By Rob Rains
GLENDALE, Arizona – In the spring of 2019, Juan Yepez’s baseball career was at a crossroads. Failed to put together a full season squad to start the season, Yepez found himself in Florida as part of the extended spring training schedule.
He could have laughed. He could have sulked. He could have gotten angry or depressed. While any of those reactions would have been understandable, they would also likely have marked the beginning of the end of his career.
“When you’ve been in clubs all season for a few years, like he has, being sent off to extended spring can be a humbling experience and a lot of guys fall back,” said Joey Hawkins, then coach of the Cardinals in the extended spring program.
“But Juan came to me right away to ask me how I could help him and what he could do to improve and get back on track and come back to a club for the full season. Not a single one. day, he never pouted, complained or somehow deviated from the plan of what we were working on.
The plan, which began in the training hall and on the back grounds of the Cardinals complex in Jupiter, Fla., Launched Yepez on the path which, just 29 months later – including a year when the season of the Minor Leagues has been called off – found Yepez added to the Cardinals roster for the wildcard game against the Dodgers in Los Angeles and now becomes one of Arizona’s main fall league hitters.
“I was 21 and hadn’t played in overtime since I was 18 and was with the Braves,” Yepez said. “They (the Cardinals) told me they wanted me to be a better defenseman and wanted me to play on the pitch so I could be more versatile. They said I was going to have more drummers.
“I was at the gym everyday lifting and working out and Aaron Rhodes (one of the workout coordinators) said to me, ‘What are you doing here? I was like, ‘I have to get better, obviously, because I’m here.’ I just went out and worked hard. I am proud of the work. I thank God for being able to change my mindset, become more positive and have more confidence in myself and my abilities.
“It’s just crazy how my career has taken such a big leap.”
Because he was there early on, Hawkins now says he’s not surprised Yepez had such a meteoric rise through the Cardinals system.
“To his credit he worked and he made adjustments and he took it in the game every day during the extended spring which is extremely difficult when you come from high A and you’re up against 18 kids. years that don’t throw a ton. of hitting, playing on a back field, ”said Hawkins, now an assistant coach at Missouri State.
“It’s pretty hard to stay locked in and he did it… He had to choose between pushing forward and continuing to work, or lying down. He chose to keep pushing and working and working and working. Once out of this camp, he never looked back.
Hawkins and the Cardinals made some physical adjustments to Yepez’s swing and helped him become more of a flying ball hitter, which allowed him to generate more power. Physical success also provided better mental prospects for Yepez, who the Cardinals acquired in 2017 when he was 18, in a trade that sent Matt Adams to the Braves.
“I wasn’t very good at Spanish and he was translating for me for the young puppies that were there,” Hawkins said. “We kind of got along… he’s had such a good influence on some of the young players at this camp, showing them that your career isn’t over if there’s a little bit of a downside on the radar.”
Yepez spent the months of April and May at this camp before finally being assigned to bass A Peoria, where he made his season debut on June 4. In a game at Quad Cities, he went 4v4, including a double and two homers, and produced seven runs.
“I was like ‘Dang, this is working,’” Yepez said.
He reached Double A over the next three months, ending the season with 10 homers in 242 batting appearances combined across all three levels.
His progress stalled due to the pandemic that canceled the 2020 minor league season, but Yepez continued to follow the same training plan from 2019, lifting weights and batting live while training at Middle Tennessee with Cardinals minor league wide receiver Aaron Antonini. He also spoke regularly on the phone with Hawkins.
“He shared a video with me and we talked about hitting,” Hawkins said. “He never stopped working… Sometimes you have to take your career in hand and push and he continued to do that and was ready to go this year.”
The results showed that Yepez, now 23, hit 27 combined homers, produced 77 points and averaged 0.286 in 111 games between Springfield and Triple A Memphis. He continued that success in the Fall League, averaging .361, three homers and 14 RBIs in Glendale’s first nine games.
All he’s trying to do, Yepez said, is continue the work that started with Hawkins during those hot days less than three years ago.
“I’m grateful to all the batting coaches who have helped me improve,” Yepez said.
The addition to the roster of cardinals for the joker game, even though he didn’t play, allowed Yepez to have conversations with Paul Goldschmidt, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, among others, and still provided more inspiration on what might be the next possible step in his career.
Being added to the roster gives Yepez an automatic invitation to the Cardinals’ spring training camp next year, where he will try to prove he’s ready to play at the major league level.
There have been a few times, both when he was on the pitch at Dodger Stadium and now in the Fall League, where Yepez took a moment to reflect on how far he has come – and how different his future is now from that. it was. in those spring months in 2019.
“It’s always like ‘Dang’,” Yepez said. “Those tough times when I was there… and now I’m here. I am so grateful to God for the opportunity and the blessing. You need these stockings to learn to appreciate when you are on the top. Baseball is tough. You never know what can happen.
No one is more proud of Yepez’s success and how far he has come in such a short time than Hawkins.
“There are two ways it can go when you have a player like that in overtime,” Hawkins said. “You have a child who is really upset about the situation and negative, it can have an impact on the younger ones. Or you can have a guy like Juan who carried on with positive energy. He was great for young Latin players, and young players in general, and had a great positive impact.
“I actually used Juan’s story the other day here in Missouri State, about how you might not get what you want in terms of the roster or the lineup, but you can’t get it. ‘turn off because of this. Juan is a perfect example. He deserves the awards he is getting now, and I think he’s going to have a long career because of it. He’s a guy you want to be with every day.
“I think he’s received a lot of attention for the year he’s had, but he deserves even more attention for the road he’s taken. You don’t see this every day.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Main photo by Taylor Jackson / MLB photos via Getty Images