Sam Tuivailala outgrew shortstop in spring training. After a smooth switch to third base, the St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguer hopes the next thing he outgrows is rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League.
And with a recent surge at the plate, Tuivailala may be making a case for a late-season promotion to Johnson City (Tenn.), home of St. Louis’ high-rookie ball affiliate.
“I’m hoping I get the call,” said Tuivailala, who was selected in the third round of the 2010 MLB draft after starring in three sports at Aragon High School. “Basically, I just have to play the way I’ve been playing, and hopefully I’ll get that call.”
Last year, Tuivailala had a rocky transition from high school to the pros, batting .178 in 42 games for the Gulf Coast Cardinals while struggling to adjust to using wood bats.
But he has made what he called “a big jump” in his second year in Jupiter, Fla., feeling much more confident and prepared in the batter’s box. With a pair of 3-for-3 games this week and an ongoing stretch in which he has reached base in eight of his last 12 plate appearances, Tuivailala is riding a hot streak. Through 30 games, he is batting .252 and has a .336 on-base percentage.
Tuivailala, still just 18, played exclusively shortstop last year, but midway through spring training this season, the Cardinals coaches decided to move the 6-foot-3 ½, 200-pounder to third base. In addition to taking advantage of his quick instincts and strong arm, Tuivailala believes his new position is helping his development because he doesn’t have to spend as much time analyzing defensive intricacies.
“Now I can relax more, and I can practice more on my hitting,” he said.
Asked to assess his batting, Tuivailala said, “It’s coming along for me really good.”
This year, he said his toughest task is dealing with the inside pitch. A natural up-the-middle and opposite-field hitter who likes to crowd the plate, Tuivailala found himself changing his entire swing in trying to pull the ball. Now he’s stepping back in the box and trying to attack the pitcher early in the count, as soon as he sees a fastball.
The improved stats aren’t the only affirmation he’s making strides. “My coaches, they all tell me I made a tremendous improvement,” said Tuivailala, who shares a hotel room with a teammate in West Palm Beach, Fla.
In particular, Tuivailala said he got some nice feedback from Johnson City manager Mike Shildt in the spring. “He loves the way I compete,” Tuivailala said. “He really wants me to play more third base.”
While at the Cardinals minor league camp, Tuivailala also had a few chances to observe major league stars Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, among others, in passing.
What struck him the most? “Their work ethic – they’re really focused at just working at their jobs,” Tuivailala said. “We just watched to see how they take things, do things, without anyone watching.”
He also said he got a confidence boost from a talk Pujols gave all the Cardinals minor leaguers invited to spring training. The highlight? “‘You don’t have to be a prospect to get to the big leagues,’” Tuivailala remembered the perennial All-Star saying.
As he contemplated the steps he needs to take to further his career, Tuivailala said he is focused on improving his consistency – and not being consumed with watching his stats.
In the event of an off-day at the plate or in the field, he said maintaining a positive mind-set is critical.
“You just need to tell yourself that you’re here for a reason and that you just need to play the way you know you can play,” said Tuivailala, whose daily routine includes a 6 a.m. wakeup and roughly 10 hours of baseball-related activities. “You just need to bring it every day.”