SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The 2021 season was quite the journey for Juan Yepez. He started the year in Minor League Spring Training and finished as the Arizona Fall League’s co-Hitter of the Year.
In between, Yepez elevated his stock and outplayed his rank as the Cardinals’ No. 26 prospect. He raked his way through the upper levels of the Minor Leagues and earned a spot on the Wild Card roster.
“He had just such a productive season,” Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development said. “Clearly did a great job at the Triple-A level, continued on and [did] great job in the Fall League. Overall, successful season and well deserved. He works extremely hard.”
Yepez had long been capable of producing plus exit velocities, but consistency had been a struggle. He spent time working out during the cancelled 2020 season and entered 2021 with some added muscle and a renewed focus, striving to make more consistent hard contact.
Yepez hit .286/.383/.586 over 111 games with Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. He set career highs in homers (27), RBIs (77) and OPS (.969).
“Overall a lot of work, a lot of mechanical adjustments and a lot of work with the hitting coaches in Double- and Triple-A,” Yepez said of his success.
Signed by the Braves in 2014 and traded to the Cardinals in 2017, Yepez has made gradual strides through the system.
The 23-year-old’s transformation accelerated this season and culminated with a red-hot stint in the AFL, where he hit .302/.388/.640 and was one of just two players to record multiple hits in the Fall Stars Game.
The breakout season may have come as a surprise to some, but there were also plenty who saw it coming. Yepez’s skills have always been apparent. The organization knew he could post big numbers because he’s always had raw power. The key was translating that power into games.
“It feels like he’s always on time,” Cardinals third-base prospect Brendan Donovan said. “His body awareness and his ability to adjust his approach based off the situation of the game, who is on base, counts, pitchers, everything. He studies the game.”
That’s a sign of maturity, another area in which Yepez has made strides. Not to say he was immature before, but he’s taken the mental aspect of his game to another level.
“Maturity is the main thing,” Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar said. “He really handled his business this year. He had a different demeanor about him this year. He went about his work as a true professional and it played out on the field. While being able to stay the same funny, good teammate, he was able to hone in on things he was trying to work on. It was obvious off the field and then obviously on the field his numbers really exploded.”
Part of that maturation process is understanding that struggles are inevitable. Yepez was able to do that in Memphis, which helped him avoid the long stretches of inconsistencies that had plagued him in the past.
“When he wasn’t hitting, he was studying the pitcher and when he was on defense he’s locked in on defense,” Donovan said. “His ability to lock in on a game is pretty incredible. He’s a very, very focused ballplayer.”
While Yepez’s monster season has Cardinals fans excited, there is still a question of where he’ll play in the Majors.
A universal DH would provide the quickest path, but it remains to be seen if that will come to fruition. The bulk of Yepez’s professional experience has come at first and third base. Of course, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have those positions locked up in St. Louis. Yepez started playing the outfield a couple years ago and while it’s still relatively new, he’s made noticeable strides.
“I’m starting to like the outfield, started playing there in 2019,” Yepez said. “I feel really comfortable there now, starting to get more confidence.”
Prior to his stint in the Fall League, Yepez’s big season was rewarded with a spot on the Cardinals' Wild Card Game roster.
He didn’t get into the game and has yet to make his Major League debut, but the experience was vital as he got a glimpse into Major League life and was able to pick the brains of some of his future teammates.
As someone who has yet to even make it to big league camp, he also appreciated the chance to introduce himself.
“It was unbelievable experience to just be part of that game in L.A.,” Yepez said. “Sadly, we didn’t win, but it was an unbelievable experience to be able to talk with some future hall of famers like Yadi [Molina], Adam Wainwright, Arenado, Goldschmidt.”
It won’t be long until Yepez is joining those players in St. Louis. As for when he’ll be ready or how productive he’ll be right away, don’t rule anything out.
“I wouldn’t create a ceiling for him,” LaRocque said. “I’ve seen him each year constantly thrive to get to another level.”