While the bat may not yet be there for Springfield Cardinals outfielder Blake Drake, the glove has certainly been the calling card for the 23-year-old in his second full season in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
Drake opened some eyes with his impressive offensive performance for (Rookie) Johnson City to start his professional career, as he led the eventual Appalachian League champions in games played, as the club’s regular center fielder. The right-handed hitter finished third in the league in total bases and interestingly, the slender 6-foot-1, 175 pounder also paced the JC club with six home runs.
In the spring of 2015, the Cardinals’ 2014 18th round pick scored a select invitation to the organization's STEP Camp (Spring Training Early Program) and jumped to Low-A Peoria for his first full season last year. With another plus defender on the roster in Magneuris Sierra, Drake gained exposure in all three outfield spots before a mid-season promotion to High-A Palm Beach.
Drake's offense fell significantly behind his defense to the tune of a .209/.262/.366 final slash line through 120 games between Peoria and Palm Beach. The California native did manage to show decent pop, belting eight home runs in 402 at-bats.
With a month left to play in 2016, Drake's offense continues to drag far behind his defensive ability. The former NAIA product from Concordia (OR) has compiled a .229/.296/.328 slash line in 103 games between the Florida State League and Double-A Springfield this season. Scouts say Drake has above-average to plus speed, which has led to 13 steals in 19 chances.
"Blake Drake is a good athlete," Springfield hitting coach 'Smokey' Ortiz said recently. "He is a good outfielder; good defensive player, who covers a lot of ground. He covers gaps and goes back on balls good. He's got a future if he stays healthy. He can run and is still working on his hitting. He's got occasional game power.
"We've tried to shorten him up on the back to establish a good lane through the ball. We've taken care of all that. I think he's got a chance to become a pretty good player."
When I connected with him this past week, Drake was in the middle of a hitting funk, but has shown signs of turning the corner of late. However, he had just come off making one of the best defensive plays of his career, a full extension grab over the previous road-trip which cracked ESPN Sports Center Top 10 plays at #3.
In the exclusive interview that follows, Drake reflects on his first full season last year, progress on hitting in 2016, and talks outfield defense and goals.
Derek Shore: How do you look back on your first full season with the Cardinals organization last year?
Blake Drake: "It is a great organization. They really care about you. They have a full interest in meeting your career and the best path to get you to the big-leagues. It has been a fun experience."
DS: Your numbers dipped a bit compared to your first brief season with Johnson City. How difficult was it to adjust to full-season ball?
BD: "It's a lot more games and a lot more at-bats. I struggled a little bit, but I'm starting to get it back together. You've got to take care of your body and take care of your mind, honestly. It's a tough mental game, but I've been pretty good with it lately, so we'll see what happens."
DS: What was your offseason program like and what did you really focus on over that time?
BD: "I tried to put on some weight in the offseason. Getting a little more power to hit some more gaps. I really tried to slow down my swing. I've taken a better approach at the plate this year, and I feel like I've really improved with that."
DS: So far, you have spent the majority of the season with Palm Beach with a midseason promotion to Springfield. How do you feel you've progressed this season?
BD: "I feel like I've learned a lot about the game. At first, I just came in here and just went through the motions, and I knew I was a good athlete, but you have to be smart in this game. I think with just the experience and playing time - I've learned a lot and learned a lot from the coaches as well as this entire staff."
DS: What are some of the differences between the Texas League and the Florida State League?
BD: "Everyone is going to get better the higher you go. The pitchers are going to be more consistent. Obviously, it's going to get a little faster, but again it goes to the mental aspect of the game. They are a lot smarter up here, and you've just got to slow the game down. Trusting your instincts is the most important part."
DS: From an offensive standpoint, what could you do to perhaps improve your numbers at the plate?
BD: "Honestly, that just comes with time. I'm working with the hitting coaches and picking the brains of the coaches. I can't keep repeating myself, but it's all a mental game. It will just come with the experience and learning."
DS: Smokey Ortiz mentioned you have some sneaky pop in your bat. What do you look to do with every at-bat?
BD: "Honestly, I just try and hit the ball as hard as I can every single time. Obviously, you've got to find the right counts to get your pitches and everything, but I think I've been slowing myself down and trusting my instincts."
DS: On the defensive side, you've been pretty much a highlight show, including an impressive full extension catch over the past road-trip. How much pride do you take in your defense?
BD: "I've always been pretty good as a defender. I think it's the main reason that got me here. I just have fun out there. Everything comes naturally. I'm thankful for it, but again I just try to have fun while I'm out there. I like to thank my legs for getting me to most of those balls.
"Again, it's just having fun."
DS: You have mostly been in center in your career, but also played some in the corners. Do you find it more difficult with the routes or different angles in the corners?
BD: "Not really. Obviously, the ball is going to come from different angles and different positions. With playing time, it's pretty easy to pick up on. I'm honestly comfortable in any position and anyway, I can help out the team is where I need to be, so wherever that position may be, I am more than willing to play."
DS: What are some of your goals for the rest of this season?
BD: "Honestly, just help the team win. We already have a spot in the playoffs. I'm excited for that - and again - whatever I can do to help out the team to get that championship is what I'll do."
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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