By Rob Rains
As the Cardinals get set for the final days of their first, and hopefully only, summer camp at Busch Stadium, it’s time to draw some conclusions about the last three weeks and look ahead to the next two months.
There was a lot to like about how the Cardinals prepared for the shortened, delayed season and there also were some developments that were not as positive. Listed in random order, here are our top likes and dislikes from the camp:
Like: The fact baseball was being played again, even if it was just intra-squad games in an empty stadium. It had been more than 100 days since the Cardinals played their final spring training game on March 12 in Florida before they resumed workouts at Busch Stadium. Despite the challenges, despite the differences from a normal season, despite the risk, there were players on the field pitching, hitting and playing defense – all positive signs that there is hope for a coronavirus-free future.
Dislike: The fake crowd news. Admittedly I was prepared to dislike it and I did, for one basic reason that should be easy to understand – it sounds fake. First off, it’s not loud enough, at least at Busch Stadium. It might be OK for a game with only a few thousand fans in either St. Petersburg or Miami, but the 40,000-plus fans the Cardinals are used to would be making a lot more noise. The good news is that it probably won’t be as noticeable on television as it is in person at the stadium. The walkup songs, the organ, the PA announcements – those are all OK because they are part of the game. The fake noise is not. The players know it’s fake, and it isn’t going to motivate them the same as the noise does from a crowd in the stands.
Like: The Cardinals’ starting pitching. The most impressive pitcher in the camp might have been Austin Gomber, and he is probably eighth on the team’s depth chart of starters. Having either Carlos Martinez or Hyung Kwan Kim, Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon available to pitch three or four innings when the starter isn’t going more than five or six in their first couple of turns through the rotation could be a big advantage for the Cardinals. This team likely will go as far as its starting pitching and defense can carry it and that could be deep into October.
Dislike: All of the injuries and missing pitchers in the bullpen. The Cardinals knew John Brebbia was out for the year. They suspected it would be basically a lost year for Jordan Hicks, two big weapons they will be missing. They didn’t know Alex Reyes and Genesis Cabrera would test positive for COVID-19 and miss most of rhe camp. They didn’t know Giovanny Gallegos would not be able to leave Mexico until only a few days before Friday’s season opener. With Ryan Helsley, Tyler Webb, John Gant and Andrew Miller joining the piggyback starters, the Cardinals can match almost any staff from 1-12 and Kodi Whitley shows promise. It’s filling those final spots before Gallegos, Reyes and Cabrera are ready that will be a challenge.
Like: The strength of the infield. Especially on the days that Tommy Edman plays third with Matt Carpenter serving as the DH, the Cardinals’ infield will be as good defensively as any team in the league. Paul Goldschmidt and Kolten Wong have won Gold Gloves and Paul DeJong and Edman will be competing for one if not this year than in the near future. For a team that may have to win more games 2-1 and 3-2 than 10-9, being able to play clean error-free baseball will be an important factor in their success.
Dislike: The outfield that will start the season. There is not one certainty among any of the top four outfield options for the Cardinals offensively and as good a prospect as Dylan Carlson is, there also is no guarantee of how well he is going to perform once he joins the team. The hope is that Dexter Fowler and Harrison Bader will be better than they were a year ago. The hope is that either Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas grabs onto the left field spot and runs with it. The hope is that Carlson will play like a Rookie of the Year candidate in whatever spot he plays starting sometime in August. Can all of them do that, or who will succeed or fail? That might be the biggest question for the Cardinals going into the season – and how likely Mike Shildt and company will stay with a player even if he is struggling, especially if he is a veteran.
Like: The Cardinals DH options. Carpenter could very well be the choice on most days, but whoever isn’t in left field, Thomas or O’Neill, also will no doubt wind up starting there on occasion. Brad Miller, once he is healthy, will be used in the role, and having that spot available gives Shildt a chance to rest DeJong, Wong or Goldschmidt from playing the field on some days and still keep their bat in the lineup. As a National League purist at heart, I dislike the DH by nature. At least for this season, if you are a Cardinals fan, you should embrace it. It likely will be back to stay after 2022 anyway so it makes sense to start getting used to it.
Dislike: The fact Carlson likely will not be on the 30-man opening day roster. I get it, I understand the logic and why it makes sense from a business perspective – and six years from now I probably will be glad the Cardinals held him out for the first six days of this season to gain the extra year of contract control. All of that doesn’t mean I have to like it now. Carlson arguably already is the Cardinals best outfielder and deserves to be in the lineup on a regular basis and hopefully will be by early August. The hope is that the Cardinals don’t lose games in that first week that he would have helped them win, which could hurt their playoff chances by the end of September.
Like: The Cardinals organization’s young pitchers. They won’t be on the roster when the season starts, or might not even pitch in the majors at all this season, but there is a lot to like about the future of Zack Thompson, Johan Oviedo and Jake Woodford. Add in Matthew Liberatore, working out at the satellite camp in Springfield, and the Cardinals likely have as many good young pitching prospects as any team in baseball, even more if this year’s draft picks Masyn Winn and Tink Hence are included. The fact the team won’t have to rush them to the majors is another plus but all should arrive, and stick around for a long time, in the not too distant future.
Dislike: The adoption of the new extra-inning rule. This is even worse for a pure baseball fan than the fact the NL will have a DH. It messes with the integrity of the game. In the minor leagues it’s different because while wins still matter, they are not as important as winning or losing in the major leagues. A long extra-inning game in the minors can create havoc on a pitching staff. It is not that dramatic in the majors, especially when teams will be carrying extra pitchers either or the roster or taxi squad. If any argument can be made in favor of starting extra innings with a runner or second, it would be to wait to do that until at least the 12th inning, giving teams at least two innings to try to win the game the old-fashioned way. According to Baseball Reference, there were 370 games in the majors that went 10 or more innings in 2019. Of that total 258 were decided in the 10th or 11th innings, meaning only 112 went more than 11 innings – out of 2,429 games. Do the math and that works out to be 4.6 percent. Does baseball really need a rule like this for less than 5 percent of games, or an average per team of just seven games in a 162-game season?
Like: The possibility of Shildt again being the NL Manager of the Year. Two traits which Shildt already has displayed in his short tenure as a major-league manager likely are things he learned from all of his years in the minors – the ability to get the most out of his players, and get along well with his players. In a year where we all know and expect things to go wrong, or get sidetracked, the team that is able to stay together and fight through all of the unknown challenges likely will be the one that has the most success. For a lot of reasons, it would appear the Cardinals have a good chance of being that team.
Dislike: The chances for MLB to actually complete the regular season and postseason without interruption. The small number of positive tests for COVID-19 since summer camps began has been encouraging, but the season hasn’t started – and teams haven’t started traveling. It’s one thing for players to be diligent about their activities and staying safe when they are at home, it’s another when they are out of town staying in hotels. The likelihood is that there will be an increase in the number of positive tests after the season begins. How many it will take, either on one team or throughout baseball, to force even a temporary shutdown is just one of the unknowns facing the sport as the season begins.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports