When the Cardinals let Kolten Wong walk as a free agent they had a ready-made alternative to go at second in Tommy Edman. Less clear is who takes over batting first. Wong hit leadoff in 50 of the Cardinals’ 61 games in 2020 and such regularity rewarded the Cardinals with a .351 on-base percentage from the No. 1 spot — fifth-best in the National League. Options to take over the leadoff spot range from Edman, who has worked to improve his walk rate, to rookie Dylan Carlson, who has a veteran’s feel for the strike zone. Matchups favor Harrison Bader (.855 OPS vs. lefties), and past success invites the club to consider former All-Star Matt Carpenter. The Cardinals can give the top spot a new personality — and some pop. The .315 slugging percentage from No. 1 last season was the third-lowest in the majors. There is an opening for the Cardinals to find a hitter who doesn’t just initiate the offense — but ignites it.
As the Cardinals worked and waited and waited on this prolonged offseason and free agents like Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina waited along with them, there was the possibility that of all the plans the Cardinals had none of them happened.
Waiting was not without risk.
“Sure,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, when asked if they could have whiffed on all their priorities. “Anybody can have a bad run, right?”
In a frenetic 12-day marvel of fan service, Mozeliak and his staff upended the perception of their offseason. They turned the last team to make an addition to its major-league roster into the team that made the most-decorated addition of the winter. Bookended around the trade for five-time All-Star Nolan Arenado was the re-signing of franchise favorites Wainwright and Molina as well as sending Dexter Fowler to the Angels to clear playing time for rookie outfielders. The club crammed a winter of work into a few weeks before spring training.
Patience the Cardinals requested.
Patience the Cardinals tested.
Patience the Cardinals rewarded.
The Cardinals start official (small group and limited) workouts this Wednesday in Jupiter, Fla., and will host their first full-team workouts Feb. 22 at Roger Dean Stadium’s complex. COVID-19 protocols govern all. A squeezed Grapefruit League schedule begins Feb. 28 and lasts a month before the Cardinals head to opening day in Cincinnati on April 1. The Cardinals begin their 130th season in the National League with two established stars at the corners — Arenado opposite first baseman Paul Goldschmidt — and a cornerstone at the plate, in Molina. They are coming off a second consecutive postseason berth but toting familiar questions about the offense, the outfield, and their ability to turn potential into performance. Patience they have given.
Presented annually by the Post-Dispatch as spring training opens, here are 10 questions greeting the Cardinals in Jupiter and the possible answers they will need by the time they get to unveil a roster in front of something they did not have all last year — a crowd. For both the team and Cardinals faithful, now is the chance to find out if the 2021 club is worth its wait.
1. Who will bat leadoff?
2. How will they score more runs?
The biggest question entering spring training last year remains a pivotal concern 12 months later — and it’s even phrased the same. The Cardinals’ chronic difficulty generating runs by delivering power has been an anchor on an elite defense and keen pitching. They have been the lowest-scoring playoff team in each of the past two Octobers, and they have scored three or fewer runs in 92 of their past 220 games. They are 20-72 in those games, 4-25 (.138) in 2020. The pressure is on hitting coach Jeff Albert, who returns for a third season as leader of a staff that also includes run production coach Patrick Elkins. Albert’s concepts must connect with hitters, draw out the production expected. The addition of Arenado gives the Cardinals’ lineup length, protects Goldschmidt, and alleviates strain on Paul DeJong to provide cleanup power and Carlson to carry responsibility beyond his experience. It cannot cover for a subpar outfield. Cue the creativity. Spring gives the Cardinals a chance to workshop and test-drive a matchup-oriented lineup at as many as four positions if everyday starters do not emerge. After two years of trying to add offense, the Cardinals will see if it’s greater to go with the sum of their parts.
3. How inventive, protective will they get with rotation?
Even after trading Austin Gomber to Colorado, the Cardinals feel they roll eight, nine deep when it comes to potential starters. They might need that many. A riddle facing every team this season is how to carefully, smartly count on starters to provide a familiar workload after last summer’s severely reduced innings. For Jack Flaherty, returning to his 2019 level of 196 innings would mean pitching five times as much as he did in 2020. The Cardinals will pit pitchers like Alex Reyes, Carlos Martinez, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and others against each other for the fifth spot in the rotation — but could also entertain going with a six-man rotation. Or, Cardinals officials said they will discuss a “piggyback” approach, where starters are paired in tandems and split starts, or they are linked to long relievers. That would allow the Cardinals to utilize what they see as a strength — the number of pitchers who could be starters just recast as relievers for extended outings. Pitching coach Mike Maddux’s season-long puzzle begins immediately with the challenge of a reduced spring schedule. There are 24 games to build up arm strength, coming four at a time before an off day. Back-field outings and scrimmages are likely. So too are pitchers being used in a variety of assignments. Maddux coined the term “elite adjusters” for how the pitching staff used depth and versatility to survive 2020. Now, they get to see how those traits thrives.
4. What’s Carpenter’s role?
Among the many moving parts of the past few weeks — Arenado in, Fowler out — it’s a player who stayed put that starts spring with the potential to be going in different directions. Just where is the question. Carpenter, 35, enters the final guaranteed year of his two-year, $39-million extension. A month ago, he was the starting third baseman. A month from now he could be the designated hitter, if such a thing exists by April 1. It is the time in between when he will have games to define a fit. A three-time All-Star and top-10 MVP finisher as recently as 2018, Carpenter hit .216/.332/.372 in his past 179 games — his stats sunk by a swing pulled in the power direction. Carpenter’s career with the Cardinals began as a utility fielder, sliding from first to third then second, even left to right field — the only constant his knack for a high OBP and doubles. If those return, Carpenter could finish in St. Louis the same way he got started, turning part-time chances into a full-time role somewhere.
5. How will Arozarena Audit influence outfield?
The Cardinals got an eyeful in October of Tampa Bay sensation Randy Arozarena and rather then obsess over what could have been they asked how to avoid that happening again. The Cardinals traded Arozarena a year ago to the Rays as part of a deal that centered around Jose Martinez and acquiring prospect Matthew Liberatore. Arozarena rewrote postseason records with his performance. The Cardinals promised a review of their internal evaluation and processes to learn what they missed. Spring is the first glimpse of how they apply those lessons. Hints abound. The Cardinals remain hesitant about trading young players, tracing their misread of Arozarena to the playing he didn’t get. They are publicly committed to Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and Justin Williams receiving substantial playing time to blossom — so they don’t watch talent manifest elsewhere, as they have with Arozarena or Luke Voit. Arozarena was not an indictment on the Cardinals’ scouting or development — they knew he could hit — but on deployment. The lesson is not entirely one of evaluation. It’s about time. They feel they have identified talent for their outfield, but can they recognize the moment when patience runs out and run production must rule?
6. Will absent alumni change Camp Cardinal?
A set piece of any Cardinals spring training is the clubhouse meeting before the first full-squad workout. It is a chance for ownership and executives to address the roster — and the manager to set a tone. The Cardinals lean into the headwind of their history and, inevitably, there is a reference to the number of World Series rings in the room, like those won by the late Red Schoendienst when was at the meeting. So many will be missing this spring. This season will be a chance for the team to memorialize Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, two Hall of Famers who died in 2020. As recently as 2017, Gibson visited spring, chatting up Fowler. Pandemic protocols limit the presence of such annual guest coaches as Ozzie Smith, and other special assistants who help during spring training — like Chris Carpenter, Jim Edmonds, Ryan Franklin, Ryan Ludwick — lost those positions during downsizing and layoffs. The past being present is a fixture of spring, but how they maintain that tether to tradition will be different this year.
7. Any lingering injuries?
Jordan Hicks and his 102-mph sinker are 20 months removed from elbow reconstruction and spent the past calendar year building strength to be full-speed by this spring. His throwing program will reveal if there are any brakes on his readiness for opening day. Hicks, who has Type 1 Diabetes, opted out of the 2020 season to focus on his elbow recovery, and the club will be cautious but eager to unleash a healthy Hicks.
Same with Mikolas. The innings-hungry starter had forearm surgery due to an irritation that lasted months. Initial fears that he would require Tommy John surgery quelled with the forearm repair that allows him to return sooner, and spring will show if he’s stronger. Carlos Martinez has put winter-ball innings between him and the muscle strain that ended his year.
An early sign of concern for the Cardinals with their high-priced imports has been the spring revelation of an existing injury — one that limited the player (Marcell Ozuna’s shoulder) to one that didn’t (Goldschmidt’s elbow). Enter Arenado. The centerpiece of the Cardinals’ offseason is coming off a season that ended on the injured list with inflammation and a bone bruise inside his left shoulder. He went the final three weeks without an extra-base hit. Arenado has said the shoulder has healed and he has not felt weakness or soreness during his swing toward spring training. The workout schedule they set for him will suggest the Cardinals’ level of concern.
8. Are there openings for a spring surprise?
Many eyes will be on Nolan Gorman for the positions he will test-drive this spring. He could see work in left field and get tutelage at second base as the Cardinals test the versatility of the rising slugger and how he can fit on a roster with Arenado. Gorman was one of the most improved hitters from last spring — calmer, steadier, with a better grip on the strike zone. He, Liberatore, and Zack Thompson made strong impressions, positioning themselves for potential springboards to the majors. Johan Oviedo and Kodi Whitley blazed that same trail a year ago. Here are others who can turn spring success into summer roles:
Genesis Cabrera, LHP (roster): An impressive, hitless appearance in winter ball has lefty with the overpowering sinker and velocity poised to claim significant innings.
Johan Quezada, RHP (roster): Six-foot-9 newcomer from Phillies has the look of an imposing, power-packed project for Cardinals’ pitching gurus.
Jose Rondon, INF (non-roster): A quiet signing over the winter and former prospect, could flash power and versatility to dislodge roster players for bench role.
Angel Rondon, RHP (roster): Organization’s pitcher of the year the last year there was minor-league baseball – has a starter’s feel for pitching, steady control.
Jesus Cruz, RHP (non-roster): Has advocates in the right places and statistics of note – 89 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings in 2019 – if he can capitalize on early looks.
Tommy Parsons, RHP (non-roster): Undrafted, a Cardinal by way of indy ball, Parsons pitched at four levels in 2019 with intriguing precision – 27 walks, 158 strikeouts in 165 2/3 innings.
Griffin Roberts, RHP (non-roster): Once pegged as college kid who could leap to majors, he still sports one of the best sliders in the organization with appealing mix for bullpen.
9. In a crowded bullpen, who closes?
By many measures — velocity, past performance, or sheer quantity — the Cardinals have the makings of the best bullpen in the division, if not the league. But for all the arms out there, roles are up for grabs. Reyes finished the year as closer, Hicks could be back there soon, but who starts at the end of games will be decided in spring. Ryan Helsley is focused on relief, Giovanny Gallegos has been one of the majors’ top setup men, Andrew Miller has the experience, and Reyes or Martinez could handle the ninth if they don’t take the fifth spot in the rotation. The bullpen’s 3.91 ERA since the start of the 2019 season is the second best in the NL, fifth-best overall, and it has had to be with the paucity of runs and necessity of winning close games. Circumstances tested the bullpen in 2020, required contributions from Whitley and Seth Elledge, and primed the group to be a strength this season with a committee of closer candidates — especially if the offense can give them some relief.
10. What new rules, plot twists, and inevitable tests await?
In a sport defined by its daily grind and the personal, repetitious routines players adopt as a result, the past 12 months have taught the Cardinals a new truth in the time of pandemic: Things change. Adapt swiftly. It is not unusual for Major League Baseball to introduce rules during March — the wild card arrived during spring, catcher’s collision rules too — and this year could bring the universal DH or expanded playoffs, or not. Adjust accordingly.
The Cardinals start spring with a roster they think is flexible enough to handle whatever is thrown at it, but also ready to move if necessary to add someone who can throw for it.
This spring will be the entrance exam for the 162-game schedule baseball intends to play and the dedication to safety protocols required from players to make that happen. The best teams will be nimble. Be deep. Be ready to evolve. And be … wait for it … patient. The Cardinals have proven they can be that. They have idled two years for the outfield offense to rev, persisted longer than that in their pursuit of Arenado, and ownership has waited eight years since the last pennant, 10 since the last championship. They have invested more than money in 2021.
Time to see if all that patience pays off.