The Cards have been seeking 2008 replacements for several positions, including those previously held by veteran utilityman Scott Spiezio and reserve outfielder So Taguchi. The 25-year-old Mather was thought by some to have been in the scrum for the utility role along with non-roster invitee D'Angelo Jimenez and 2007 rookie Brendan Ryan.
Yet, more realistically, Mather was primarily considered a competitor for the outfield, against the likes of Brian Barton and Juan Gonzalez. One edge Mather offered is the ability to do a very credible job backing up first base, though no Cardinals fan would ever hope he is required to fill that role regularly any time soon.
A late bloomer with the bat, Mather emerged last season, his seventh in the Cardinals system. The Arizona native hit 18 home runs in 238 at-bats for the Springfield Cardinals, with an impressive line of .307/.391/.609, earning a mid-season promotion to Triple-A. Along the way, he picked up the descriptive moniker "Joey Bombs".
After his promotion to Memphis during 2007, Mather batted primarily in the number six hole after hitting third, fourth and primarily fifth with Springfield. His line there was less impressive than in Double-A - .240/.326/.444, including 13 more long balls. Our eighth-ranked prospect in the system was added to the Cardinals' 40-man roster following last season and briefly appeared in the Arizona Fall League.
Swinging both ways every time up
Though Mather is exclusively a right-handed hitter, I noticed him taking his cuts in the on-deck circle left-handed. I set out to learn whether that was an idiosyncrasy such as when Brendan Ryan licks his shoulder between pitches or is a reflection of an unusual left-right combination, as with Jason Motte (follow this link for an explanation if you missed that news item).
Turns out that Mather's odd pre-at-bat ritual is both the remnants of a past life as a switch hitter as well as a protection mechanism.
"I started swinging left-handed and when I did, I started whacking right-handed better. That is how I started. Lately, I don't like making a fake swing right-handed, getting my hands going, so I just take it left-handed. I don't care about that swing," Mather explained.
When he steps in, he is all business from the right side. "I just try to move my hands as quick as I can. Get it going," he said.
I asked Mather when and why he began the habit. Mather was a switch-hitter until his junior year in high school, a time when he also played shortstop. His explanation for ending his regular switch-hitting was straightforward.
"The reason I stopped was that I was much better right-handed. I did it again in Extended (Spring Training) one year. I did alright, but probably not as well as I did right-handed. It would have taken more time (to master)."
Mather was proud of one accomplishment made while hitting lefty. "I did hit a home run. It was worth a shot, if anything."
Colby weighs in on handed-ness
In the process of trying to master the art of switch-hitting, Mather altered other aspects of his life, too. "When I was going to switch hit, I did a lot of things – eating, playing ping-pong and tennis - with my left hand to try to help me."
Sitting nearby, top prospect and left-hander Colby Rasmus joined into the discussion, offering his view. "I play golf, shoot pool and play ping pong right handed. I kick the ball with my right foot," Rasmus offered.
I wondered out loud whether left-handedness runs in families, like mine. I asked Colby if that was the case for him. "My Dad and Mom are both right-handed. My brothers are all right-handed. My Dad made me left-handed. He was going to make me the pitcher." Let the record verify that little brother Cory turned out to be the pitcher in the family, drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 2006.
Mather agreed that the ability to hit from both sides would enhance his chances with the Cardinals, whether now or later on. "Look at Izturis, Jimenez, Miles, Spiezio - all those utility guys are switch-hitters," he acknowledged.
On the other hand, Mather recognizes he has nothing to complain about.
"I had a decent swing when I was going, but it was just a little too late, I think to start (pinch-hitting). I can't be too disappointed at things."
Playing all over, but with one preference
Even more so than offensive versatility, Mather's ability to do just about anything defensively makes him a valuable commodity.
Over his first seven years in the Cardinals system, Mather has played all over the field. In rookie ball, he concentrated more on third base, then evolved to playing extensively in the outfield, augmented by time at first base.
While in Double-A, Mather was primarily the first baseman, but also saw time in right field. With the Redbirds in 2007, manager Chris Maloney penciled Mather into his lineup in right field in 72 of the players' 81 games played. He also had a sprinkling of ABs at first base, but also ten games in centerfield for the Redbirds, a more challenging assignment.
None of these positions are his true love, however.
Truth is, Mather's desire is to be on the dirt rather than on the grass. "I can always go out to the outfield, but I have always been more interested in the infield," he admitted.
It isn't just anywhere on the infield, though. I took my guess, but was wrong. Thinking of the departed Spiezio, I ask Mather how comfortable he is at third base. He didn't hesitate. "Pretty comfortable. I grew up playing shortstop, so I think it is more natural."
But once a shortstop, always a shortstop. The 6-foot-4 Mather still longs to be stationed there. "I always want to play shortstop. I was itching to take some ground balls there and get in on the infield. But Brendan Ryan always kicks me out of there. We joke about it."
Yet, Mather knows versatility could be his ticket to the majors in the regular season, not just in the spring. "In a pinch, I can play center. In a pinch I can play short. In a pinch I can play second. So, if they need me for those, I can get it done there."
Everything above average
Manager Tony La Russa didn't keep Mather in the mix down to his final five cuts simply to get the player big-league experience. He likes what he sees from the player and his play.
"You look at him and see he is an impressive player. I haven't seen anything average about him. Everything he's done is above average," said the manager.
This month, La Russa had Mather pegged in the outfield competition rather than on the infield, but that is not written in stone for the future. When I asked the manager about Mather getting more time at third base, La Russa simply said, "not here".
While that left the door open down the road, Tony is very pleased with Mather in the outfield and isn't labeling him a utilityman. "I don't want to confuse it. He's making a lot of progress as an outfielder," La Russa explained. Maybe third base would have been confusing, but the manager did use Mather often this spring as an in-game replacement at first base.
In one quite possible scenario, if speed-first, power-second (if ever) players like Ryan, Skip Schumaker and Aaron Miles claim reserve roles and a player like Juan Gonzalez doesn't, before too long, La Russa may want a right-handed power bat off his bench who can also offer defensive versatility and back up Albert Pujols.
If so, Joe Mather knows where such a player can be found. When that day does come, he will surely trade in that number 88 worn this spring that signifies the longest of long shots for something substantially lower.
In the meantime, "Joey Bombs" will be in the center of the mix in Memphis, readying himself for that call, whenever it may come.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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