I don’t know that there has ever been a winter I’m more relieved to see finally fading away.
It’s not because of the bitter cold, the low temperatures, or the large amounts of snowfall that I’m ready to put this winter behind me, but rather because of what the offseason has been like as a baseball fan.
Finally, I can turn on a baseball talk show and hear the hosts talking about something other than the free agent pursuits of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and everything that’s wrong with the current collective bargaining agreement. Machado signed a record free agent deal with the San Diego Padres last week and Harper remains unsigned.
So, there are occasionally still segments devoted to Harper and the teams linked to him or to Machado’s megadeal, but at least now that’s not all there is to talk about because Spring Training games are here at last.
The St. Louis Cardinals played their first game of the preseason Saturday, an 11-1 victory over the Miami Marlins. As of Tuesday morning, the Cardinals were 1-1-1 on the spring.
There are many questions around the Cardinals’ roster that the team will attempt to sort through in these exhibition games. Among the biggest questions are who will start in right field and who will make the starting rotation.
Dexter Fowler reportedly has dibs on the starting job in right field, barring a last ditch effort to sign Harper. However, assuming the Cardinals’ roster remains composed as it is, just how short will his leash be this year.
Fowler has posted a .198 batting average over his first two seasons with the Cardinals, in large part due to a .180 mark last season in 90 games.
In addition, the Cardinals signed the apparent backup plan to Fowler, Jose Martinez, to a two-year deal. The team would still have arbitration control over Martinez for another two years after that deal runs out.
Martinez, certainly on the roster for his bat rather than his glove, I think can do a lot less damage to the Cardinals defensively in the outfield than he can at first base. He was the team’s batting leader last season with a .305 batting average in 152 games. Martinez also connected for 17 home runs and 83 runs batted in, though the bulk of those numbers came in the first half of the season.
When it comes to the starting rotation, the Cardinals are spoiled for choice. Miles Mikolas established himself as the ace of the staff last season and he’ll be backed by some combination of Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes and John Gant. Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber and Dakota Hudson could all see starts at times this year as well and could have an outside chance of getting into the rotation sooner rather than later.
Carlos Martinez has been shut down at the start of spring due to concerns about the wear and tear on his shoulder. The righty, also known as Tsunami, I think actually makes a great candidate to spend the year out in the bullpen — potentially as the closer.
Working out of the bullpen would allow Carlos Martinez better opportunities to rest his arm and still contribute to the team in a big way. Right now the Cardinals have young fireballer Jordan Hicks and lefty free agent signing Andrew Miller earmarked for use in the later innings, but a whole lot of question marks filling out the rest of the bullpen. Let us not forget that Martinez was also a key cog in the bullpen as the set-up man during the Cardinals run to the 2013 World Series and he took on the late-inning roles again at the end of last season.
If not Carlos Martinez though, the next candidate to go into the bullpen rather than the rotation would likely be Reyes. Considered the Cardinals top prospect for the last couple of seasons, Reyes has struggled to remain on the field due to both injuries and a PED (performance-enhancing drug) suspension.
Wainwright also has experience in the bullpen during his rookie season as the closer for the Cardinals during the team’s 2006 championship season. If “Uncle Charlie,” a pseudonym for the curveball that Wainwright uses as his Twitter handle, gets outpaced by the young guns in the spring and can’t win a spot in the rotation, he could finish up his career back where he started — in the pen.
Wacha isn’t without question marks about his suitability to remain a starter all season either. Wacha started just 15 games last season and has seemed to find himself struggling to stay off the disabled list too often six major league seasons to date.
Gant was a solid option for the Cardinals over 19 big league starts last season with a 7-6 record and a 3.47 earned run average. Expect Gant to at least be on the major league roster to start the 2019 season, even if he isn’t in the rotation, because the team is out of options to send him back to the minor leagues without clearing waivers first. Gant would almost definitely be scooped up by another team if the Cardinals chose not to keep him on the initial 25-man roster.
Gomber and Poncedeleon both showed flashes of brilliance as they flirted with no-hitters in Cincinnati last July during their big league debuts on back-to-back nights. It’s likely they’ll both see some time in the minor leagues this year depending on whether they start the year in the bullpen and how integral a part of the relief staff they become if they do. They both may see more of the shuffle down Interstate 55 from St. Louis to Memphis this season, if for no other reason than to get stretched out for a starting appearance after a stint in the bullpen.
After last year and the Greg Holland signing right before opening day, we certainly can’t rule out the Cardinals being active in free agency again at the last minute. I would like to have seen the team add one more veteran presence to that bullpen this offseason, maybe even somebody not many other teams were looking at. However, the further we get into spring, the less appealing the option of adding players who haven’t been working out with the team seems to me.
As we saw with Holland, spring training isn’t just there for the sake of being there. It genuinely affects the readiness of players coming into the games that count. Holland missed all of spring training and got a few weeks in the minor leagues before joining the Cardinals after he signed his one-year, $14 million contract at the 11th hour last spring. We all remember how disappointing that deal turned out to be as Holland struggled early on and could not recover from his early-season woes, prompting multiple trips on the disabled list that may have had more to do with performing maintenance on his pitching mechanics than with healing physical ailments.
The Cardinals ended up releasing Holland in July and he finished the year with the Washington Nationals. Holland ended up with a 0.84 ERA for the Nationals in 21.1 innings, just twisting the knife that much further.
I guess the moral of that story is to make additions to the team through free agency sooner rather than later if you’re going to do so. If not, let’s enjoy figuring out how this team is going to look like with the pieces it already has when the Cardinals begin the regular season at Milwaukee on March 28.