By Rob Rains
Perhaps the best accomplishment for the Cardinals and the rest of baseball during spring training was simply getting through the last six weeks.
When the players and staff arrived in Jupiter, Fla., in mid February, there was a major question about whether that could happen – or if COVID-19 would get in the way again as it did a year ago.
It was a spring unlike any other because of all the new rules and regulations and the health and safety protocols which had to be followed. There were rollover innings and pitchers being allowed to come out of a game if an inning went too long, then re-enter it the following inning.
Even if some of the changes weren’t popular, they turned out to be successful.
No games or workouts had to be canceled. A limited number of fans were allowed in the stands and got to watch games in person for the first time since spring training shut down in 2020. The questions that existed in February have been replaced by optimism of how a successful 162-game regular season can follow.
By the time the Cardinals pulled out of the parking lot in Jupiter on Monday heading for a flight to Cincinnati, the doubts had been replaced by positive vibes.
“Very, very, very pleased,” manager Mike Shildt said about the spring as a whole. “We got everything that we expected to get in, effectively. Our guys were ahead of camp and what I mean by that was when we introduced something they were already thinking about ‘What’s next, or how does this work?’ Engagement throughout the camp.
“Spring training can have its lulls but I didn’t think this camp had one day of lull. I didn’t think there was one day where guys weren’t there or weren’t engaged. It’s a really great trait for a team that has that kind of ability to lock in, especially in a spring training environment.
“It bodes well for the season. These guys are ready to go and compete. We put everything in that we can imagine they are going to see. They’ve executed it all well and now it’s time to go compete, which we are excited to do.”
Before the regular season begins, however, here’s one look back at the best, and worst, from the Cardinals’ last six weeks and what it could mean for the regular season:
Best spring, position player – Tyler O’Neill
The biggest doubt about the Cardinals offense, a question that has lingered for a couple of years, was still there as the spring began: What kind of offensive output can the team expect from its outfielders? O’Neill was coming off a disappointing 2020, but he rebounded with a strong spring – hitting .356, cutting down on his strikeouts and showing more ability to hit the ball to all fields, including a couple of opposite-field home runs, instead of being pull-happy. If that trend can continue in the regular season, some of those questions about the outfield’s offensive production might go away.
Best spring, pitcher – Adam Wainwright
Even if he gave up two runs in the first inning of his final start on Monday, Wainwright had an outstanding spring and is heading into the season pitching like he is 30 years old instead of 39. With questions about the health of two of the projected starters, Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim that could force them both to miss the first month, Wainwright needs to be just as effective in the regular season as he was in the spring. He says he feels better physically than he has in a decade, and he certainly pitched like that was true this spring.
Worst spring, position player – Matt Carpenter
Carpenter said his goal coming into the spring was to convince the Cardinals that their lineup was better with him in it. That didn’t happen as he had only one hit in 36 at-bats prior to his pinch-hit RBI single on Monday. To his credit Carpenter has handled his poor spring with a positive attitude and accepted his role as a bench player, with Shildt expressing the belief that Carpenter still can perform a vital and important role for the Cardinals this season. How Shildt keeps him motivated, and how he uses him, could be a key to Carpenter finding a way to contribute to the team’s success.
Worst spring, pitcher – Miles Mikolas
After missing the shortened 2020 season following surgery on the flexor tendon in his right arm, Mikolas was being counted on to make a healthy return to the starting rotation. Instead he had to be shut down after throwing only one session of live batting practice in February because of a sore shoulder. The Cardinals projections are that he should be back in late April or early May, but questions will remain until that actually happens.
Most pleasant surprise, position player – John Nogowski
Almost all of the projections coming into camp about who would win spots on the Cardinals bench did not include Nogowski, mainly because as a first baseman, he would be blocked by Paul Goldschmidt. All Nogowski did all spring was hit, however, as he forced his way onto the opening day roster. Despite logging a few innings in left field, Nogowski’s playing time in the regular season likely will be limited – but he will be counted on as a key pinch-hitter late in games, with the Cardinals hoping he can deliver the same kind of production he displayed in Florida.
Most pleasant surprise, pitcher – Tommy Parsons
From the first time he got into a game, in relief of Jack Flaherty in the spring training opener, Parsons opened eyes on the Cardinals staff and he kept getting more and more opportunities. Being charged with five runs in Sunday’s game against the Nationals blew up Parsons’ ERA, but his strong spring definitely put him on the team’s radar. As he settles into a spot in the Memphis starting rotation to begin the season, Parsons has made himself into a callup candidate should the need arise later this summer.
Most disappointing performance, position player – Harrison Bader
This was due, at least in part, because of an injury to his right forearm which will force Bader to likely miss at least the first month of the season. It was a problem that originally affected him throwing the ball, missing a week of games in early March, but then crept into his swing. Bader had just three hits in 28 spring at-bats, and as gifted as he is defensively, Bader is going to have to improve offensively if he wants to reclaim his starting spot in center field when he returns. Dylan Carlson moves from right to center, at least as the season begins and how well Carlson plays – offensively as well as defensively – could be a factor in what role Bader will have on the team when he is healthy again.
Most disappointing performance, pitcher – Kwang Hyun Kim
Even before back stiffness led to Kim missing about three weeks, his first two starts of the spring were not good – allowing eight runs in a combined three innings. He was better when he returned from the injury, two runs in two innings, as he begins to build back up and prepare to rejoin the starting rotation after missing what the Cardinals expect to be two or three starts. As is the case with Mikolas, Kim has to get healthy first – but the Cardinals really need him to pitch as he did in 2020, when he had a 1.42 ERA over seven starts, if they want their rotation to be one of the team’s strengths.
Best spring, position player who did not make opening day roster – Delvin Perez
What Perez, the former first-round pick who had kind off dropped out of sight, did this spring was make people notice him again – literally. Perez spent the canceled minor-league season in 2020 in the weight room and showed up in Florida this spring with a much different physical appearance. He had two hits this spring in seven at-bats, but they were a double and triple, and if he can use that new-found strength this year to become a better offensive player Perez could regain his status as one of the organization’s top prospects, which hasn’t been the case the last few years.
Best spring, pitcher who did not make opening day roster – Kodi Whitley
It’s hard to not make a roster when you don’t give up a run all spring, but that was what happened to Whitley, who had 10 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings covering eight appearances. He was the victim of the Cardinals decision to only carry 13 pitchers instead of 14, and he also lost the final spot to Jake Woodford because of the team’s desire to keep one reliever who could be a long man out of the bullpen. Whitley will be on the taxi squad to begin the season and should be the next reliever up in case of an injury or sub-par performance.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo of Tyler O’Neill by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports