Adams out to uphold Cards' rich first-base legacy
JUPITER, Fla. -- Few positions in the game have legacies comparable to what exists in St. Louis at first base. Left field in Fenway, center field in the Bronx, pitching in Chavez Ravine, maybe first base in Detroit and, perhaps, after a few more years of Manny Machado, third base in Baltimore. The Cardinals have had their shortstops and their pitchers, but first base has been their spot over the decades.
"Stan The Man" is foremost at first, of course; his legend doesn't diminish. If anything, it is reinforced each time a new man is assigned the position. When Albert Pujols declined the nickname "El Hombre," he did so out of deference to Musial. He understood; embraced the legend with reverence.
Before Musial, Ripper Collins and Johnny Mize handled first base in St. Louis, and in between Musial and Pujols, assignments went to Keith Hernandez, Jack Clark, Bill White, Joe Torre, Orlando Cepeda, Mark McGwire and Gregg Jefferies (and, if we must, Pedro Guerrero). With the exception of Hernandez, a gifted defender, the primary function of those Cardinals' first basemen was to enhance the offense.
And in the two summers since Albert went West, Allen Craig has done that, driving in 189 runs despite missing a significant portion of each of season. The legacy has been underscored.
Craig could turn out to be the Cardinals' first baseman again in 2014, though the carefully designed plans of general manager John Mozeliak have Craig replacing Carlos Beltran in right field, and a kid with an unlikely nickname -- "Big City" -- is in position to take over the No. 3 position.
Matt Adams, a large, thick-muscled youngin from a town in Pennsylania roughly the size of Busch II, is to play first and hit later. And hit more. That's the plan. The objective is to add left-handed-hitting power to the Cardinals' everyday cast and create more right-left balance in their batting order.
Because Adams is "Big City," according to recent reitiree Lance Berkman, the plan may warrant "urban renewal" as a new and appropriate identity, even though Adams' native Philipsburg, Pa., can fit only one lower case "L" in its name and has a population that shrinks to less than 1,000 if 10 percent of the citizenry attends the county fair in an adjoining town.
Adams would be a big fish in any pond, even though he has trimmed much of the baby fat he carried last summer and fall when he first sampled the experience of playing every day and then dipped his toe into the World Series. He looks like a masher, or an escapee from Penn State's linebacker school.
Mozeliak had grown weary of seeing Adams' name as a second entry on the first-base depth charts. Hence the 2014 opportunity for the former catcher.
"I couldn't ask for more at this point, " Adams said softly Friday morning before the Cardinals' workout in the cooling breezes off the ocean.
Adams generally speaks softly, and he has carried a big stick since his catcher-first base days at Slippery Rock University. Adams comes across as modest, unassuming and genuine. If not for his size -- 6-foot-3, 230 pounds -- and the sounds his bats create when they collide with pitches, he might go unnoticed. But the sound is distinctive. It calls to the baseball-trained ear. It seduces a scout and anyone with a say in the Cardinals' immediate future.
As Berkman said two springs ago; "The kid can flat-out hit."
That assessment or words to that effect have been spoken repeatedly and applied to Adams since then. He knows Mozeliak has high regard for him, but he also knows the club's Minor League treasure, outfielder Oscar Taveras, could have one of those camps that prompt manager Mike Matheny to abandon the plan, install the rookie in right and bring Craig back to first base. Such maneuvering would turn a 25-year-old slugger into a pinch-hitter and further undermine a career Mozeliak sees as having unquestionable value.
So Taveras will to have one of those camps and Adams will have to falter. And even then, Adams will get a chance.
"I don't think anything is set in stone," Adams said. "But I'm getting a lot of reps. I'm getting ready for whatever the plan becomes. I'm here to see what the end of spring brings. I did the same thing last spring,"
But last spring, Beltran and Craig were sure to play unless injury interfered.
It didn't until September, when Craig suffered a left foot injury. Adams, the self-proclaimed "gap-to-gap power guy" stepped in. His audition went well for a while. He drove in 15 runs, scored 19, hit eight home runs and batted .315 in 92 at-bats (96 plate appearances).
That apprearance was followed by a productive five-game run against the Pirates in the National League Division Series, and less production against the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series, and finally against the Red Sox in the World Series. He was hitless in his final 11 at-bats of the postseason. Learning isn't always fun.
It certainly was in 2011, when Pujols worked with Adams on his defense, and it is when mentor Jose Oquendo drills him to improve his quickness. Sometimes Adams still is a catcher.
But his footwork has improved, Oquendo says. "He wants to be one of those special first basemen."
"I chip away at the things I don't do real well," Adams said. "I got drafted because I worked hard, and I still work hard. Around here, pretty much everyone is dedicated. Lots of guys working hard. You got to keep up if you want to play. I'm working on hitting against left-handed pitching. I know that's something I have to conquer. But I faced [left-hander] Randy Choate in live BP Thursday, and I saw the ball much better than I was seeing it last year. That was pretty encouraging."