Matt Adams enjoyed his mom’s home cooking and hanging out with his friends in his hometown of Philipsburg.
But right after Christmas, when his surgically-repaired right elbow finally felt normal again after swinging a bat, the St. Louis Cardinals’ slugging first-base prospect started getting a little antsy.
He was ready for spring training to begin. The sooner, the better for Adams, who had season-ending surgery in mid-August to remove bone spurs in his elbow.
“It’s just great to pick up a bat again and not feel that pain in my elbow,” Adams said recently following a one hour-workout with head trainer Rob Oshinskie at Victory Sports Performance and Fitness in State College. “I’m excited. I’m pumped. I’m ready to get back out there on the field.”
Adams, rated the second-best prospect among first baseman last week by MLB.com, will leave Friday for the Cardinals’ spring training complex in Jupiter, Fla., although the first official full-squad workout won’t take place until Feb. 16.
A left-handed hitter, Adams, 24, is aware that he will be walking into a crowded first-base situation that includes Allen Craig, who began his career with the State College Spikes in 2006, and versatile Matt Carpenter.
Adams, a graduate of Philipsburg-Osceola High School, batted .244 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 27 games for the Cardinals last season. Craig hit .307 with 22 homers and 92 RBIs in 119 games. Carpenter, who also played second and third base, as well as the outfield, batted .294 with 6 homers and 46 RBIs in 114 games.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know what the Cardinals are gonna do at first base,” said Adams, who hasn’t played in a game since the first week of August, when he was with Triple-A Memphis. “It’s going to be very competitive. Allen Craig’s still there, Matt Carpenter’s still there. So I’m gonna have to go in there and prove myself again.
“I gotta have a solid spring and make it a tough decision for them to figure out what to do with me — whether to keep me there as a left-handed hitter off the bench or if they want me to keep getting my at-bats down in Triple-A. That’s out of my hands. I just gotta go into spring and do what I do and let them make the decision.
“Whatever the big man upstairs has planned for me, whatever the Cardinals have planned for me, I’m OK with it. I have worked my butt off this offseason and I know I’ll get there again someday. If it’s not this year, then it will be another time.”
Adams, a 23rd-round draft pick in 2009 from Division II Slippery Rock, made his major league debut and first start last year on May 20 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The game just happened to be the nationally televised Sunday night contest on ESPN.
As if on cue, the 6-foot-3, 261-pound Adams drilled the first pitch he saw in the majors — a fastball from Chad Billingsley — up the middle for a single.
A week later, Adams socked his first homer, blasting a pitch from Philadelphia’s Chad Qualls over the right-field wall at Busch Stadium.
“I remember getting the silent treatment from my teammates after I touched home plate and got to the dugout,” Adams said. “Then, a few seconds later the manager (Mike Matheny) told me to go out for a curtain call. That was just awesome.”
Adams stuck with the Cardinals for a little over a month before being shipped back to Triple-A on June 24, when Carpenter was activated from the disabled list. In 67 games with Memphis, Adams batted .329, with 22 doubles, 18 homers and 50 RBIs before being shut down.
Although his three-year minor league totals are eye-popping — 82 homers, 291 RBIs and a .318 average in 1,430 at-bats — he has struck out 266 times.
Adams was drafted as a catcher, but promptly converted to first base. He knows he is going to have to lay off pitches in the dirt to stick in the majors. And he knows his defense is going to have to improve.
Baseball scouts love Adams’ power. They believe his big bat eventually will help him land a permanent spot in the big leagues with the Cardinals or perhaps with another team via a trade.
“The pitching is unbelievably better in the big leagues than it is in Triple-A,” said Adams, who has worked with swing instructor Justin Hazleton of Philipsburg since he was 11. “I definitely am working on pitch selection. Up there with the Cardinals, I was a little overanxious. I need to lay off the pitch in the dirt, the slider or the change-up.”
Oshinskie, the president of Victory Sports, has trained several Penn State football and basketball players through the years, but Adams is his first major league baseball player. The duo connected in 2011 through mutual friends from the area.
“Last year, there was a learning curve for Matt and really understanding what his body could do, because it was an unknown,” Oshinskie said. “He was never on a structured, consistent strength program until last winter.
“He did a great job with his body-fat levels last year, but this year he is at a different level. The change has been radical. He started last offseason at 284 pounds and reported to spring training at 259. This year he started the offseason at 269 and he’s down to 261 now. I still think we’re gonna get him back into that 257-258 range.
“And the good news is, his elbow is feeling better, too. There wasn’t a single day where his elbow bothered him, or where we had to change our program at all. Matt is ready for spring training from this end. I believe he is ready to do some big things.”
In order to do big things, Matt Adams will have to swing a big bat.
Ron Musselman is a freelance writer living in Centre County. Follow him on Twitter@ronmusselman8.