JUPITER, Fla. --- A year ago, Albert Pujols invited one of the youngest players in the Cardinals' minor-league camp into the major-league clubhouse and over to his locker. From the top shelf, Pujols, then the Cardinals' star first baseman, pulled down one of his signature-model Marucci bats and handed it to the kid.
It was the second bat that Oscar Taveras ever owned.
It's likely the only one he hasn't used to get a base hit.
Taveras tried Pujols' gift during batting practice once before retiring it as a memento rather than risk damaging it as a tool. Damage is, after all, what he does with bats. At 19, Taveras is considered the best hitting prospect in the Cardinals organization, a reputation he asserted last summer by hitting .386 to win the Midwest League's batting title.
Taveras has made recurring appearances this spring during Grapefruit League games despite not being invited to major-league spring training. Manager Mike Matheny keeps requesting him personally.
"The fact that he almost hit .400 kind of had my attention," Matheny explained recently. "You play a full season and you hit .380, I don't care if it's tee ball, you've done something pretty special. To see a 19-year-old that is doing things that he's been able to do … it's legitimate.
"You're not going to scare this kid. I'll tell you that right now."
On Friday, Matheny brought Taveras to the main field at Roger Dean Stadium for the major-league game and watched the young outfielder work a walk. That came an hour after he clubbed a three-run homer on the backfield that traveled, according to one official, at least 400 feet.
In consecutive appearances last week in major-league exhibition games, he had two RBI singles — one that scored David Freese and the other off Boston Red Sox major-league starter Daniel Bard.
The level changes. The results haven't.
"It's different," Taveras said of his major-league appearances, through interpreter Oliver Marmol, a Cardinals minor-league manager. "But when I get in the box everything is the same. It's the same game in there. It all looks the same."
The Cardinals know they have a hitter.
This spring, they've urged Taveras to become a player.
BUILDING A FULL REPERTOIRE
When Taveras arrived at the club's spring training complex for the early prospect camp, farm director John Vuch asked him up to his office for a conversation. There, three Cardinals officials — Vuch, Gary LaRocque and Moises Rodriguez — outlined what they wanted to see from Taveras.
There was a sense last season that Taveras' bat was ready for the next level, but his baserunning and fielding lagged behind. He'll start this season at either high-A Palm Beach or Class AA Springfield, and it will be his all-around performance this spring that determines that. The Cardinals believe he should be at least average on the bases and good enough in the outfield to play center at times.
In that meeting, Vuch and the others explained the benefit to Taveras of improving the other aspects of his game.
They put it in terms of hitting.
"There's no reason you can't work as hard on your baserunning and work as hard on your defense as you work on your hitting," Vuch recalled saying. "You appeal to his pride. … The goal is not just to be a good hitter. He has the potential to be a really good player. We're not doing our job if we can't extract everything out of him."
Taveras, a native of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, signed with the Cardinals as a teenage free agent for $145,000 in 2008. He made his debut domestically in 2010, and later that year hit .322 for rookie-level Johnson City. That striking ability to hit is what the Cardinals saw when he first tried out for them at 16.
"You always have this feeling that he's half a level ahead of where he's playing," Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who was the Cardinals' director of amateur scouting when Taveras signed, said recently. "You get the feeling he's the best player on the field when he comes up to the bat. He's the guy you want to watch. He's the guy who sells tickets in the future."
Taveras took that show to low-A Quad Cities last summer and when he was in the lineup, he hit. He displayed developing power with 27 doubles, 40 extra-base hits (vs. 52 strikeouts) and a .444 on-base percentage. Taveras' .386 average was the highest for a batting champ in that league since 1956. His performance earned him a spot in the elite Arizona Fall League, and the only player younger than him there was Washington National uber-prospect Bryce Harper. One moment in the postseason earned Taveras an admonishment.
During Quad Cities' run to the championship, Taveras grounded out and failed to sprint to first.
"I got a pitch that normally I kill and missed it," Taveras said. "I was mad about it. After the game (manager Johnny Rodriguez) explained that no one is bigger than the game."
Taveras sat out the next game.
This is the kind of the refinement Vuch and the managers have encouraged Taveras to make this spring. He's been working with field coordinator Mark DeJohn in the outfield and on hitting the cutoff man, something he didn't do consistently last season. He's asked for instruction on baserunning. And when he made his first start in a Grapefruit League game for Matheny this spring, he grounded out and bolted from the box. Scouts see 4.2 seconds as the average time for a lefty hitter to get from the batter's box to first base.
Taveras ran it in 4.18.
"Before it used to only be about hitting," Taveras said. "Now I'm seeing the value of being good all the way around."
LEARNING TO HIT AS A CHILD
One of the first lessons, Oscar Taveras remembers learning from his father, Francisco, was that 0-for-fours happen. The oh-fers define a hitter only if he doesn't learn anything from them.
"You recognize what you did wrong," Taveras said, 'so you can work on it and become more consistent."
When it came to hitting, though, it never seemed like work.
As a kid, Taveras would play a game that involved taking the cap off water jugs and trying to hit it when it was pitched like a tightly spinning and veering Frisbee. His dad, who played pro ball, would pitch corn kernels to him. They fastened a tire to a fence, and Taveras whaled away on it to hone and strengthen his swing. Sometimes he'd use a tee, moving the location of the ball around to improve his plate coverage.
He did all this using a broomstick as a bat.
Those games are the beginnings of what Taveras described repeatedly as his "process." He may have a preternatural swing, but he has always worked hard at it, even before he had a bat. His older brother gave him the first bat he owned several years ago. The second one came with a challenge from Pujols.
"I'm looking forward to seeing good things from you," Taveras remembered the first baseman saying.
So are the Cardinals.