By Joe Lemire
April 24, 2013
Matt Adams posted a .542 average and a 1.634 OPS in limited playing time in the early going this season.
/Icon SMI

PHILADELPHIA -- Matt Adams stands nearly upright in the batter's box, making him appear as imposing in person as his 6-foot-3, 260-pound roster entry might suggest. That sight of the hulking Adams is a first impression that's hard to overlook, even if many in baseball repeatedly did just that in his amateur career.

A 23-round pick from a Division II school that had never produced a big league player, Adams has started the 2013 season with 13 hits, including three home runs, in his first 24 at bats for a .542 batting average, which is impressive in any sample size, even if it's not remotely sustainable.

For many teams, such success might spark an immediate opening in the lineup. For the Cardinals, though, Adams, a first baseman, can't start everyday because doing so would mean one of Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig has to sit, based on the various positional permutations afforded St. Louis manager Mike Matheny.

On Sunday night, Matheny sat Holliday, his regular No. 3 hitter, in order to get Adams one of his typically twice-per-week starts; Adams responded by going 2-for-3 with a double and a walk.

"It can't be the same guy . . . getting the day off all the time," Matheny added. "It's not fair to let Matt Adams rot."

Having great depth is typically classified as "a good problem to have," as general manager John Mozeliak put it, and this logjam at first base and the corner outfield positions is certainly better than the alternative, especially when two of the players involved are 33 (Holliday) and 36 years old (Beltran).

"You're always going to have issues, but having a large group of talented players is a nice position to be in," Matheny said. "We just want to make sure that we don't take away from their abilities by holding somebody out too long."

No team has been as successful in producing homegrown players than the Cardinals, with 15 of the 25 players on their active roster having been acquired through the draft (and one more signed by the organization as an international free agent). That said, most of their current stars (Beltran, Holliday and starter Adam Wainwright) were acquired through trades or free agency; only catcher Yadier Molina was drafted and developed. (Craig and starter Lance Lynn have the potential to join the list of homegrown stars with a few more high-level seasons like they had in 2012.)

With three blue chips either here or near to the majors -- Shelby Miller has been brilliant in his first three starts this season, posting a 2.16 ERA; outfielder Oscar Taveras is thought by many to be the game's top hitting prospect; starter Michael Wacha was likened to Stephen Strasburg by a scout this spring -- St. Louis now has the elite players to match the organization's long-running success in developing contributors.

That scouting and player development operation -- which, in the case of Adams, was buoyed by strong recommendations from both an area scout reporting from the field and a former NASA scientist creating data-driven projections -- has helped propel St. Louis to the top of Baseball America's organizational talent rankings.

"We have had a lot of success from the draft and not just top picks. We're adding our depth from picks [in rounds] 5 through 30, which is important. When you can gain players from that section of the draft, that's going to allow you to be successful."

Adams' route from an overlooked high schooler in a small Pennsylvania town to a breakout big leaguer was a longshot even by St. Louis standards and thus a perfect case study in how the organization finds diamonds in the rough.

His baseball journey began at the age of one when, as his parents tell him, he started to walk around everywhere with a bat in his hand. When he was a little older, his grandmother and parents would throw him pitches to hit. By middle school, he was taking hitting lessons from former minor leaguer Justin Hazelton, whom Adams still consults every offseason.

Early in Adams' high school career, word circulated to Jeff Messer, the coach at Division II Slippery Rock, that Philipsburg (Pa.) High had a great hitter coming up through the ranks.

Messer drove over to see Adams, who mostly played catcher in high school, for the first time late in the player's junior year. In his first at bat, Adams lined an opposite-field laser to left-centerfield -- "about three feet off the ground and [it] hit the wall," Messer recalled. His immediate reaction was surprise that Adams hadn't already been snatched up by a Division I program.

"I knew from the first time I saw him swing that we wanted him," Messer said, "and that he would help us right away."

Adams, who said a few D-I offers "fell through", did just that. He batted over .400 all three years of college, including his junior season when he batted .495 -- "and that's with pitchers trying to pitch around him," Messer reminded -- and earned Division II Player of the Year honors.

After his sophomore year in 2008, Adams played for the Pittsfield Dukes in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, a summer league wood-bat circuit whose rosters are primarily full of Division I players. Pittsfield's owner at the time was Dan Duquette, the former general manager of the Expos and Red Sox and now the GM of the Orioles.

Messer went to a game that summer -- his son Billy also played for both Slippery Rock and Pittsfield -- and sat with Duquette, whom he knew from playing Division III baseball against each other in Western Mass. In that game, Adams hit an impressive opposite-field home run which, as Messer recalled, prompted Duquette to look over and say, "He might have a chance."

The unsaid part of Duquette's comment was that Adams might have a chance to reach the majors, something no Slippery Rock player had ever done. Adams sure did his best that summer to assert himself. He won the NECBL's MVP award after batting .351 with 16 doubles and 37 RBIs, all stats that ranked in the league's top-five.

"It definitely made me better, going up there facing hard-throwing pitchers from Division I schools," Adams said.

The first look most of the Cardinals' scouting organization had of Adams came during his junior year of college in a workout of players from the Midwest region. The roughly 15 invitees hadn't had a crosschecker go scout them, so this was an essential second look in front of key personnel, including two crosscheckers, a few area scouts and Jeff Luhnow, then St. Louis' vice president of scouting and player development.

Adams and his father flew to St. Louis that morning, attended the afternoon workout and flew back that night. He made the most of his few hours in town, however, crushing the ball in his three rounds of batting practice with several home runs into Busch Stadium's bleachers -- the "most impressive" hitter that day, Luhnow recalled.

"The sheer raw power that we saw, the smooth swing -- it was impressive," Luhnow, now the Astros' general manager, said, noting that Adams had the athleticism to play first base and that the power was "usable" in games based on his college statistics. Adams caught some bullpens and, though he didn't project as a professional catcher, proved his feet were plenty quick enough to play first base.

The area scout whose coverage included Western Pennsylvania, Brian Hopkins, continued to push for Adams after watching him at a scout day at Slippery Rock and in five games during his junior season.

"His approach at the plate was very polished," Hopkins said. "For how strong and how big a guy he is, he had a very compact swing."

Said Adams of his swing, "Whenever I tried to muscle up a ball and got long, I end up striking out or popping the thing straight up."

Then-Cardinals analyst Sig Mejdal, who had created a projection model for Division II players so that St. Louis could get a quantitative grasp on the performances of Adams and other D-II players that year, also backed the slugger from Slippery Rock.

While scouts and analysts are often portrayed as combatants, that isn't the reality for the Cardinals, where, as Mozeliak says, "they work in sync." Hopkins and Mejdal collaborated to excitedly push for Adams. Hopkins even remembers the particulars of when and where he was -- between games of a doubleheader in Winter Haven, a day after having seen Adams play -- when he first called Mejdal for his thoughts on the young slugger.

Mejdal, who now works for the Astros as director of decision sciences, said in an email that the selection of Adams was a good example of the scouting process in St. Louis, "as far as 1) the scouts working with the analysts and 2) the organization using all the info available to them."

Adams and his family waited out the 2009 draft at home, following on the computer under the impression he could be selected as early as the 10th round. As that round and several more passed, Adams left to go play video games at a friend's house, explaining that his draft experience was "pretty stressful."

"I kept seeing the rounds go by and it started to make me think I wasn't going to get a chance," he said. "I had to get my mind off of it."

On his drive back home, Hopkins called with the head's up that St. Louis was about to select him. Adams, who was only a couple minutes away, said he hurried up to be with his family when the official call came.

"Probably waited too long," Luhnow said, "but we got him, so that's all that matters."

Once he reached pro ball, Adams left little room for doubt about the trajectory of his career. He batted .355 his first summer, split between Rookie and Low A ball, then slugged 22 homers with a .310 average in the Class A Midwest League in 2010, hit .300 with 32 homers in 115 games of Double A in 2011 and last year batted .329 with 18 homers in 67 games of Triple A.

"As soon as he came in," Luhnow said, "he started mashing."

The overall numbers, which included a career .930 minor league OPS, were ample fodder for word to spread, yet paled compared to the tall tales of his longshots.

"Every level that I was at, he had played there the year before," St. Louis reliever Trevor Rosenthal said, "and people were telling me how far he hit balls in that particular stadium."

Rosenthal and the rest of the Cardinals can see for themselves just how far Adams is now launching baseballs. He homered in three straight games that he played in earlier this month, though that included two games on the bench, and he had multi-hit games in five of his first six starts.

Finding a way to maximize that performance is now Matheny's challenge. The plan for the time being is to get Adams, who hit just .244 in 86 big league at bats last year, a couple starts per week, with rotating days of rest for the three established middle-of-the-order hitters. Adams said he prepares the same, having amped up his video study this season. Even when he's not starting, he watches the opponent's relievers, first the lefties and then the righties in case he's used as a pinch hitter.

"Things could change day by day, so I just need to be ready," Adams said.

So far this season, no one in baseball has been as productive with the chances he's had than Adams, who -- finally -- is on a path to a bigger and better big league opportunity.

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