Contrasts in Handling Youth

A look at how two of the top Cardinals prospects are being handled this spring.

In a story two weeks ago, March 10, entitled "Reyes: Why the On-the-Job Training?" I first surfaced my opinions about the Cardinals concern over prize pitching prospect Anthony Reyes' lack of a two-seam fastball. Apparently because Reyes was uncomfortable with the pitch, a full year has transpired between when Pitching Coach Dave Duncan first asked Reyes to master it and now, with no or limited progress made with it.

When Reyes was asked to feature the as-of-yet unrefined offering in spring training games against proven major leaguers, not surprisingly, it was tattooed. This became the primary reason to justify Reyes, the Cardinals top prospect, being returned to the minor leagues. This was clearly foreshadowed two weeks ago and it officially occurred on Wednesday.

In its entirety, it would be difficult for anyone to paint Reyes 2006 spring experience as a positive one. Yet, at this juncture, with fewer innings to go around as the top five starters stretch out, continuing Reyes' own extension of pitches per outing with Memphis does makes sense.

One could argue that due to the signing of Sidney Ponson and lack of a trade or injury to another of the other starters, Reyes' chances of making the rotation were stacked against him from the start. As soon as Ponson was officially named as one of the five starters, Reyes was gone.

Yet, while he hasn't spoken about his demotion to my knowledge, others have begun the speculation as to whether Reyes has soured on the Cardinals and/or Duncan and La Russa have soured on him. With it come the first sniffs of requisite trade questions.

I am not here to suggest any of that has actually happened or even if so, has reached anywhere near the point of no-return. Yet, how can one not wonder about how this situation has been handled to date?

One can only hope that Reyes and the brain trust will clearly agree on the best pitching repertoire to increase the chances of Reyes' long-term success as a major leaguer and then both sides firmly adhere to the program.

In contrast to Reyes' situation, we have the case of one Christopher Duncan, who based on his early spring training results, seems to have leapt to the front of the line of Cardinals position prospects deemed ready to face major-league pitching.

With Albert Pujols away at the World Baseball Classic, Duncan received the majority of time at first base this spring and has made the best of it. He is hitting .308 with twice as many home runs as anyone else on the squad, four, and tied for the team lead in RBI with 11.

Yet, despite La Russa declaring definitively days ago that Duncan is destined for Memphis this season to continue to learn how to play the outfield, Duncan remains in the major league camp. Not only does Duncan remain in camp, but he is still seeing ample playing time, with a majority of it at first base, not outfield.

This is happening despite the fact that Pujols' regular season back-up exists somewhere among the bench combatants – Scott Spiezio or Brian Daubach or even Deivi Cruz or Hector Luna. All told, there are still 20 position players in camp vying for just 13 jobs and Duncan is the only name among them who has been officially ticketed for the minors.

One has to wonder why these other guys who are fighting for jobs aren't getting more time at first and more looks at the plate in game situations and why Duncan isn't playing outfield for Memphis. Certainly, it is good for Duncan's confidence to get more time among the major leaguers and to see better pitching, but his outfield defense has been stated as his major need.

Then, why isn't Duncan being asked to focus on that outfield defense now, like Reyes is with his sinking two-seam fastball? Granted, a direct comparison between preparing a pitcher and a hitter may not be 100% valid, nor should all individuals be handled in the same manner. Yet, it seems that one top prospect's confidence is being carefully managed, while another's may be getting a bit more shaken than needed.

Again, I am not suggesting any damage is irreversible, whether real or perceived. After all, Reyes has logged just 240 professional innings to-date and won't turn 25 until October. So, there is time; just as there is for Duncan to learn on the job during Memphis' regular season.

Here's hoping that both young men achieve their goals.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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