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Wednesday, December 07, 2022

BenFred: Wild-card wait whetted Yepez’s appetite entering Cardinals season that needs his power at DH

JUPITER, Fla. — Fans back home who had not dozed off after Steven Matz’s very problematic first inning derailed Saturday’s 9-2 Grapefruit League loss to the Marlins were rewarded for their patience.

They got to see something very encouraging from Juan Yepez.

The 24-year-old right-handed-swinging first baseman and sometimes corner outfielder who seems to be a very big part of the Cardinals’ plans for a committee approach to DH fell behind 0-2 to Marlins reliever Louis Head in the seventh inning before smacking the next pitch, a 93 mph fastball, into left field to score the only Cardinals run not created by a Paul Goldschmidt homer.

“I have a two-strike approach,” Yepez said. “In the beginning of the count, I’m looking to extend up and be more aggressive. But when it gets to two strikes, I spread out. I’m more direct to the ball, more simple.”

Yepez was ready for his first major-league chance last season, when the Cardinals flew him out to Los Angeles for the wild-card game against the Dodgers. He went from never appearing in a Cardinals big-league spring training (before this one), to studying Max Scherzer’s pitches before the biggest game of his life.

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“I was mentally ready,” he said. “I would have swung hard. Try to put the ball in play.”

But that 3-1 wild-card loss came and went without Yepez heading to the plate.

Now, unless a surprise sends old friend Albert Pujols walking through that door, it appears to be his time.

The Cardinals are poised to emphasize two things in 2022.

One of the themes is a renewed commitment to giving prospects who have little if nothing left to prove in the minors a chance to become major-league contributors before help is added from the outside. This is not a new approach, but it’s one that has been revisited after the success of Randy Arozarena and others elsewhere. Yepez is very much a part of this discussion, a player the Cardinals want to throw into the fire before taking the risk of watching him catch fire for another club.

Acquired in a 2017 trade with the Braves for Matt Adams, Yepez overcame a slow start and went unclaimed in a previous Rule 5 draft before flipping on his power and hitting his way to the highest level of the minors. The news that the DH was coming irked many National League fundamentalists. Yepez is not complaining. His path just got wider.

“It is one more spot on the roster,” he said. “One more position player. One more opportunity to play.”

The Cardinals’ second focused theme is a pledge to expedite under first-year manager Oliver Marmol an increased appetite and aptitude for versatility, flexibility and adaptability while attempting to pull the most production possible from this roster. That means prioritizing the best matchups for that game and moment in the game, regardless of what was comfortable and familiar in the past. The lineup likely will change often, and not always because someone is doing something wrong but because certain lineups are better for certain opponents. Platoons will no longer imply a starter can’t get it done. Bullpen roles are decided by the game, not the season. And so on.

Now, we have heard the Cardinals stress flexibility before. The follow-through is not always there once games count. But Marmol seems ready to walk the walk. He’s the face of the modern Cardinals. Yepez is the kind of player the modern Cardinals must maximize.

The team’s player development and hitting staff, two silos Marmol wants in sync, agree that Yepez’s swing path and projections will make his power play against the kind of high-velocity pitching that is dominating the majors, especially late in games. If Yepez becomes a fastball-mashing DH who continues last season’s trend of high average, high on-base percentage and big power against both righties and lefties, the Cardinals are going to look very smart for not overspending on a more proven DH. If Yepez becomes one functioning cog in a multiplayer approach to DH that winds up providing plus-production at the position, that works, too. And if he does neither of those things? Well, then the Cardinals’ complex plans for what could have been a pay-for-pop position will run the risk of looking better on paper than in real life.

Yepez’s RBI single Saturday from the No. 9 spot in the lineup was just the Cardinals’ second Grapefruit League RBI produced by a DH. The hitters who have shared DH at-bats have so far produced a handsome average (.300) and solid on-base percentage (.391) but little power, as evidenced by a .300 slugging percentage. Marlins designated hitter Jesus Aguilar, for example, had more home runs (one) and more RBIs (three) against the Cardinals in Saturday’s game than Cardinals DH contributors have produced in seven games. Aguilar hit fifth.

Yepez has power. He hit 37 homers and 74 extra-base hits in 134 games played between Class AA, Class AAA and the Arizona Fall League last season. There is little left to find out about his hitting in the minors. There is everything to find out about his hitting in the majors. The Cardinals seem committed to finding out. The recent addition of Corey Dickerson added some more-proven depth from the left-handed side of the DH equation. A similar move has not come for the right-handed side of the plate.

“His at-bats, in our opinion, have been pretty good,” Marmol said. “There is more to him than what we are seeing right now. As he continues to get comfortable and let loose, I think we are going to see even more production. His ability to stay inside the baseball is pretty impressive. I think we are going to see a really accomplished hitter.”

On a day Cardinals hitters were mostly silenced by Marlins pitching, Yepez made some noise late. He did it in the same way he earned that ticket to last season’s wild-card game by squaring up a fastball. That playoff game was just a taste, a tease. He feels ready to do more than watch and wait, and the Cardinals getting back to the postseason and beyond could hinge on that belief becoming a reality.

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