By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Ten thoughts after the Cardinals first 10 games this spring:
- Nolan Arenado is really fun to watch.
Pitchers are already raving about some of the plays that Arenado has made, and that volume is only going to increase as the season moves along. With no disrespect to Tommy Edman, who played excellent defense at third last season, the Cardinals have not had a player at the position who was even close to Arenado since Scott Rolen and Rolen might even fall a notch below Arenado. There has been no signs of the shoulder issues that affected Arenado last season. One aspect of Arenado’s defense which probably has not received as much attention as it should is that because of his range, Paul DeJong will be able to cheat a step or two to his left, closer to second base, perhaps being able to take away a few potential hits up the middle.
- The combination of Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks in the back end of the bullpen is going to be filthy.
Reyes has been the best pitcher in the Cardinals camp this spring, and after one B game appearance lasting 11 pitches, Hicks isn’t far behind him. The temptation is to say that Reyes has been good enough that he should begin the year in the rotation, but the Cardinals are doing the smart thing in trying to build him back up after pitching very little because of injuries the last four years. Hicks is showing how hard he worked during his rehab from Tommy John surgery and his year away from the team because of coronavirus concerns. His return benefits Reyes and every other pitcher in the Cardinals bullpen. There might not be a better 1-2 bullpen tandem in the NL this season.
- Harrison Bader should not be guaranteed a spot in the starting lineup ahead of Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas.
O’Neill has started the spring hitting well (two homers, 8 RBIs, .389 average) to go along with his Gold Glove defense in left field. Thomas, one of the players most affected by COVID-19 last year, also is off to a solid start, taking advantage of extra playing time because of Bader’s slight arm injury. Bader is going to get the bulk of the playing time in center the remainder of the spring, but if he doesn’t out-hit O’Neill or Thomas, he should not automatically be the starting center fielder. On a team looking to upgrade offensively, Thomas presents more of a threat than Bader and probably is only a slight tick behind him on defense. It should be a simple decision – if Bader hits, he plays. If he doesn’t, Thomas deserves a chance.
- Adam Wainwright is joining Yadier Molina in defying Father Time.
If Reyes has been the Cardinals best pitcher this spring, the 39-year-old Wainwright isn’t far behind. If he stays healthy and remains as effective in the regular season as he has been so far this spring, (3 games, 9 innings, 1 unearned run, 2 hits) Wainwright could become the first Cardinals pitcher to start 15 or more games in a season at the age of 39 or older since Murry Dickson, also 39, made 27 starts in 1956. Three pitchers since have started 14 games at age 39 or older since then – Chuck Finley in 2002, Jim Kaat (when he was 41) in 1980 and Bob Gibson in his final season in 1975.
- Matt Carpenter is the team’s biggest dilemma.
Carpenter has looked fine at second base, but if Edman, O’Neill and Thomas are all playing well, then there really is no spot left for Carpenter to play. He came into the spring focused on proving that he could play second and hit well enough for the Cardinals to decide they needed him in the lineup. The second part of that equation has been the problem. Even though spring statistics can be misleading, Carpenter still looks to be in the same offensive slump from the last two years, (0-of-15, 7 strikeouts) which is perhaps going to force the Cardinals into having to make a tough decision. They got out of their Dexter Fowler problem by paying the Angels to take him off their hands, but figuring out what to do with Carpenter might not be so easy.
- Tommy Parsons will pitch in the major leagues, perhaps this season.
In camp on a non-roster basis, Parsons signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted senior from Division III Adrian College (Mich.) in 2018 after a career when he had more wins (40) than walks allowed (36). By 2019 he was a starter in Double A and even after missing last season, when he was not invited to be part of the alternate camp, Parsons is still throwing strikes this spring. In four appearances covering 6 1/3 innings, he has allowed two hits, one unearned run and has seven strikeouts. Because of those outings, he has caught the attention of manager Mike Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux. A good start in the minors will put him in line for a promotion to the majors should the need arise.
- Tommy Edman will be fine as the leadoff hitter and second baseman.
Edman had two challenges this spring – proving he could replace Kolten Wong as the leadoff hitter and as the second baseman, where Wong won the last two Gold Gloves. He has been fine in both roles, going 7-of-17 (.412) in seven games as the leadoff hitter and playing the same above-average defense that he played at third base last season. Once he and DeJong log enough innings to feel comfortable with each other in the middle of the infield, the Cardinals likely will have the best defensive infield in the league. In the leadoff spot, Edman just needs to get on base in front of Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado. It would be helpful if he will start drawing more walks – he had only one through his first 18 plate appearances this spring.
- The team will have to make tough roster decisions on Edmundo Sosa and Justin Williams because of options issues.
Sosa had the early lead on making the roster as the backup infielder coming into camp because he was out of options, but the way non-roster infielder Jose Rondon has hit (a home run and two triples) has put some heat on Sosa, who is hitless in nine at-bats. If Rondon outplays Sosa, he should win the job, even if it means risking losing Sosa to another team. As for Williams, he would probably only make the team if the Cardinas carry five outfielders, which seems doubtful at the moment. The issue with him as well, however, is that he might be out of options. The Cardinals are awaiting a ruling from MLB about how it will handle options for last year’s shortened season and hope that Williams is granted an extra option.
- Delvin Perez looks like a totally different player and will be intriguing to watch during the minor leaguer season.
Perhaps no player in camp changed his physical appearance more in a year than Perez, the former skinny first-round pick who has struggled offensively since joining the organization in 2016. Now 22, Perez used the canceled minor-league season in 2020 to dedicate himself in the weight room, and the change is noticeable. Perez has always been a very good defensive shortstop and if his added strength can improve his offense, he might finally start to fulfil the potential he showed in high school in Puerto Rico before the draft. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinals challenge him with a promotion to Double A Springfield to start the season.
- The Cardinals starting rotation in 2023 is going to be terrific.
Assuming there are no health issues or other reasons affecting someone in this group, the Cardinals’ five starters just two years from now could be Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes, Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson and Dakota Hudson – a group that could stay together for years. The oldest of the five would be Hudson and Reyes, both 28. Flaherty would be 27, Thompson 25 and Liberatore 23.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo of Nolan Arenado by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports