JUPITER, Fla. — Fans at home who didn’t fall asleep after Steven Matz’s troubled first inning derailed Saturday’s Grapefruit League 9-2 loss to the Marlins were rewarded for their patience.
They got to see something very encouraging from Juan Yepez.
The 24-year-old right-handed first baseman and sometimes corner outfielder, who appears to be playing a very big part in the Cardinals’ plans for a committee approach to DH, fell 2-0 to Marlin replacement Louis Head in the seventh inning before heating the smashed the next pitch, a 93 mph fastball, into left field for the only Cardinals run not created by a Paul Goldschmidt homer.
“I have a two-strike approach,” Yepez said. “In the beginning of counting, I try to expand and be more aggressive. But when it comes to two shots, I spread out. I’m more direct to the ball, easier.”
Yepez was ready for his first major league opportunity last season when the Cardinals flew him to Los Angeles for a wild card game against the Dodgers. Having never appeared in a major league Cardinals spring practice session (before this one), he studied Max Scherzer’s pitches ahead of the biggest game of his life.
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“I was mentally ready,” he said. “I would have swung hard. Try to put the ball in play.”
But that 3-1 wildcard loss came and went without Yepez getting on the plate.
Now seems like his time, unless some surprise sends old friend Albert Pujols through that door.
The Cardinals are poised to emphasize two things in 2022.
One of the themes is a renewed commitment to give prospects who have little or nothing left to prove in the minors a chance to make major league contributions before outside help is added. This is not a new approach, but it is one that has been revisited elsewhere following the success of Randy Arozarena and others. Yepez is a key part of this discussion, a player the Cardinals want to throw on fire before they risk watching him catch fire for another club. Yepez, who was acquired in a 2017 trade with the Braves for Matt Adams, overcame a slow start and went unclaimed in a previous Rule 5 draft before using his power and proposing himself to the top tier of minors. The news that DH was coming angered many National League fundamentalists. Yepez doesn’t complain. His path only widened.
“It’s another place in the squad,” he said. “Another positional player. Another opportunity to play.”
The second theme emphasized by the Cardinals is the promise under first-year manager Oliver Marmol to foster an increased appetite and aptitude for versatility, flexibility and adaptability while seeking to get the most production out of this roster. That means prioritizing the best matchups for that game and that moment in the game, regardless of what was comfortable and familiar in the past. The lineup will likely change often, and not always because someone is doing something wrong, but because certain lineups are better for certain opponents. Platoons no longer imply that a starter cannot make it. Bullpen roles are decided by the game, not the season. And so forth.
Well, we’ve heard the Cardinals emphasize flexibility before. The follow-through isn’t always there once the games count. But Marmol seems ready to go the route. He’s the face of the modern day Cardinals. Yepez is the type of player that the modern day Cardinals need to maximize.
The team’s player development and batting staff, two silos that Marmol wants to sync up, agree that Yepez’s swing path and projections will make his power play against the type of high-speed pitching that dominates the majors, especially late in games. If Yepez becomes a fastball-mashing DH that continues last season’s trend of high average, high on-base percentage, and great power against righties and lefties, the Cardinals will look very smart because they aren’t paying too much for a more proven one spend DH . If Yepez becomes a working cog in a multiplayer approach to DH that ends up providing a plus production at the position, that works too. What if he doesn’t do either? Well, then, the Cardinals’ complex plans for what could have been a pay-for-pop position run the risk of looking better on paper than it does in real life.
Yepez’s Saturday RBI single from No. 9 on the lineup was only the Cardinals’ second Grapefruit League RBI to be produced by a DH. The hitters who have shared DH at-bats have so far produced respectable averages (.300) and a solid base percentage (.391), but little power, as evidenced by a .300 slugging percentage. Marlin’s designated hitter Jesus Aguilar, for example, had more home runs (one) and more RBIs (three) against the Cardinals in Saturday’s game than Cardinals DH staff produced in seven games. Aguilar was fifth.
Yepez has power. He hit 37 home runs and 74 extra base hits in 134 games between Class AA, Class AAA and the Arizona Fall League last season. Little more is known about his beating in the minors. There’s all about his hitting in the majors. The cardinals seem determined to find out. The recent addition of Corey Dickerson added more proven depth to the left-handed side of the DH equation. A similar move did not come for the right side of the plate.
“His bats were pretty good in our opinion,” Marmol said. “There’s more to him than what we’re seeing right now. As he continues to feel comfortable and letting go, I think we’ll see more production. His ability to stay in baseball is pretty impressive. I think we’re going to see a really accomplished hitter.”
Yepez made some noise late on in a day when Cardinals hitters were mostly silenced by Marlin’s pitching. He did it the same way he earned his ticket to last season’s wildcard game by squaring a fastball. This playoff game was just a teaser, a hoax. He feels ready to do more than just watch and wait, and the Cardinals returning into the postseason and beyond could depend on that belief becoming a reality.