By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – A day that Won-Bin Cho had dreamed about for years arrived on Monday as he put on uniform number 52 and completed his first day of practice as a member of the Cardinals.
The 18-year-old outfielder was signed by the Cardinals as an international free agent in January after moving from South Korea to Atlanta last September.
He was one of 153 players who took part in the opening day of the Cardinals’ minor-league camp, a day which ended a little earlier than planned because of off-and-on rain showers in the area.
Cho was not made available for interviews by the team but his agent, Han Lee, also was present for the workout and talked with Cho afterward.
“The day was exciting for him,” Lee said. “He was bummed that the day was cut short due to rain. He had some small nerves last night but went to bed at a reasonable hour. He studies English at night so he’s able to wind down pretty easily.”
It was a big day for Lee too, who said he felt like a proud parent.
“It kind of feels like sending your kid off to school, although I don’t have any children yet so I don’t know what that feels like,” Lee said. “He was very excited, anxious, nervous at the same time.
“We spent a lot of time together prior to him reporting to camp. It’s exciting, but I don’t want to make it into anything bigger than what it is.”
Other news and notes from the camp’s opening day:
* Cho was one of seven 18-year-old players in the Cardinals camp, for a day. That group will drop to six on Tuesday when outfielder Felix Taveras, who played in the Dominican Summer League last year, turns 19.
The other 18-year-olds are catcher Leo Bernal, the youngest of the group having turned 18 on Feb. 13; outfielders Luis Pino and Joshua Baez, shortstop Adari Grant and right-handed pitcher Ettore Giulianelli.
Monday also was the first day of spring training for Baez, drafted in the second round last summer, and Pino, signed as an international free agent. The group represents an international mix. Bernal is from Panama; Baez lives in Boston but spent many years in the Dominican Republic as a youth; Pino is from Cuba, Grant from the Bahamas and Giulianelli from Italy.
* Left-hander Matthew Liberatore, the top-ranked pitching prospect in the organization, was happy to be back on the field but he is more looking forward to Wednesday, when he will throw his first live batting practice.
That’s when he will get his first chance to show how much he’s learned since last spring, following a full season at Triple A Memphis.
It was a year that started slowly as he made the jump up from Class A but got better as it went along.
“I think I learned a lot about myself last year,” Liberatore said. “I faced a good amount of failure in the first half of the season. I got hit around a little bit so I figured out how to deal with that a little bit and I also figured out what I needed to work on to compete at that level.
“It was encouraging to me to be able to kind of figure that out during the season and make the adjustments necessary to have a completely different second half.”
Liberatore continued to work on those adjustments over the winter at home in Arizona.
“It was just a few mechanical adjustments, nothing major,” Liberatore said. “I was looking for the next best thing and maybe took a step in the wrong direction, somewhere where I didn’t feel comfortable so I just kind of went back to my roots.
“It was like turning the light switch on again. It was always there, I just had to pull it back out.”
Liberatore said the difference came when he got behind 2-0 in the count, having in the past being able to throw a fastball past the hitter for a strike. That didn’t always happen last year.
“It was a learning curve in the sense that I had to make better pitches when I was behind in the count and needed to get myself ahead in the count more often than not,” he said. “I did a better job of that in the second half and the results showed.”
In 12 games between the start of the season in May and July, Liberatore allowed 41 runs in 67 innings. In games from August through October, he gave up 25 runs in 56 innings.
“Last spring prior to me kind of getting that eye-opening that I did at the beginning of the season I felt very confident and I had pretty good success in spring training,” he said. “I think I feel differently now about myself than I ever have before because I’ve been battle-tested and I faced the failure last year and I know I can handle it at any level.”
One of his teammates who saw Liberatore improve over the second half of the season was Nolan Gorman, his childhood friend who was promoted from Springfield in the middle of the year.
“He’s super smart in what he does,” Gorman said. “He’s always studying his pitching and what he can do to get better each day. I think off the field is huge for him to kind of let go and get to the field and focus on it more there. I think last year he did a good job of kind of separating himself from the ball field when he got home.”
* Another of the Cardinals’ top prospects, Jordan Walker, said he expects to get some reps at both first base and in the outfield this spring and during the season, although the bulk of his playing time will likely still be at third base.
* The Cardinals will continue their daily workouts until games are scheduled to begin on March 17.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains