Rare is the baseball player who has starred for the University of Memphis then suited up as a pro at AutoZone Park. Outfielder Mark Little helped the Memphis Redbirds to a Pacific Coast League championship in the ballpark’s inaugural 2000 season. This year, Scott McGregor won six games and pitched more than 100 innings for the Redbirds, five years after throwing his last pitch in town as a Tiger.
The next member of this exclusive club of Bluff City talent could well be infielder Jacob Wilson, the 2012 Conference USA Player of the Year as a Tiger, now a member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system who finished third in the organization with 82 RBIs in 2013. Wilson spent the bulk of his first full pro season with Peoria in the Class-A Midwest League, hitting .264 with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs. He struggled over 32 games with advanced-A Palm Beach (.179 batting average) but was assigned to the Arizona Fall League for further development by a parent club that clearly sees promise. (Major league teams can send no more than two players below the Double-A level.)
In adjusting to professional baseball, Wilson had no problem going from an aluminum to wooden bat, as he’d played in summer leagues that use lumber during his college days. As for the pitching he saw this summer, there were some new wrinkles. “In college,” says Wilson, “you see everybody’s best guy on Friday night. At this level, every night you’re seeing a Friday-night guy. College is the best high-school players, and pro ball is the best college players. Once I got promoted to Palm Beach, everyone threw cutters. No one threw a flat fastball. There was a lot more bad contact. Most of the batting averages are down. From what I’ve been told, it’s the biggest jump hitters have to make: from low-A to high-A. You won’t see better stuff from high-A to Double-A. But pitchers can locate their pitches where they want to.” Wilson mentions keeping his bat through the strike zone longer — in contact position — as a chief adjustment he needs to make.
A third baseman in college, Wilson made the transition that current Cardinal Matt Carpenter has mastered on the big-league level, converting to second base without compromising the impact he makes with bat in hand. “I had never played second,” says Wilson. “Just third and short. The biggest challenge was learning the footwork around the bag for turning a double-play. Now I’m extremely comfortable at second. I was invited to early camp before spring training, so I got a lot more detailed work in with instructors. More one-on-one stuff.” The Cardinals felt Wilson’s size (5’11” and 180 lbs.) didn’t fit the profile of a corner infielder, and that his productive bat could be an asset as a second baseman. “I just asked them to teach me how to play it,” says Wilson, “and I’ll play it every day.”
Born and raised in Memphis, Wilson grew up cheering for the team his dad adored, the Atlanta Braves. But he says the Cardinal franchise caught his eye midway through high school — winning the 2006 World Series didn’t hurt — and since being drafted, Wilson’s quickly developed an affection for a philosophy that’s come to be called “the Cardinal Way.”
“The Cardinals pride themselves on building top talent throughout their system,” notes Wilson, “but at the same time building the best character players they can. They want their players being great locker-room guys, great team guys. So that everyone else will look at them as role models.”
Early in spring training last February, Wilson and a few other young players were working out at the Cardinal complex in Jupiter, Florida, when a pair of uniformed coaches walked onto the field. From a distance, they looked vaguely familiar to Wilson. Upon reaching the group of players, the two men were introduced . . . as Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee.
“They volunteered their time to come out and work personally with us, one-on-one,” says Wilson. “I worked for two hours on infield with Ozzie Smith. Willie told us, ‘I’m going to be in the dugout with you guys. At any time, if you have any question about anything baseball related, come over and we’ll talk about it. I’ll tell you how I feel about it, we’ll see how you feel about it, and we’ll find a medium to work with.’ He helped us with base-running, reading pitches, all kinds of stuff.”
Wilson reports back to Jupiter this week before heading to Arizona, where he intends to focus on expanding his range as a second baseman and developing consistency at the plate, the most challenging element for a hitter at any level. Looking to the future, does Wilson envision the day he steps to the plate at AutoZone Park — in his hometown — wearing a Memphis Redbirds uniform? “That would be awesome,” he says, “to play in front of family and friends. I cannot wait for that day. I hope I get that opportunity, knowing my family wouldn’t have to drive seven hours to watch me play. They could just hop on the road and be there.”
Photo courtesy milb.com