Mather's shift to third flying under radar
Cards outfielder filling in for injured Glaus, impressing La Russa
JUPITER, Fla. -- Joe Mather does almost nothing in anonymity. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he cuts a figure even more imposing than those measurements would suggest. He hits with tremendous power, earning him the nickname "Joey Bombs." And as a pure athlete, perhaps not even Rick Ankiel equals Mather's physique among Cardinals players.
Yet Mather's transition from outfield to infield has not garnered nearly the ink or electrons of teammate Skip Schumaker's shift. Whereas Schumaker's move to second base has been the dominant story of the Cards' spring thus far, Mather's shift to third base has been much quieter.
There are a couple of understandable reasons for that. Mather could move back to the outfield as soon as Troy Glaus returns from shoulder surgery. And Mather played a good bit in the infield in the Minor Leagues -- including 41 games at first base at Double-A Springfield as recently as 2007. Mather, like Schumaker, was drafted as a shortstop.
"It's a different Spring Training in the infield, at third base, than it is in the outfield," Mather said. "Nothing against the outfield. I love the outfield, too. It's a change of pace coming in and I'm having a lot of fun learning how to play the infield again."
Mather and Schumaker are two of the players in an eight-man infield workout group that includes Albert Pujols, Chris Duncan and Khalil Greene. And given that nothing in Cardinals camp is a coincidence, you can draw some conclusions from that. Both moves are being taken seriously by manager Tony La Russa.
"He's looked good in the drills," La Russa said. "He really has. It's a consensus. We talk about it, the guys who are watching. You've got to look good in the practice before you look good in the games."
Mather is getting extensive work with infield coach Jose Oquendo. He's concentrating mostly on footwork, which is a completely different chore at third base than in the outfield. Though he played some first base in the high Minors, he hasn't made more than two appearances at third base in a season since 2004 at Peoria of the low Class A Midwest League.
"Footwork and the hands are completely different," he said. "The position takes work. It's not something that you can just go out and do unless it's something you've done for 10, 15 years. I think the biggest test is going to be in the game."
And games start Wednesday. That's when both transitions will get real-world testing. The Cardinals have made it clear that Schumaker's move is very real, and he's contending for the starting second-base job. But Mather's is also more than just for show.
In the short term, Mather could be the Opening Day third baseman while Glaus recuperates. He's shown he can hit at the Major League level, though there's a question how he'll fare after a wrist injury shut him down for the end of 2008. In the long term, it's almost impossible to see Mather as a regular third baseman in St. Louis. But as a four-position corner utility man, he might be a perfect fit.
So Mather grinds away, improving his skills at the hot corner -- with plenty of help from Oquendo.
"He's kind of the guy to work with if you're an infielder, especially if you're a guy who hasn't been there very much," Mather said. "He sees a lot of stuff. He takes pride in fielding the ground ball. If you have a guy like that, which we have, he shows me what I'm doing wrong, what I'm doing right."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.