SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — While the manager of the Montreal Expos, Felipe Alou saw his fair share of young talent.
At 22, Pedro Martinez cracked his rotation. Twenty-year-old Cliff Floyd started his eventual 17-year major league career at Olympic Stadium under Alou. So did a future MVP in Vladimir Guerrero, who debuted at 21. Others — Larry Walker, Javier Vasquez, Delino DeShields, Matt Stairs, Wil Cordero and Alou’s own son, Moises — played for the manager while still in their early and mid-20s.
Alou had a philosophy: You never slow down talent.
Arizona Diamondbacks Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa reminded the team’s manager, Chip Hale, of that the other day.
And Hale brought that up Wednesday when discussing a blossoming prospect of his own with the media.
Hale, La Russa and the D-backs may consider Alou’s adage this weekend, when the team is scheduled to make its second round of camp roster cuts, as they look at the body of work that infielder Brandon Drury has put together this spring.
Though he only has 105 Double-A at-bats under his belt — and zero at any other level above High-A — Drury is having one of the more impressive Cactus League campaigns of any in Arizona so far.
Entering Wednesday’s game against the Colorado Rockies, the 22-year-old was tied for second in the exhibition league in home runs and RBI; he’s third in total bases and fourth in runs scored. He’s batting .435 in 23 at-bats, which are among the most granted to any D-backs player this spring.
The organization is clearly intent on getting a good look at Drury, who is ranked as the D-backs’ No. 7 prospect according to Baseball America.
Tuesday, Hale wanted to give Drury the start against the world champion San Fransisco Giants and 2014 World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner. Drury homered to left field on a 1-0 pitch. The next inning, he drove in a pair of runs on a double off of Curtis Partch.
The majority of Drury’s Cactus League innings have come at second base, but Tuesday’s start came at third base, where he has spent the vast majority of his professional career to date. And though Yasmany Tomas and Jake Lamb seem the prime candidates for the starting job at third, Drury’s bat may be gaining him a foothold in the race.
Whether there or at second base, the Grants Pass, Ore. native is certainly gaining consideration for Hale’s 25-man roster come April.
“You know what, third base, second base — he’s really had such a good camp,” the manager said Wednesday.
“He’s a young kid, but he’s not playing like it at all. He’s really playing like a seasoned veteran.”
Drury’s spring isn’t an isolated blip in his career, either. Since joining Arizona’s system in the trade which sent Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves, the infielder enjoyed a pair of excellent minor league campaigns, batting .302 with an .862 on-base-plus-slugging percentage at Single-A South Bend in 2013 before hitting .299 with an .872 OPS last season. He had 70 extra-base hits in 2013 and 66 in 2014. All but two games in those seasons were spent at third base.
Tomas, whom the D-backs signed to a six-year, $68.5 million contract over the offseason, will surely warrant a near majority of the consideration for the third base job along with Lamb, who played 37 games there for Arizona last season. That race may look harder to crack for Drury.
At second base, Aaron Hill — who struggled to a .244 batting average last year and entered Wednesday’s contest with a .182 split in the Cactus League — has a sure spot on the roster, but perhaps not as a starter, given Drury’s exploits.
“He’s making things very difficult,” Hale said. “It’s hard to say he’s not in the race at either position right now.”
Drury has played just 12 professional games at second base, with the majority of those coming in the rookie-level Appalachian League while in the Braves’ system. But Hale has no doubt about the 6-foot-2, 190-pound infielder’s ability to adapt to the position, boasting about his play there even after Drury made his first error at the position on Friday at Goodyear Ballpark.
“He made that error, but he just kind of came a little bit slow on it instead of coming to the ball quick and instead he had to rush,” Hale explained after his team’s 6-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians. “That’s really the first mistake over there. He has played great.”
And he went further.
“He could play major league second base right now. He’s got the talent to do it.”
Drury himself is confident that he can man the position, though admitting there’s been a learning curve this spring.
“There are a lot of new things to learn over there, like positioning and stuff because, you know, I haven’t played there nearly as much as third or, really, much at all over the last three years, so it’s more positioning and just little stuff around the bag,” he said Friday.
“Third base is kind of, ‘OK. See the ball, catch it, throw it.’ And at second base you’ve got different stuff going on — you’ve got to cover second, you’ve got to cut some relays.”
Of course, any prospect in pursuit of a roster spot isn’t going to gripe about where he plays defense. Such is the case with Drury, who spent the stretch of last season at Double-A Mobile.
“I like it over there,” he said of second base. “My goal is to be in the lineup; that’s my main priority.”
Surely the D-backs don’t intend to buck against Alou’s wisdom and “slow” Drury’s talent. But it’s difficult to say, exactly, what would slow down — or accelerate — the prospect’s growth.
“We have to decide what’s best for him, because he needs innings,” Hale explained.
“Is he in the mix? It’s hard to say right now because we really want to see his development continue, but boy he’s lighting a lot of people up.”