Aaron Miles does whatever the Cardinals need from him

Somewhere on the roster of every successful baseball team is a guy like Aaron Miles.


He's neither a slugger nor a base thief. He's not an ace in the rotation of starting pitchers or a lockdown closer. He's no headline hog.


If you lined up the nine Cardinals who started against the New York Mets on Thursday night, put them in street clothes and asked 100 people to pick the one they do not believe is a major league baseball player, 100 would pick Miles. He's the guy who, when he puts on his glasses and steps out of the clubhouse, looks like he's headed for the library.


But ...


'From his first day in a Cardinals uniform, he plays all over, hits all over,' St. Louis manager Tony La Russa says. 'He makes good plays. He pinch-hits. He plays every time you need him.'


Miles also plays every position they need him.


Second base. Shortstop. Third. Outfield. Pitcher. He has played them all since coming to the Cardinals from Colorado before the 2006 season. And if the Cardinals were to find themselves in need of an emergency catcher some night, Miles would be their man behind the plate.


Perhaps not since the 'Secret Weapon,' Jose Oquendo, played all nine positions for them during the 1988 season have the Cardinals enjoyed a player who combined such versatility afield and at the plate, where he is a switch-hitter.


Miles took a 14-game hitting streak into Thursday; a period during which he has batted .402. His season average is .323, which would be good enough for fifth in the National League if he had enough at-bats to qualify for the rankings. And this: He is hitting .319 right-handed and .326 left-handed.


None of this, of course, has happened by accident.


'I pay attention to what it is that makes me have success,' Miles says, 'and I pay attention to what it is that makes me struggle. I think if you pay attention to those things, you can continue to get better. That's what a lot of guys in the minor leagues need to focus on. Some of them don't.'


Miles can tell you all about the minor leagues. Drafted in the 19th round by the Houston Astros in 1995, then picked up by the Chicago White Sox in the 2000 Rule 5 draft, he spent eight full seasons and most of a ninth in the bushes before the Sox called him up at the end of 2003.


Few guys last so long in the minors without seeing the inside of a big-league clubhouse. Miles admits there were days he wondered whether his chance would ever come. But he's an eternal optimist.


'The key thing that kept me going was that I kept getting better,' Miles says. 'I told myself that as long as I kept getting better, the sky was the limit.'


He looks around the St. Louis dugout, travels the major leagues and sees players from other teams every day. All around him are players who are bigger and stronger, faster and more talented; players who were viewed by scouts as having unlimited potential but who have fallen short of expectations. They struggle. Some wash out.


'You look at some of these young players who break into the bigs real quick,' Miles says. 'And all of a sudden, for some reason, they become the fourth outfielder and they're not playing as much, not playing every day. Then, here they are, 27 or 28 years old, but they've only had maybe 2,000 pro at-bats, and they're frustrated and struggle. Me, I had 4,000 at-bats in the minor leagues. I've learned. There's an aspect of learning your swing that you only get from experience.'


The primary reason for the trade that brought Miles to St. Louis was to get rid of relief pitcher Ray King, who had complained publicly about not being used in the 2005 postseason. The Cards wanted Larry Bigbie, to  shore up an outfield that was losing both Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, and they wanted Miles, to provide infield depth.


La Russa insists the Cardinals knew what Miles could provide. He was, after all, fourth in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2004.


'Check his stats in Colorado. He always hit,' La Russa says. 'Check his minor league record. He always hit. When we played against him, he looked like he had good hands. The people we had talked to, with the Astros and Rockies, they talked about how competitive he is.'


La Russa knows as well as anyone that there are five-tool players in the majors who are content to get 80 or 90 percent out of their natural talent and collect eight-figure paydays with multi-year guarantees. Too many.


Though Miles plays for a reported $1 million a year now, he's not one of those guys. Never has been. Never will be. He's never content.


'He is terrific,' La Russa says.


KIRK WESSLER is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. He can be reached at kwessler@pjstar.com, or 686-3216.