By Rob Rains
Saying that Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn are a little excited about finally being able to make their professional baseball debuts is probably a major understatement.
The two teenagers were the Cardinals’ top selections in the amateur draft last summer, but because of the pandemic shutting down minor-league baseball, their debuts were put on hold.
That delay will end on Tuesday night when the two will take the field as teammates on the Class A Palm Beach Cardinals.
“I honestly can’t wait man,” Winn said. “Me and my mom have been talking about this since I was six years old. I’m about to have my pro debut. That’s crazy, that’s wild.”
Walker used the same word – crazy.
“I’ve never gone this long without playing a game that counted,” he said. “It’s definitely exciting. I know there will be butterflies, but the excitement is just more that the waiting is almost over. It’s a dream coming true.”
Part of the reason why both Walker and Winn are so eager for that first game is how long it has been since either played a game that actually counted.
Walker’s last game came last March for his high school team in Georgia. He remembers having “a pretty good game, got a couple of hits,” but no other details were etched in his memory because at the time his season was interrupted he didn’t know that it would turn out to be his final game.
Winn’s wait seems almost longer because he was only able to play one game as a senior in high school in Houston, 14 months ago. That was the only game he has played since a tournament in Florida in October 2019.
Luckily both players were among the minor-leaguers invited to be part of the Cardinals alternate site camp last summer, designed primarily to have players ready to fill in if necessary at the big-league level. There also were slots available, however, to give young players like Walker and Winn a chance to not miss an entire year playing baseball.
Both immediately saw the benefits of the work and instruction they received at the camp, although it took longer for Winn to get that experience after he tested positive for COVID-19 when he first got to Springfield.
“Usually it’s a 14-day quarantine but with the MLB protocols that made you go until you tested negative twice in a row it took me until day 23 to test negative twice in a row,” Winn said. “It was rough.”
But when Winn finally got on the field, he like Walker, found himself under the daily tutelage of instructor Jose Oquendo. While both, like all minor leaguers, missed a year of not playing actual games, they believe that was off-set by receiving a different level of education.
“I think sending Jordan and me there definitely put us a step up,” Winn said. “I feel like just the instruction, being in a pro environment, being around the older guys, a lot of Double A and Triple A guys, it was very beneficial.
“Honestly as far as experience-wise being around those guys, and being able to be a sponge and soak up the knowledge, that was really beneficial.”
A lot of that knowledge came from Oquendo as he worked with Walker, primarily a third baseman, and Winn, a two-way player but who is expected to mostly play shortstop in the early part of his pro career. There is a plan in place, but not attached to a specific timetable, of when Winn also will begin to get in some work on the mound.
“Masyn is going to start out as a shortstop to let him get some experience doing that first and have the opportunity to get some at-bats,” said Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development. “Then we will explore how to move forward with an opportunity on the mound.”
No matter what position either Walker or Winn is playing, the time spent with Oquendo last summer was invaluable to both.
“What a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of those months and being around Oquendo the whole time,” LaRocque said. “Clearly a minor-league season would have been great from the standpoint of the number of days, the workload that goes into it, playing those games. But not having that, the next best option was what they did at the alternate site … A lot of good preparation went on.”
The lessons both Walker and Winn learned were physical as well as mental.
“Masyn and I got to see Double A and Triple A pitchers that we wouldn’t have seen right out of the gate on a regular year,” Walker said. “That’s the benefit we got, to see what we need to work on to hit that type of pitching. It really is nice to already know what your goal needs to be and what you need to work on a few years in advance to be able to move up through the system.
“We got to learn from the older guys. Nolan Gorman plays the same position, and I got to see him play up close and see how he carries himself and his attitude toward the game, to become more professional and act like I’ve been there before. I got to see what I can do to get there.”
The biggest takeaway from last summer for Winn was all of the time and work he put in under Oquendo’s watchful eye.
“I had great coaches growing up and in high school but Oquendo, listening to that dude talk, man,” he said. “Taking ground balls, working with the best, that was mind-blowing to me. I could 100 percent see improvement. I thought I was good defender coming in, but now I am more consistent – just little things like with my footwork – to help make accurate throws. It’s the little things that add up in the long run.”
Walker soaked up some of the intangible lessons as well, thanks to Oquendo’s teaching.
“My baseball IQ is going up and I am more aware of what is going on on the field,” he said. “Just how to think about aspects of the game that I probably hadn’t thought of before. Like in high school, if there was a rundown at third base, I would run the guy down but probably forget about the guy who was at first base going to second. Now I’m more aware of what is going on around me.”
Being together in Springfield also gave Walker, who will turn 19 in May, and Winn, who celebrated his 19th birthday in March, time to develop a friendship that saw them quickly bond together, much as Winn had done when he played summer ball with Tink Hence, a high school pitcher from Arkansas who was the Cardinals’ third pick in the 2020 draft.
“When we met it was weird,” Winn said of his relationship with Walker. “It was kind of like me and Tink, who is one of my best friends. I’m a real friendly person and get along with pretty much everybody. Jordan is 6-foot-5 but he’s just a big teddy bear. Now it’s like he’s one of my brothers. We have a lot of fun.
“The biggest thing for me, I tell everybody, ‘You’re going to like playing with me bro because I like to have fun.’ He’s out there relaxing, smiling, just playing ball. It’s great.”
Finally being able to do that in a game that counts, and then do it again on a daily basis for the next five months, is something both Walker and Winn are excited about.
“Playing six days a week, nine-inning games, it’s pretty exciting,” Walker said. “Just to get back to playing again … I’m really looking forward to it.”
Added Winn, “COVID ruined everybody’s year, but I’m glad we can get it (our careers) started now. I think this is going to be a really fun year.”
LaRocque is almost as excited as both Walker and Winn to finally see them on the field in a true competitive, game setting.
“They’ve done well,” he said. “It’s going to be fun to watch their progress during the summer.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos of Walker and Winn courtesy of Springfield Cardinals and St. Louis Cardinals