Cardinals Caravan visits Cape

Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Collier Howard of Cape Girardeau gets an autograph from St. Louis Cardinals pitching prospect Michael Wacha during the Cardinals Caravan on Monday at the Osage Centre. (Fred Lynch)

Matt Adams, Sam Freeman and Michael Wacha may not be household names at this point in their baseball careers, but they made progress on homes in Southeast Missouri as participants of the Cardinals Caravan that visited the Osage Centre on Monday night.

The threesome, still in the prospect stage of their careers, was part of six-man touring troupe that included Fox Midwest baseball announcer Dan McLaughlin and former Cardinals pitchers Ryan Franklin and Brad Thompson.

It always takes time for the new generation to make a name for itself, even to the most die-hard of fans. Few Cardinals fans ever heard of a guy named Albert Pujols when he arrived at Cardinals spring training in 2001.

Logan Smith made a trip over from Vienna, Ill., with his parents and a group of Cub Scouts.

"Some of them are new to me," Smith admitted.

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams signs an autograph for Grant Lange at the Cardinals Caravan Monday at the Osage Centre. (Fred Lynch)

Joey Duckworth, from New Madrid, has come for the last two years, and he brought sons Darren, 11, and Ethan, 5, as well as niece Madison Glenn, 10.

"We're just here having fun and trying to make a tradition of bringing them here every year," the elder Duckworth said. "I'm trying to make them have the passion that I have for them."

Darren's favorite Cardinal is outfielder Matt Holliday, but he wasn't too well versed in the new faces at the front of the room Monday.

"Franklin," Darren replied when asked about his familiarity with the entourage.

What about the others?

Fredbird entertains with former Cardinals pitcher Brad Thompson during the Cardinals Caravan.

"Not really," Darren said.

His father was a little more versed in the potential on hand.

"I'm looking forward to Michael Wacha," Duckworth said. "In the next few years, he's one of the big strong arms coming up in the minor league system, and I'm expecting big things from him. He'll have a tough time getting into the Cardinals rotation for the next few years, but hopefully they'll have a spot for him."

While Pujols' free-agent departure was at the forefront of most Cardinals fans at the Caravan last year, Wacha and Adams still are trying to make the best of that loss for Cardinals fans.

"Whenever he leaves, it just opens up a spot for someone else," Wacha said. "It gives someone else the opportunity to come up and take that spot and really just show the Cardinals we can do it without him. I'm looking forward to the next couple of years."

Wacha, a slender 6-foot-6 right-hander out of Texas A&M, was chosen with the first-round pick the Angels forfeited to the Cardinals for signing Pujols. Wacha grew up a Cubs fan.

"It's crazy how it all ended up," Wacha said. "The Cardinals getting the extra pick in the first round and taking me. I couldn't be any more excited being with the Cardinals. I'm just excited for the first spring training."

Wacha pitched just 21 innings in the minors last season after being drafted in June, but he climbed all the way to Class AA Springfield. He twice struck out the side in his three-inning debut with the Springfield affiliate and helped the team to the Texas League championship.

He struck out 40 batters in 21 innings last season, walked just four, allowed eight hits and posted an 0.86 ERA.

"He showed he can be sensational," McLauglin said. "He's rapidly moving up."

The Cardinals used him sparingly after he threw more than 110 innings during his junior season with the Aggies, which he finished with a 9-1 record. According to scouts, Wacha possessed one of the best changeups in the draft, and he mixes it with a fastball that reaches into the mid-90s.

McLaughlin said Wacha reminds him physically of Cardinals 20-game winner Adam Wainwright.

"He has similar height, build. You can see he's probably going to fill out," McLaughlin said. "He has very good control. He's the real deal. He's nasty."

Wacha is working to expand his package to include a curveball and slider, which he said the Cardinals haven't pressed him to work on.

"It's just my goal. Hopefully my curveball and slider just keep getting better, and keep up with my changeup as well," Wacha said.

He said has yet to meet Cardinals Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter or Wainwright, and looks forward to working with them in spring training. He is expected to start the season in the rotation at Springfield, and said he has no particular goal of reaching Class AAA Memphis this season.

"Wherever the front office wants me to go, wherever they think will be best for me to succeed," Wacha said.

Adams was the Cardinals' Minor League Player of the Year and Texas League MVP while at Springfield in 2011, where he batted .300 with 32 home runs and 101 RBIs.

His only problem was the 6-foot-3, linebacker-looking Adams was a first baseman, a position that was occupied by Pujols. But when the superstar bolted for a 10-year, $250-million free agent deal, Adams' future with the big-league club brightened considerably.

"If you've got a guy like Albert and sign him for 10 years, barring injury, he's going to be there for 10 years," McLaughlin said. "[Adams] would have had to learn how to play another position or be out of the organization."

"Albert's a great player and brought a lot to the table and he'll always be remembered by Cardinal Nation," Adams said, "but I felt like it was a pretty good opportunity and I just had to continue to build on the season I had in 2011 and take that into the 2012 season."

His opportunity arose when Lance Berkman injured his knee early last season.

"I mean, it was shame that Berkman got injured, but it opened the doors up for me, and I was thankful I was able to get the call-up," Adams said. "I just have to keep working hard because I know there are people below me trying to do the same thing."

Adams hit two home runs in 86 at-bats in his first call-up by the Cardinals last season that lasted 27 games. He had 13 RBIs and batted .244 before being returned to Memphis. His season was cut short when he had surgery on his right elbow to remove bone chips, but still finished with 18 HRs and 50 RBIs over 67 games, batting .329.

"I think one of the things we saw with Matt, is the fact that he can do it here in the little time before he got hurt," McLaughlin said. "He hit a couple of home runs, showed he can swing the bat and showed he wasn't overwhelmed."

Adams said his elbow is back to 100 percent.

McLaughlin said Adams reminds him of the Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard.

"Just kind of big bodies and guys that kind of hit for power from the left side," McLaughlin said. "Now Matt has gotten himself into better shape. He's dropped 15 pounds. Ryan Howard can go to the opposite field in left center, and Matt Adams goes that way very, very well."

However, McLaughlin said, depending on at-bats, the best place to start Adams might be at Memphis.

"For instance, if there were an injury -- knock on wood I hope it doesn't happen -- say [Allen] Craig gets hurt, Matt Adams is going to start. But as he has eluded to, it was a hard adjustment for him being just a guy coming off the bench and learning how to be a pinch hitter. They're going to want him and [Oscar] Taveras and [Kolten] Wong, all those players, get more at-bats, and after the season or during the season, if there's a need, call them up."

Freeman was drafted by the Cardinals in both 2007 and 2008, and the left-handed reliever appeared in 24 games with Cardinals last season. But he appears to be the third lefthander in a bullpen that likely will carry just two in Mark Rzepzynski and free-agent signee Randy Choate.

As for 5-year-old Sydney Pope of Jackson, who was attending with her father, Blake, she was not familiar with the three new faces. The favorite player of the blonde-haired girl, wearing a blue Cardinals shirt, was nowhere to be found.

And who was he?

"Albert."

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