Tuesday marked my annual arrival in St. Louis Cardinals instructional league camp, a visit I make between the end of the regular minor league season and the Arizona Fall League.
The weather was – what else? – hot and swelteringly humid, with temps in the upper 80’s. At least the always-threatening rain stayed away until the players’ day was done. But by 3:00 p.m., thunder, lightning and heavy rains moved into the area.
Camp has already been underway since the first official arrivals, the pitchers, on September 15. Noon games began on Saturday the 24th, with the final contests of camp to be played on Thursday, October 6. (For further details on camp structure, duration and full roster, click here.)
Though this will soon be less of a problem with the planned spring 2017 opening of the Astros and Marlins complex in nearby West Palm Beach, currently the Mets and Marlins are the only teams in the area. That means the one odd team out each day has a camp day in which their hitters face their own pitchers. In fact, almost half of the 13 days of action for the Cardinals this fall are camp days.
During my stay, Tuesday is a camp day with a road game at the Mets on tap for Wednesday. The original schedule indicates Thursday is a camp day, but I was told by at least one coach that the Marlins will be the opponent. One must remain flexible.
With 40 players in camp, the coaches decide which players will be active for the games against external opponents. There are not enough others remaining to have a game those days. Only on camp days are two Cardinals teams active.
Tuesday’s news follows.
Who is in charge?
Especially because of the camp days, but also to ease instruction, the players are split into two groups. Manager Roberto Espinoza leads the Red squad and the White team is under skipper Cody Gabella.
During the regular season, Gabella was the hitting coach for the title-winning Gulf Coast League Cardinals while Espinoza was his counterpart for the Appalachian League champions. Among the many other staffers assisting are Chris Swauger, Darwin Marrero, Paul Davis and Oliver Marmol.
Leading camp is minor league field coordinator Mark DeJohn, assisted by hitting coordinator George Greer, pitching coordinator Tim Leveque and infield coordinator Ron “Pop” Warner.
Photo: DeJohn (center right) addressing players.
Willie is back
Special Assistant to the General Manager Willie McGee is again in uniform and working with the youngsters on baserunning. It is always great to see the Cardinals Hall of Famer, who doesn’t miss anything. For example, Willie mentioned right away this was my first day in camp.
Oquendo on his feet
After missing the season with St. Louis due to the need to have his right knee replaced, former Cardinals third base coach and infield expert Jose Oquendo is working with the players in instructs as well. This may be a transition into a future prospect-oriented role for Oquendo, a beloved and highly-respected teacher.
Though he walks with a slight limp, Oquendo told me he is fine and the evidence would seem to support that. He not only conducted drills with the first basemen in the morning, he spent the entire afternoon game on his feet, positioned behind the shortstop, offering real-time direction to Delvin Perez, Jose Martinez and the other infielders.
Perez and Oquendo are in this photo.
Arozarena and Machado attending
Not listed on the initial roster provided by the Cardinals is the 41st player invited to camp, one of the organization’s most recent signees, Randy Arozarena. The 21-year-old, who was listed as a shortstop-outfielder before signing, is working out exclusively with the latter group in camp after signing for a reported $1.25 million last month.
Watching Arozarena take batting practice, I was impressed. He almost hit one out of the park in a coach toss and his last two swings, he laced hard liners down into the left-, then right-field corners as if on demand.
Where Arozarena is stout, Jonatan Machado is a bit smaller and more slender with a ready smile on his face. The Cards’ top international signee this year at a reported $2.3 million looked very comfortable defensively in center field, but did not show the same pop as Arozarena during batting practice - on this day, at least.
In the photo, Arozarena is in the cage with Machado outside.
Though he is listed on Red roster, rehabbing outfielder Nick Plummer was not among the players working out in drills. The Cardinals’ first-rounder in 2015 is recovering from a second surgery relating to the hamate bone in his hand.
However, shortstop Edmundo Sosa, who closed the season on Palm Beach’s disabled list, seemed to be handling fielding and baserunning drills as normal.
Here are the Red and White teams.
They really mean far more in organizing drills than in games. For example, as you will see below, all three pitchers in Tuesday’s action are on the Red squad.
|De La Cruz||Farinaro|
Scouts more prevalent
For morning workouts, Cardinals players are wearing identical blue shirts with no name or number identification. During games, their red jerseys are used, which include names and numbers. Caps are the red “bird on the bat” logoed cap (also like MLB spring training).
Whether the following is connected or coincidental, I do not know. However, I counted at least 10 opposing scouts watching Tuesday’s game. That is more than I remember being around previously.
Field 1 facelift
Field 1, which is the back field closest to the clubhouse and often used by the major league team in the spring, is undergoing renovation. The entire outfield grass is gone, with just a rock base (likely for drainage) currently in place.
Tuesday’s game was on Field 2, one of the four in the George Kissell Quad.
Bullpens and available pitchers
New York-Penn League wins leader Steven Farinaro and Palm Beach pitcher Derian Gonzalez threw bullpen sessions during the late morning.
As it turned out, only three pitchers were available for game action on Tuesday. All are starters in Sandy Alcantara, Junior Fernandez and Jake Woodford. More on their outings coming.
The lineups and pitching plans
It was an unusual day, starting with the lineups. In a reminder how fluid instructs are, outfielder Vince Jackson was listed on both the White and Red lineup cards. The State College star was scratched as the Red designated hitter, playing right field for the White team instead.
Though Machado was not on the original White lineup card, he batted before Arozarena each time so I inserted him in as EH, for extra hitter.
Alcantara appeared first, pitching the tops of the first, second and third innings, facing the White team hitters. Fernandez tossed the bottom half of the same frames, against the Red offense.
In the fourth and final inning, things got really interesting when Woodford pitched both the top and bottom halves. There was a delay in between for him to take a breather.
The focus of the day was situational pitching and baserunning. Every inning began with a runner on first base and two outs or a runner at third base and one out. Because these situations were contrived, run scoring certainly did not occur in a traditional manner. Still, I kept count as best I could, while recognizing that in every case, the runners did not actually earn their starting position on the bases.
Very few of the innings were exactly three outs. Most of the time, the innings were called or “rolled” when the pitcher reached his pre-determined count. That seemed to be in the 14-15 pitch range.
Pitching coach Paul Davis served as umpire, calling balls and strikes from a spot behind the pitcher.
Pitches and velocities for the pitchers are included.
|Alcantara||3||94-95 T97||CB 80-81||Sierra||CF||Cordoba||DH|
|Chg up 87||Carlson||LF||Knizner||C|
|Fernandez||3||93-95 T97||Sldr 81-82||Chinea||1B||Machado||EH|
|Woodford||2||91-92 T95||C up 83-88||Jeremy Martinez||C||Jackson||RF|
Top 1st: Alcantara began with runner on first with two outs. The first batter had what may have been the hardest hit ball of the day, as Delvin Perez ripped a triple into left-center. That scored the placed runner from first. Allen Cordoba had an infield single before Andrew Knizner struck out. White up 1-0.
As his post-game tweet indicates, Perez was rightfully proud of his work.
Bottom 1st: Fernandez inherited a runner on third and two out situation. Jose Martinez lined out and Magneuris Sierra flied out before Oscar Mercado whiffed on a 97-mph heater that drew oohs and ahhs from the players-bystanders. While Dylan Carlson was up, a wild pitch allowed a runner to score to tie the game (I think). Carlson then walked. During Chris Chinea’s at-bat, the inning was rolled. Score 1-1.
Top 2nd: Another runner on third with two out situation for Alcantara. Machado grounded into a 4-3 before Arozarena flied out to right that was not deep enough to bring the runner home. In a long at-bat, Jackson threaded an infield single between the first baseman and pitcher which scored the runner from third. White up 2-1.
Bottom 2nd: Fernandez receives another one out, runner at third base opening. Bryce Denton’s long sacrifice fly to center plated the tying run. Jeremy Martinez then flied out to center, but it was too shallow to score the new runner from third. Mercado made contact this time up, with his fly ball to right deep enough to plate the new runner placed at third. Eliezer Alvarez was out on a 3-1 play before the inning ended, so the Red team was up by a 3-2 score.
Top 3rd: Alcantara saved his best for last, fanning the side. Machado went down swinging before Starlin Balbuena and Walker Robbins were both called out looking.
Photo: Alcantara receiving coaching from Darwin Marrero.
Bottom 3rd: With a runner at third and one out, Fernandez struck out Brady Whalen swinging. A Jose Martinez infield out gave the Red their fourth run. Magneuris Sierra was called out looking as Fernandez ended his day with a pair of strikeouts. Red 4-2.
Top 4th: Jake Woodford took over with the same runner at third with one out situation. After J.D. Murders was retired 5-3, Ryan McCarvel shot a ground rule RBI double into the left-field corner. Machado singled to left, but it was not deep enough to get the new runner home. Perez had a rough at-bat. First he was hit by a pitch, but remained in. Woodford airmailed the next offering over his head as the runner scampered home. Perez remained at-bat, finally drawing a hard-earned walk. Tie 4-4.
Bottom 4th: Woodford kept his runner at third this time. First, he fanned Dylan Carlson swinging before Chris Chinea lined out to the second baseman. Denton ended the game with a walk.
What is next
Look for future daily articles and an extensive series of interviews coming to you, exclusively as a member of The Cardinal Nation, from Cardinals instructional league camp in Jupiter in the upcoming days.
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