ONE GOAL: RETURN TO OCTOBER
JUPITER, Fla. • At one point Friday morning, four members of the Cardinals’ pitching staff threw bullpen sessions at the same time nearby hitters who could bat leadoff, second, third and cleanup in the lineup took BP. Nearly half of the 40-man roster was present for voluntary workouts at the team’s spring training complex, and eight position players from the roster were on site — 10 days before their first official workout.
A veteran of at least 10 of these camps took a headcount and marveled, “It’s like everyone is already here.”
“Guys are not only here physically,” manager Mike Shildt said. “But they are here mentally. It’s a very mature, professional group. So that’s what I want. I want a very mature, professional camp. The players are going to be aware. The staff is going to be aware. And now it’s about execution.”
While some chill persists around the Cardinals — Could they have done more for the roster? Could they still do more? — there is a warmth awaiting players at the team’s Roger Dean Stadium facility. Icy temps may have driven some players to Florida early, but not as much as being frozen out of the playoffs, again. Coaches, players and support staff have all described the vibe that’s arrived early as well. Players call it “urgency.” Officials speak of an “internal optimism.” Most trace it back to Shildt. As he prepared for his first spring training as manager and the team’s 128th season, Shildt remained in constant – “collaborative,” he said – contact with players and coaches. Members of the staff met monthly to plot spring training, and the idea was every day devoted to planning this winter could extend their season one day farther into fall.
The Cardinals have had a steady retreat from the postseason the past three seasons, slipping to third place in the National League Central in 2018. In each of those seasons frayed play and flaws that hounded the team in spring proved their undoing during the summer. In a 90-second conversation Friday, Shildt used the words “execute” or “execution” nine times, “awareness” seven, and “situational” another six. These are the signposts of his spring plan, one the front office has watched him construct all winter.
“It’s been energizing,” said baseball operations president John Mozeliak.
It must be galvanizing.
It will soon be revealing.
Here are 10 questions, presented annually by the Post-Dispatch, greeting the Cardinals this February, facing them this March, and determining if they’ll return to October.
1. WHAT WILL CAMP SHILDT LOOK LIKE?
Early on in his 69-game stint as manager this past season, Shildt wanted to “stress the positives” and started hosting “ball talk” sessions in his office to review, explore and debate situations and strategy in games. That same framework and collegial feel will leap from his office to the field — in drill form. “That’s right,” he said. He wants players to understand the underpinnings of game strategy to help perform better in situations.
Three conspicuous examples of Shildt’s fingerprints will be the emphasis on improved defense, the pace vs. the length of workouts, and new hitting coach Jeff Albert’s increased-contact approach. The Cardinals led the majors in errors this past season and a deep dive into the metrics has informed Shildt’s plan for, among other things, an expanded use of shifts. For the first time in club history the Cardinals had more strikeouts (1,380) than hits (1,369), and into the launch-angle craze comes Albert to help restore the team’s OBP excellence and connect with young, rising hitters like Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill.
2. WHAT CAN CARDS EXPECT FROM DEX?
The bounce is back in his step, the pep back in his personality, and with health back in his foot Dexter Fowler and the Cardinals say he’s poised to put the on-base back in his on-base percentage. Long before injury ended his season, Fowler’s 2018 had curdled into a career worst, and the switch-hitter acknowledged this winter to the Post-Dispatch that he was dealing with depression.
The Cardinals are betting big on a rebound year. Fowler, 32, is one of a handful of veterans who come to spring training knowing production matters as well as preparation. Reliever Brett Cecil is in the same spot as the Cardinals have alternatives if profound struggles continue. At his best, Fowler minces pitch counts and reaches base at a .360 OBP clip. (Last year he had a .278 OBP.) Somewhere between the extremes of a career-best .488 slugging in 2017 with the Cardinals and career-low .298 slugging of 2018 is the hitter the Cardinals feel will lengthen the lineup and be part of the OBP prelude before new lineup fulcrum Paul Goldschmidt. “I want to show them the real me,” Fowler said. Spring is a good place to start.
3. WILL EXTENSION TRADITION CONTINUE?
It’s become an annual rite of spring for the Cardinals: The preemptive contract extension. A year ago shortstop Paul DeJong agreed to a six-year deal, following teammates Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright — all of whom at some point in the past decade had negotiated a new commitment in spring. This spring’s could be defining.
The Cardinals are expected to begin, in earnest, conversations with Goldschmidt about an extension that would likely be the richest contract ever completed by the club. The Cardinals have an initial idea of what their offer to the six-time All-Star will look like, and sources have said the team would be open to discussions going into the season, if Goldschmidt is. He intends to keep such talks “private” — and the Cardinals are taking their cues from him on pacing and on timing.
Meanwhile, fellow All-Star Miles Mikolas, also a pending free agent, has not hid how the Cardinals are a “good match” for him and that he’s open to talk about a long-term deal whenever. The Cardinals and his agent already have had preliminary discussions and both sides saw March as a chance to accelerate talks so that the Jupiter native could know he’d be back next spring before he left this one.
4. WHERE IS OZUNA’S RECOVERY?
Somewhere in the midst of the anatomy textbook of injuries Cardinals are returning from this spring — Carlos Martinez (shoulder, lat), Michael Wacha (oblique), Dominic Leone (nerve), Adam Wainwright (elbow), Luke Gregerson (arm) … — is the joint around which so much production will hinge. A numbing sensation spiraling down his arm in his right shoulder left Marcell Ozuna unable to throw at full strength and weakened his swing until he surrendered to offseason surgery. In an encouraging move, Ozuna reported earlier and has started working with officials to rebuild his arm, from mechanics up.
With health, his bat can roar. An imposing cleanup hitter behind Goldschmidt would turn the Cardinals’ lineup from a bear to deal with to downright grizzly with at least three 30-homer threats. The front office believes the offense is better positioned to stomach a repeat of last year’s .280/.325/.433 line from Ozuna, but the hope is he can shoulder much more in his walk year.
5. HOW WILL ROTATION TURN OUT?
While quality options remain available on the free-agent market, the Cardinals have long sided with the quantity of starters they already have in place. Depending on who is counting, the Cardinals have as many as 10 or at least 10 starters coming to camp. While the rotation has fixtures and favorites (Mikolas, Martinez, Jack Flaherty, and Wacha), the Cardinals also have options and, as a result, opportunity.
Outside of player health, the most important part of spring for the Cardinals will be sifting through the potential starters to fill out the rotation — because the spillover will determine how good and aggressive the bullpen can be. Veteran Adam Wainwright, earmarked to start, could also relieve. Back on a one-year deal, the team’s longtime ace has spring training to begin showing the velocity dips and struggles of last season were an injury-related blip and not a trend. The Cardinals crave for Martinez to manifest as their next ace, but they saw how he closed last season. John Gant, like reliever Mike Mayers, is out of options, so if he’s not in the rotation, room must be made in the bullpen. Lefty Austin Gomber, righthander Daniel Ponce de Leon and groundball monster Dakota Hudson all profile as starters — but have traits that shine in relief too.
Competition in spring will reveal an essential part of any rotation: The de facto No. 6 starter and Triple-A Memphis’ No. 1. From all of this quantity, what the Cardinals need to emerge this spring is certainty.
6. WHERE WILL ALEX REYES FIT?
There isn’t another player on the Cardinals roster that has a larger spectrum of spring outcomes than longtime — and still — top prospect Alex Reyes. The righthander, limited to four innings in the majors the past two seasons due to shoulder and elbow surgeries, could open the year on the major-league pitching staff or still in Jupiter rehabbing. He could be a starter that enlivens the rotation or a reliever that electrifies the late innings. With spring as a chance to gauge his readiness for whatever role, the Cardinals have three goals for the 24-year-old righthander as this career-shaping season approaches:
• That he’s healthy, start to finish.
• That he contributes in a significant way.
• And, finally, that he leaves the 2019 season with his rookie eligibility exhausted because he pitched enough in the majors to have an impact on the season and to set himself up for what’s become the real focus of the coming months: Getting him strong and prepped to be the elite starter they’ve been expecting, set for launch, in 2020.
7. CAN J. MARTINEZ AND GYORKO BOTH BE ON BENCH?
During the Cardinals’ 22-win hot streak through August, their leading hitter was Jose Martinez, who batted .389 with a .547 slugging percentage and a .990 OPS, and while the Cardinals weren’t sure where to put him in the field they realized this winter that he does have a position on the team: necessary. Finding him at-bats is only the beginning. An expanded bullpen cleaves one spot off the bench, and that will force the Cardinals to consider reducing redundancies. Martinez’s bat is a keeper, but other teams have shown interest. Jedd Gyorko, who the Cardinals owe $5 million this season, could be kept ahead of last year’s spring star Yairo Munoz — or shopped around for a possible trade.
This is the Cardinals’ conundrum: An injury elsewhere would make Martinez or Gyorko the starter at any of five positions, and yet the Cardinals might leave spring with room for only one on their bench.
8. WILL THERE BE A SURPRISE?
Several newcomers to the 40-man roster will have a chance to get a spring on promotions, like Jordan Hicks and Yairo Munoz did last spring and like a few of these players could by the All-Star break:
RYAN HELSELY, RHP: Potential power reliever positioning himself as midseason booster shot for the bullpen.
GENESIS CABRERA, LHP: A “lefty Carlos Martinez,” intriguing reliever has peers and scouts buzzing about upside.
LANE THOMAS, OF: Led all Cardinals’ minor-leaguers with 27 homers in breakout 2018, and can cover ground in center.
DREW ROBINSON, Utility: Lefthanded hitter the Cardinals want also plays as many as seven positions — which is one way to solve a shrinking bench.
GIOVANNY GALLEGOS, RHP: A bullpen that needs a K-rate can’t ignore his 57 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings at Class AAA last season, with only 10 walks.
9. WHO, IF ANYONE, WILL CLOSE?
For the past two seasons the Cardinals, often without a surefire closer, have discussed operating the bullpen less formulaic, more analytic. With buy-in from the manager and pitching coach Mike Maddux, the arrival of versatile veteran lefty Andrew Miller, and hotshot righthander Jordan Hicks, the Cardinals feel they have the makings of a thoroughly modern milieu in the bullpen. It’s a bold break from tradition given what’s at stake. Last season bent in the bullpen. The relievers’ 4.38 ERA was the worst in the NL Central, and a $14-million investment in All-Star closer Greg Holland created more questions.
The Cardinals have decided a closer isn’t the needed correction.
“The closer by committee has had mixed results in our industry,” Mozeliak said. “I’m not a big fan of that. But, how you balance (that) with how you mix in Andrew Miller, that will be more of the interesting puzzle.”
It won’t be solved by the end of March, but it will be explored. The Cardinals should leave spring training with a true sense of their pitching depth — and agility. They may not start the season with a designated closer, but they should know how many options they have to hold a lead until one pitcher emerges to save them from all these decisions.
10. IS BASEBALL BROKEN?
While many Cardinals got going early, two of the game’s best players and one of its top closers remained unsigned this week late into the offseason — the result of a wonky marketplace that has anyone paying attention unnerved. The stench of labor strife is in the air. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — younger and better than any free agents to hit the open market in more than a generation — have not found agreeable offers, and neither has All-Star reliever Craig Kimbrel.
It’s the kind of stalled market that the Cardinals would once perch nearby and talk about being “opportunistic.” Instead, officials said an addition would be “complicated.”
The Cardinals may yet add a pitcher from outside, but data-driven teams like them have advanced baseball into this free-agent fog. The game is awash in record revenue and yet teams have arguably never been more disciplined about spending. These two things are related. Players are watching. Such inactivity has turned baseball into a fever swamp. Now tinkering with the rules is the rage. A universal designated hitter appears on the horizon (2022?), mound alterations have been discussed, and limits could be imposed on relievers. Some changes could come from the commissioner as soon as this spring. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men are racing around with so many new rule ideas that they’re too busy to realize that maybe Humpty wasn’t broken.
Good thing baseball’s back.
The games can finally speak for themselves.