JUPITER, Fla. — Meet Cardinals prospect Jon Jay …
… I remember watching him when he manned the outfield for the University of Miami, and let me tell you this: The guy can hit. He’s not a big home-run threat (more like a No. 2-type hitter), but in his four years in the Minor Leagues, he’s batted a pretty solid .298 with a .363 on-base percentage — though his slugging percentage was just .425. Now, he comes into camp in the mix for the job as the Cardinals’ lefty hitter off the bench.
St. Louis’ outfield, of course, is a crowded one, with Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus and Ryan Ludwick the starters. So Jay’s only shot at finally cracking a big league roster is to make the team as a pinch-hitter.
But is that the right thing to do to a kid who, in a way, is still developing and needs professional at-bats? Jay (pictured above taking live batting practice against Blake Hawksworth on Wednesday) turns 25 in March. He of course just wants to be in the Major Leagues for the first time, but would being a late-inning lefty pinch-hitter — ala veteran Matt Stairs — slow down his development?
“There’s always room for improvement and seasoning, but that was one of the reasons I went to Venezuela this year,” he told me. “I got some more at-bats, and I was able to kind of work on my game a little bit more in different aspects. I think it was a good experience for me, just playing in front of big crowds and just playing more baseball and just going so deep into the year with that.”
Sure, but even that can’t prepare him for what would face him if he actually broke camp as a member of the 25-man roster.
It’s hard enough to adjust from Minor League to Major League pitching. And then it’s a whole other thing to adjust from being an everyday player to sitting on the bench for an entire game, then getting up for one at-bat in a tight game and immediately seeing a mid-90s fastball. Imagine adjusting to both at once.
I spoke to veteran corner infielder Wes Helms about pinch-hitting a lot last season, and he says it’s an art — one you never perfect, and one you need to be in the big leagues a while to even get used to.
How will Jay adjust if that’s the role he plays?
“I think my routine just stays the same,” said Jay, who batted .281 with 10 homers, 54 RBIs and 20 stolen bases for Triple-A Memphis in 2009. “But obviously I’ll talk to guys that have been there before and the coaching staff. Mark McGwire has been around for a long time, and just our coaching staff has been. It’s great to have those guys to go to.
“I pinch-hit a lot last year during Spring Training, so I got a little bit used to that. Just always being ready.”
An interesting side note: Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who does TV work for the Orioles, made a brief appearance at Cardinals camp on Wednesday, yukking it up with manager Tony La Russa (top) and pitching coach Dave Duncan (bottom).
La Russa called him “a legitimate Hall of Famer,” but bragged that he once broke up a no-hitter in the late innings against him — in instructional league.