Fri December 23, 2011
By Mike Rosenbaum
Growing up, every aspiring baseball player shares a common dream: to one day play in the Major Leagues for their hometown team. For many, it’s a dream that dissipates over time, as the daunting reality of what it takes to even play at the collegiate level takes center stage.
But for St. Louis native Lance Jeffries (right), the dream became a breathtaking reality on June 7, when the St. Louis Cardinals selected the McCluer outfielder in the 10th round of the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft. A few days later, Jeffries and the Cardinals made it official when he signed his first professional contract, and was subsequently assigned to the organization’s Gulf Coast League affiliate in Florida.
As a senior, 6-foot, 205-pound Jeffries garnered Prep Baseball Report Missouri First Team All-State honors after posting a .457 batting average and .587 OBP, with 10 home runs, 38 runs scored, 45 RBI, and a perfect 46-for-46 in stolen bases.
However, it was obvious that Jeffries’ sheer athleticism extended well beyond the outfielder's robust stats. In August of 2010, the speedster opened eyes nationwide by running an event-best 6.6-second 60-yard dash at USA Baseball’s Breakthrough Series. Then at Prep Baseball Report’s Super 60 draft showcase in McCook, IL last February, Jeffries flashed his 90+ mph arm and plus bat-speed. In a matter of months, he had emerged as one of the nation’s more intriguing five-tool prep prospects.
Now, after an impressive inaugural campaign in the GCL, Jeffries is back in St. Louis and spending time with his friends and family. And despite his success and acclimation to life as a professional baseball player, the awe of being drafted – by his hometown team nonetheless – has hardly faded.
“Getting drafted by the Cardinals was mind-blowing. My heart stopped. I was thrilled. It was every emotion all at once,” said Jeffries about being selected by the organization that directly influenced his baseball career.
“I actually didn’t know that I was drafted until I checked my phone and got a call from the Cardinals’ scout who told me, ‘Congratulations, you’re officially a Cardinal’,” he stated.
Up until that moment, Jeffries seemingly had no idea about how the draft might play out.
“Heading into the draft, I actually had heard from every organization about their interest in me,” noted Jeffries. “The Cardinals entered the picture during the last month (second week in May) and that’s when we really started talking about the draft and went from there,” he added.
After the news of his selection, he wasn’t the only one that experienced a wide range of emotions. “My family was extremely excited for me...they were so happy for me. My mom especially, she was trying her best to hold it in.”
Things immediately picked up steam for Lance and his family, as they suddenly faced the potentially arduous task of negotiating his first professional contract.
Compared to most highly-touted prospects that hold out on signing until days (sometimes even hours) before the deadline, Jeffries knew that he wanted to sign and begin his career as soon as possible. The sooner that his contract was finalized, the more time he would have to turn heads within the organization.
“We negotiated the contract for about three days before I signed,” said Jeffries, “and then that Saturday I was on a plane to Florida.”
Upon his arrival, he immediately learned that his summer in the Gulf Coast League would be unlike anything he had previously experienced.
“The competition I faced in high school wasn’t mediocre…it really wasn’t even competition,” noted the humble outfielder. “When I got to Florida I was suddenly surrounded by guys like myself, but I knew that it was exactly what I wanted to be doing with my life.”
“I was pretty shy the first couple weeks,” he added, “but after that it was like we were all brothers.”
With a sense of comfort and camaraderie, Jeffries was able to relax and ultimately have an impressive first professional season. Appearing in 44 games for GCL Cardinals, he slashed .256/.363/.376 with eight doubles, two triples, and a home run, while tallying 19 RBI and 12 stolen bases. However, that isn’t to say that the necessary adjustments weren’t difficult for the McCluer product.
“The biggest thing I had to adjust to was the pitching: the increased velocity and really good curves,” he noted. “The curveball was probably the biggest thing I had to adjust to. The first really good one I saw I think I ducked my head and braced myself,” Jeffries added amidst laughter.
“The pitchers are more confident in their stuff, too,” continued Jeffries. “There was one at-bat where I was 2-0 and looking for a fastball, and they threw me a change up.”
But for every adjustment that he was forced to make over the course of the season, Jeffries also experienced milestones, such as his first professional home run.
“We were down a run, 8-7, and I got a first pitch fastball and put it out to left-center,” he recalled. “When it left my bat I was immediately thinking, ‘Oh my god, did I really just do this?’”
While such an indelible memory is surely something that he will relish for the rest of his life, he has spent this off-season dissecting and implementing the knowledge he gained during the summer.
After failing to be thrown out on the base paths during his senior season at McCluer, the increased competition and competency of the players in the Gulf Coast League challenged Jeffries’ ability as a base stealer for the first time in his career.
“What I learned in the Gulf Coast League is that it’s not just about how fast you are. It’s more about what kind of jumps you get and how well you read the pitchers. You have to be really, really smart on the bases,” cited the astute Jeffries, who swiped 12 of 17 bases this summer. “And the catchers too,” he continued, “all their throws are crisp and on the money.”
Even though Jeffries was prompted to make many realizations on his own, he spoke highly of the coaching staff and the comprehensive feedback they offered after the conclusion of the season.
“The coaches had a talk with every single player at the end of the season, and they told me for a first-year player I did really well. They complimented my attitude – I guess they thought that since I was a high school kid my head may be clouded – and praised my level of maturity for my age.” For Lance, the compliment was merely something that had been echoed throughout his entire prep career.
Since returning home, the 18-year-old has been busy training, intent on improving several facets of his game.
“Next season I would like to steal more bases and obviously cut down on the strikeouts,” stated Jeffries, who fanned 48 times in 147 plate-appearances – a common trend among young hitters. “At the plate I know I’ll need to be more patient and develop a better eye.”
Jeffries’ determination to make significant strides this off-season has in turn allowed him to define several goals for next season.
“I’m looking forward to having a very productive 2012 season, and hopefully staying healthy enough to play my best and get moved up,” he asserted. “Finishing the season in A-ball, either High- or Low-A, would be great.”
This past month, Jeffries also learned that he had his own rookie card – the perfect ending to a remarkable year.
“When I first saw my baseball card, I think I wanted to cry to be honest with you. I mean, me, coming out of McCluer high school and having my own rookie card…it’s a special feeling,” said Jeffries, still in disbelief.
For Lance Jeffries, 2011 has been a year rich with special feelings. And considering the rave reviews he’s drawn from scouts for his athleticism and make up, not to mention his own unwavering dedication towards making improvements, it’s hard to imagine that 2012 will be any different.