By Rob Rains
GLENDALE, Ariz. – In the spring of 2019, the baseball career of Juan Yepez was at a crossroads. Failing to make a full-season roster to begin the season, Yepez found himself left in Florida as part of the extended spring training program.
He could have moped. He could have pouted. He could have gotten angry or depressed. While any of those reactions would have been understandable, they also likely would have signaled the beginning of the end of his career.
“When you have spent a couple of years on full-season clubs, like he had, to get sent to extended spring can be a humbling experience and a lot of guys fold,” said Joey Hawkins, then a coach for the Cardinals in the extended spring program.
“But Juan came to me right away pretty much asking how I could help him and what he could do to get better and get back on track and back to a full-season club. Not for one day did he pout or complain or did he kind of veer off the plan of what we were working on.”
The plan that began in the training room and on the back fields of the Cardinals’ complex in Jupiter, Fla., started Yepez down the path that, just 29 months later – including a year when the minor-league season was canceled – found Yepez added to the Cardinals’ roster for the wild-card game against the Dodgers in Los Angeles and now becoming one of the leading hitters in the prospect-loaded Arizona Fall League.
“I was 21 and hadn’t played in extended since I was 18 years old and was with the Braves,” Yepez said. “They (the Cardinals) told me they wanted me to become a better defender and wanted me to play the outfield so I could be more versatile. They said I was going to get more at-bats.
“I was in the gym every day lifting and training and Aaron Rhodes (one of the training coordinators) was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I was like, ‘I need to get better, obviously, because I’m here.’ I just went out and worked hard. I’m proud of the work. I give thanks to God that I could change my mindset and become more positive and be more confident of myself and my abilities.
“It’s just crazy how my career made that big of a jump.”
Because he was there at the beginning, Hawkins says now he is not surprised that Yepez has had such a meteoric rise through the Cardinals system.
“To his credit he worked and he made adjustments and he took it into the game every day during the extended spring, which is extremely tough when you come from high A and are facing 18-year-old kids who don’t throw a ton of strikes, 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 whether to push forward and keep working, or fold. He chose to keep pushing and work and work and work. Once he got out of that camp, he never looked back.”
Hawkins and the Cardinals made some physical adjustments to Yepez’s swing, and helped him become more of a fly-ball hitter, which allowed him to generate more power. The physical success provided a better mental outlook as well for Yepez, whom the Cardinals had acquired in 2017,when he was 18, in a trade that sent Matt Adams to the Braves.
“I wasn’t great with Spanish, and he would translate for me for the young pups who were there,” Hawkins said. “We kind of hit it off … he was such a good influence on some of the younger players in that camp, showing them that your career isn’t over if there’s a little blip on the radar.”
Yepez spent the months of April and May in that camp before finally getting assigned to low A Peoria, where he made his season-debut on June 4. In a game at Quad Cities, he went 4-for-4, including a double and two home runs, and drove in seven runs.
“I was like, ‘Dang, this is working,’” Yepez said.
He made it all the way to Double A in the next three months, finishing the season with 10 homers in 242 at-bats combined over the three levels.
His progress stalled because of the pandemic that canceled the 2020 minor-league season, but Yepez continued to follow the same workout plan from 2019, lifting weight and taking live batting practice while working out at Middle Tennessee with Cardinals’ minor-league catcher Aaron Antonini. He also talked regularly on the phone with Hawkins.
“He shared some video with me and we talked hitting,” Hawkins said. “He never stopped working … Sometimes you have to take your career into your own hands and push and he continued to do that and was ready to go this year.”
The results showed as Yepez, now 23, hit a combined 27 homers, drove in 77 runs and posted a .286 average over 111 games between Springfield and Triple A Memphis. He has continued that success in the Fall League, with a .361 average, three homers and 14 RBIs in Glendale’s first nine games.
All he is trying to do, Yepez said, is continue the work that began with Hawkins during those hot days less than three years ago.
“I’m thankful to all the hitting coaches who helped me get better,” Yepez said.
Being added to the Cardinals’ roster for the wild-card game, even though he didn’t play, allowed Yepez to have conversations with Paul Goldschmidt, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, among others, – and provided even more inspiration about what could 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 is ready to play at the major-league level.
There have been a few times, both as he was on the field at Dodger Stadium, and now in the Fall League, when Yepez has taken a moment to think about how far he has come – and how different his future is now than it was in those spring months in 2019.
“It’s always like, ‘Dang,’” Yepez said. “Those tough moments when I was there … and now I’m here.’ I’m so thankful to God for the opportunity and the blessing. You need those downs to learn how to appreciate when you are on the top. Baseball is hard. You never know what can happen.”
Nobody is more proud of Yepez’s success, and how far he has come in such a short period of time, than Hawkins.
“It can go one of two ways when you have a player like that in extended,” Hawkins said. “You have a kid that’s really pissed off about the situation and negative, that can impact the younger guys. Or you can have a guy like Juan who just kept going with positive energy. He was great for the young Latin players, and young players in general, and was a great positive impact.
“I actually used Juan’s story the other day here at Missouri State, just about how you might not get what you want in terms of the roster or the lineup, but you can’t turn it off because of that. Juan is a perfect example. He deserves the rewards 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 around every day.
“I think he got a lot of attention for the year he had, but he deserves even more attention for the road that he’s taken. You don’t see that every day.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Main photo by Taylor Jackson/MLB photos via Getty Images