Schumaker committed to second base
Former outfielder attempting transition to Cards' infield
JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals' Great Experiment this spring may not work. But it won't be for lack of dedication.
The attempt to turn Skip Schumaker, an accomplished outfielder, into a second baseman is very real. Schumaker and the Cardinals are committed to it, and the idea is not simply to give Schumaker another club in his bag. St. Louis hopes that Schumaker will be a serious competitor for its open spot at the keystone.
And after meeting the initial idea with skepticism and bafflement, Schumaker is committed as well.
In 2008, Schumaker emerged as the Cardinals' leadoff man, cementing his status as a full-time Major Leaguer for the first time. He's regarded as an exceptional defensive outfielder, and there's no denying the strength of his throwing arm.
But faced with a surfeit of outfielders, not to mention uncertainty at second base, the Cardinals began pondering a move for Schumaker as early as last September. Manager Tony La Russa envisioned Schumaker as a competitor for the second-base job even then, when Adam Kennedy was still under contract for another year in St. Louis. When Kennedy was released, the door opened even wider for Schumaker -- but he would have gotten the chance no matter what.
"You were going to have at least one or two guys on the bench that could be really good players," La Russa said. "Where could you fit one of those guys in? It has to be second base."
If it takes, the benefits for the Cardinals would be enormous.
That's because from a lineup perspective, the question isn't really Schumaker or no Schumaker. Following his fine season in '08, and considering the lack of alternatives in the leadoff spot, Schumaker will be in the lineup pretty regularly. Rather, the question is whether the Redbirds wedge an extra outfield bat in the lineup, or they settle for one of the slew of light-hitting second-base contenders in camp.
If Schumaker is the second baseman, or even primarily a second baseman, then the Cardinals open up at-bats for Chris Duncan (if he's healthy) and quite possibly a roster spot for top prospect Colby Rasmus. If Schumaker is limited to the outfield, Rasmus probably heads to Triple-A Memphis while Joe Thurston or Brendan Ryan likely gets the at-bats at second base.
Or, to boil it down to its simplest form: a successful transition would allow the Cardinals the offensive upgrade from Ryan and/or Thurston to Rasmus and/or Duncan. That's a major boost to a lineup. And La Russa, for one, is confident that the transition will work.
"He played it in college. ... Willing to work. Tough as nails. He had all that working for him. He had infield experience. He's tough. He's willing to work. And he's a key member of our lineup where if he plays, maybe some other member of our lineup doesn't play. It's worth trying, and if it doesn't work, nothing is lost. Because he isn't going to go backwards as an outfielder because of the infield work."
So Schumaker works out daily with the infielders. He takes extensive instruction from Jose Oquendo, one of the best infield coaches in the business, as well as from bench coach Joe Pettini and Double-A Springfield manager Ron "Pop" Warner. Gradually, it's starting to take.
"Footwork is the No. 1 thing," Schumaker said. "I've been blessed with a pretty decent arm my whole life. I need to catch it. I need to get Khalil [Greene, shortstop] good feeds on a consistent basis where he wants it. And I've got to slow the game down. I think the No. 1 thing for me is slowing the game down. As an outfielder, your No. 1 goal is to cut the ball off and get it in as quick as you can. As an infielder, it's slowing the game down and relaxing. You have more time than you think at second base."
Schumaker said he is open to other methods of learning, as well. He'll do all he can in the drills, and he'll get all the innings possible in Spring Training games. But Thurston, Ryan, Tyler Greene and others are also competing for the second base job. So he's happy to get some work in 'B' games or Minor League Spring Training games if need be.
Whatever it takes. Schumaker is committed, just like the team is.
"If it doesn't happen," he said, "it's not because I didn't work at it and it's not because I didn't have the coaching. Those are two things I have going for me. If it doesn't happen, it's just my ability. I couldn't do it."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.