By Rob Rains
One of the goals for any young prospect in baseball is almost always to try to find a way to get added to the 40-man roster as soon as possible.
This year might be the one exception to that quest.
If Nolan Gorman, Jordan Walker, Matthew Liberatore and other minor-leaguers were on the 40-man roster, they would not be allowed inside the Cardinals spring training complex in Jupiter, Fla., because of the ongoing lockout.
But there they were last week, along with other minor leaguers, already getting instruction from the coaching staff and preparing for the start of their season, unincumbered by the squabbles between the owners and the major-league players association as they try to reach a new labor agreement.
Gorman, expected to make his major-league debut at some point early this season, is able to get more fielding instruction from Jose Oquendo. Liberatore, the organization’s top pitching prospect, can throw in front of coaches while Walker, after his successful pro debut last year, prepares for a season that could land him in Double A before his 20th birthday in late May.
“There’s quite a few guys (here) and there’s more coming in this week for sure and even more the week after,” Gorman said. “By then minor league camp will be starting (officially).”
The stalled talks between the owners and players kept the Cardinals and other teams from opening their major-league spring camp as scheduled this week. The next deadline is the scheduled start of spring training games on Feb. 26, followed by the March 31 opener for the regular season. Unless the negotiations ramp up quickly, the two sides would appear to be running out of having enough time, even with a shortened spring, to begin the regular season on time.
Gorman and Liberatore were among the players scheduled to be in that camp, on a non-roster basis, and still could be there, depending on when that happens.
Being in that camp, as he was the last two years, would have provided Gorman with a chance to impress the major-league staff as he tries to win a spot on the major-league roster, to soak up knowledge and information from big leaguers and to become more comfortable in a big-league environment. Not being there will be a disappointment for Gorman, but getting at-bats, even in the minor-league camp, will be better for him than sitting at home waiting for a new labor agreement.
When the new deal is official will determine how long spring training will last, with the goal for both the owners and players to miss as few regular-season games as possible.
A shortened spring, while likely costing Gorman at-bats and Liberatore innings, could be more important for several other players – and one new coach – who will be in the Cardinals camp.
Here is a rundown of the challenges each will be facing with fewer games:
Jordan Hicks – There has not been an official determination of the Cardinals’ plan for Hicks, who has missed most of the last two years in his comeback from Tommy John surgery. Will he be a starter? Will he go back to the bullpen? Is he healthy? Those are all questions the Cardinals need to answer, and that will only come by seeing him pitch. Stretching him out to potentially start, however, likely won’t happen in a shortened spring when innings will be at a premium and the focus has to be on getting the projected rotation enough work to be ready when the season begins.
Alex Reyes – A decision also will have to be made about the role the Cardinals want Reyes to fill this season. He is probably more likely to be stretched out as a starter than Hicks, but with the five spots in the rotation already spoken for, it might be better for the Cardinals to keep Reyes in the bullpen for now. One scenario could be to develop him as a pitcher who could throw three innings or so and become a bridge between the starters and the bullpen, especially early in the season.
Dakota Hudson – Hudson was back pitching by the end of last season following his Tommy John surgery, but not really on a starter’s workload. By all accounts he was able to have a normal offseason, but until Hudson gets on the mound this spring and starts to get stretched out, the Cardinals won’t really know how long it will take him to be ready to carry a starter’s normal workload.
Paul DeJong – Likely the biggest X factor the Cardinals offense this season, DeJong also could be the player the most affected by a shortened spring – positively or negatively. If he gets off to a quick start, the team will feel better about his chances to bounce back after a couple of rough seasons. A slow start, without more games to get out of it in the spring, however, could have the opposite effect and raise more doubts about what to expect from DeJong in the regular season.
Brendan Donovan – In a normal-length spring training, Donovan could have expected to get a lot of work in his first big-league camp. His versatility to play all four infield spots and the outfield would have allowed him to get in the lineup on almost a daily basis. Now, however, it’s likely the regulars will want to play more to get in the number of at-bats they believe they need to be ready to start the season. Donovan will try to take advantage of the chances he does get to show he is ready to fill that final roster spot.
Zack Thompson— It was a rough transition to Triple A for Thompson in 2021, but he rebounded with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League. Thompson was used out of the bullpen in the fall, and it will be interesting to see what the Cardinals’ plan will be for him going forward. There figures to be good competition for the final spot in the bullpen, and having another lefthander to go along with Genesis Cabrera and T.J. McFarland might be intriguing.
Aaron Brooks – A newcomer to the Cardinals, the right-handed Brooks was signed as a minor-league free agent after pitching in Korea. Brooks, 31, has big-league experience with the Royals, Oakland and Baltimore as both a starter and reliever. Because he signed a minor-league deal, Brooks is allowed to be in the spring camp, which if he pitches well, could give him an edge in the battle for a middle reliever spot in the bullpen.
Turner Ward – Ward was hired as the assistant hitting coach but the lockout has prevented him from starting to build a relationship with the players he will be working with. Ward does have a history with Paul Goldschmidt from their time together in the Diamondbacks organization but he will be starting from scratch with everyone else. Ward will be in a tougher spot than the Cardinals’ other new coach, Skip Schumaker, who is close with most of the veterans on the team.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains