "But so far what we've seen off the mound looks good."