Matt Adams was picked in the 23rd round of the 2009 amateur baseball draft by the St. Louis Cardinals, who took the burly catcher with the 699th pick because of the big numbers he put up at Slippery Rock University.
For the past two years, the 2006 Philipsburg-Osceola graduate has proven the Cardinals made the right decision.
Adams, now a first baseman, has continued to put up big numbers and earn recognition with the Cardinals' organization and in the low Class A Midwest League.
"I would say Matt has certainly been a pleasant surprise," Cardinals farm director John Vuch said, "but as frequently happens with the MLB draft, quality players are often found in later rounds. For example, Albert Pujols was our 13th-round pick."
He was named the Scout.com/Cardinal Nation Rookie Hitter of the Year when he was moved up from Junction City to Batavia in 2009. Last year, playing in Davenport, Iowa, he led the Midwest League in slugging percentage (.541) and RBIs (88), tied for second in home runs with 22, tied for third in doubles with 41 and hit .310. He finished two homers and four RBIs shy of an organizational triple crown.
Adams, who bats left and throws right, was the starting first baseman in the Midwest League's regular-season all-star game and named a postseason all-star.
"I thought I had a great year," Adams said. "I started off a little bit slow. I was hitting balls right at people. Then, something clicked after the all-star game. In the second half of the season, I hit around .355. Fifteen of my 22 home runs were in the second half."
This year, he was one of three infielders in a 21-man group invited to early spring training. The invitees had a 10-day jump on everybody else before the regular spring training began.
During spring training, he went 2-for-4 with a double playing behind three-time National League MVP and nine-time All-Star Pujols. Contract negotiations with Pujols and the Cardinals broke off in February, and they likely won't start back up until after the season is over.
There's been internet chatter since the negotiations started that Adams would be a suitable replacement for Pujols should he choose to test the free agent market and leave the Cardinals. If Pujols does sign and Adams keeps producing, then Adams might have to get traded to reach the majors.
"That's the guy who's blocking the roadway for other first basemen in the organization," Adams said, "but I'm not going to root against him to leave. He's definitely the best baseball player in the game today. It's an honor to be a part of an organization he's a part of, but it would be nice to have some leeway to get up there.
"You can't do anything about it with the best baseball player in the game ahead of you. You just have to keep working hard, do your thing in the minors and keep putting numbers up. You either make it up there or get traded to another team."
Vuch, however, says not so fast with the trade talk.
"That question is a long way from being answered, but the short answer is that at this point we have no intention of trading Matt," Vuch said. "[Left fielder] Allen Craig played a lot of first base for us in the minor leagues, and now he's part of our major league club at another position. So, there's always ways to make room for a productive player, even if Albert occupies first base in the future."
Some would say if Adams hadn't been moved from catcher to first base, he might have stood a better chance at getting to the majors. Adams, though, says the move to first helped him.
"I think catching actually helped me with my hand-eye coordination," he said. "Playing first base is a lot easier on your knees. There's still stuff that I've got to learn. This will be my second full year playing first base, but I feel comfortable at that position."
Adams confirmed Sunday he would start this year with the Class AA Springfield, Mo. Cardinals.
Adams seems to have done everything in the offseason to get ready for the rigors of a 142-game season. He took a month off to let an elbow injury heal, and then he started working with hitting instructor Justin Hazelton four nights a week in State College and Philipsburg.
"I think he's one of the best hitters I've seen in the cages," said Hazelton, a 1996 P-O graduate who played in the minors for the Detroit Tigers, who picked him in the 10th round out of high school, Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians. "I think the big difference is he's in better shape than he was in last year. He really worked on his conditioning, and that complemented his swing.
"A lot of what we worked on was the recognition of the strike zone and situation hitting. We came up with good plan of going up there and being aggressive with every swing you take. I think he's ready. He understands the opportunity he has. I think he's going to hit wherever he goes."
He also paid it forward a little by working at ERA Baseball Academy in Altoona, helping kids "get their feet under themselves."
Adams worked hard in the weight room at the Moshannon Valley YMCA to improve his strength and lean out. The 22-year-old has a linebacker body at 6-3, 255 pounds.
"I asked the strength coach last year about my weight, and he said don't worry about it because I can still move for a big guy," Adams said. "I've always been a bigger guy growing up, but I still kept that speed that I had, and I can still move for a big guy. I feel 100 times better than I did last year."
Which is bad news for opposing pitchers. Adams is an extra base hit waiting to happen, which he says is a double-edged sword.
"You get the pitchers that know who you are, and you'll get fed steady doses of changeups and curveballs," Adams said, "but if you don't miss the fastball then you don't have to worry about it."
Adams says he hasn't set any goals as far as statistics are concerned, but he does want to hit above .300. He's hit above .300 both years, going from .365 at Junction City to .346 at Batavia to .310 last season.
"I'm going to have to have good at-bats, show them that my defense has improved and show them that I can swing the bat a little bit better this year than last year," he said. "Last year, they said they loved my bat, but I feel more confident this year than I did last year."
"Experience and maturity should only help to improve his all-around game, but he certainly has a promising future," Vuch said.