By Rob Rains
All of the dozens of Cardinals’ players and coaches who already have begun arriving in Jupiter, Fla., in advance of the official start of spring training next week have a story to tell.
The story of what will happen to the Cardinals this season, however, could well be determined by what happens with 10 people out of that larger group. Here is our annual pre-spring training list of the 10 most important Cardinals to watch during the next six weeks, presented in alphabetical order:
Jeff Albert – The new hitting coach has been tasked with improving the Cardinals’ offense, and how well he can incorporate his philosophy of controlling the strike zone and not having hitters swing and miss balls outside the zone will be critical to the team’s success. Albert has a lot of people to work with as he blends analytics with a traditional coaching approach but a key might be to watch the influence he can have with young hitters such as Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill. Other hitters, such as Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong, also have expressed how much they look forward to working with Albert, and one of the coach’s biggest supporters has been Matt Carpenter.
Genesis Cabrera – The Cardinals are really curious to see what they have in Cabrera, a 22-year-old left-handed pitcher coming off a dominating performance as a reliever this winter in the Dominican Republic. Cabrera joined the Cardinals’ system last July after being acquired in the trade that sent Tommy Pham to Tampa and made just six appearances before the end of the season. He can throw 100 miles an hour but had a history of wildness as a starter before he moved to a relief role this winter. It will be noteworthy how hard he pushes the other left-handed relievers this spring even if he doesn’t end up making the big-league team to open the season.
Brett Cecil – This could be a make or break spring for Cecil, whose first two years with the Cardinals have been a major bust. He now has just two years left on his contract and will have to prove that the weight he reportedly lost this winter will allow him to report to camp in better shape and allow him to stay on the field. There probably is only one spot available for a second left-hander in the bullpen behind Andrew Miller, which means Cecil should have to out-pitch Cabrera, Chasen Shreve, Tyler Webb and possibly Austin Gomber – if the Cardinals decide to make him a reliever – if he wants to win that spot.
Dexter Fowler – He might be the most polarizing figure on the Cardinals’ roster to fans who hoped the team’s starting right fielder this year, and for years to come, would have been Bryce Harper. There is no debate about how horrible a season Fowler had in 2018 but the Cardinals’ front office stuck behind him and Fowler says he is motivated to show that the faith is justified, even though the biggest reason likely is how much money is left on the remaining three years of his contract. The unanswered question is what happens if Fowler has a poor spring, and how long the team will give him before turning the bulk of playing time in right field over to Jose Martinez or Tyler O’Neill.
Paul Goldschmidt – Goldschmidt’s track record is not in question so there really isn’t anything he has to do this spring to impress his new teammates. What will be important to watch this spring, however, is how Goldschmidt seems to like his new team and surroundings. He isn’t likely to make a decision in the next six weeks on his long-term future and whether he will sign an extension before he can become a free agent but this is the start of the learning curve which could lead to that decision later this summer.
Carlos Martinez – The first thing the Cardinals want to see from Martinez this spring is that he is healthy and free of the injuries which curtailed his 2018 season. Next, they want to see a renewed focus proving that he wants to stay in the rotation. There were questions about his focus last year, as there have been in the past. It seemed to improve when he was moved to the bullpen and that remains as an option for this year as well if the issue is still there this spring. There are some people who think Martinez is the Cardinals’ best closer option and that it also is the best fit for him. Time will tell.
Tyler O’Neill – Unless there is a move or an injury that frees up a roster spot, O’Neill appears to be heading to camp without a major-league job to start the season. That all could change over the next six weeks, however, and what O’Neill needs to do is stay healthy, show he can cut down on his strikeouts and still produce the same or better power than he displayed a year ago. That could force the Cardinals into making a trade that would open up a spot and change the makeup of the four-man bench which as camp opens appears to be set with Jose Martinez, Jedd Gyorko, Yairo Munoz and Francisco Pena.
Marcell Ozuna – The question Ozuna will have to answer with his performance this spring is how is his surgically-repaired right shoulder? He suffered through an injury all of last season, affecting his throwing more than his offense, and the unknown is how well he has recovered since most of his off-season rehab was done away from the Jupiter complex and Cardinals’ supervision. The Cardinals will be more concerned with Ozuna reaching 100 percent health before the start of the regular season instead of March 1, but he has to be able to play enough to get his timing down and be ready to go at the end of the spring.
Alex Reyes – There probably is nobody Cardinals fans will be rooting for to succeed more this spring than Reyes because of how much he has had to go through the last two seasons. Reyes is still regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball even though he has logged only four innings at the major league level since 2016 because of Tommy John surgery and a torn lat muscle. The Cardinals will wait to see how Reyes is performing and feeling before deciding whether to use him as a starter or reliever this season, and in either case their whole goal in 2019 is to get him through the full season without more injury problems.
Mike Shildt – Even though he took over as the Cardinals manager in the middle of last season, there is a difference when a manager is in charge of a team from the first day of spring training, which is where Shildt finds himself this year. He knows most of the players and they know him, which should make the transition easier, but it bears watching to see what kind of camp Shildt runs and how he stresses the fundamental work which has appeared lacking in the past. It’s likely the camp will be fast-paced, positive and designed to have everybody ready to play when the regular season opens on March 28 in Milwaukee.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains