A handful of standout position prospects have shined in their first big-league camp with the St. Louis Cardinals this spring training. However, little has been talked about by scribes on the pitching side. Among the overlooked is reliever Josh Lucas, who has quietly been reaping the benefits of his first major exposure to St. Louis following a successful 2016 season as Double-A Springfield’s closer.
By the end of last season, Lucas claimed The Cardinal Nation’s 2016 Springfield Reliever of the Year honor after converting 16 of 19 saves en route to a 3.25 ERA over 38 games (52 ? innings) with a 61-to-12 strikeout-to-walk count. Lucas has migrated toward the top of the depth chart for right-handed relief prospects this spring while soaking in the experience of big-league camp.
Through five Grapefruit League appearances of five innings total, Lucas has yielded just two hits, a walk, struck out three, held opposing batters to a .125 average and allowed no runs.
“The experience has been amazing,” Lucas said. “Just being able to watch and talk to the guys about their routines and the way they go about their work in a serious manner, but also being able to keep it loose and have fun has been a big takeaway for me.”
Lucas’ results did not come to fruition overnight, though. In fact, you could say the Lakeland, FL native was at perhaps a crossroads at the end of last year, entering his age 26-season while hitting minor league free agency for the first time in his professional career.
“With it being my first experience going through free agency, I didn't really know what to expect,” he added.
After many conversations with his agent, wife, and family, Lucas opted to not test free agency and resign with the Cardinals.
“It was definitely reassuring to know the Cardinals wanted me back,” Lucas said. “This is the only organization I know and have been with and to know they see something in me and are willing to keep giving me the chance to show my stuff and reach my dream is a great feeling.”
While he struggled in his brief stint at Triple-A Memphis last year with a 9.39 ERA over seven games, Lucas hopes his spring success against big-league competition will translate into helping him prove he can pitch in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, where he will likely start 2017 in the bullpen.
This past offseason, Lucas emphasized fastball command as his “number one priority” when it came to throwing, citing that to what led to his inconsistencies at times in 2016 in addition to losing repeatability with his mechanics.
“I had to really focus on getting everything back to where I felt comfortable and could repeat my mechanics more times than not to get a positive outcome,” Lucas said.
The tall, lanky, 6-foot-6 right-hander at 185 pounds throws from a low arm-slot, mostly low three-quarters, focusing on “staying as loose and free as possible” to avoid the wear and tear of the regular physical toll for relievers.
With the taller frame and lower arm slot, Lucas generates good downward depth that helps his sinker, slider, and changeup to play up against the opposition.
“Having the lower arm slot, it helps the ball naturally move, but the grip and finger pressures on the ball help give it depth,” he said.
In addition, Lucas says he has made tremendous progress with his fastball command over the past year to set up his out pitch, the slider, which features good hard, late action to the back foot on lefties.
“My fastball command is way ahead of where it was last year,” Lucas said. “Being able to put the fastball where I want really helps just disguise when I'm going to throw the slider, so it doesn't have to be perfect every time - though I expect it to be.”
The changeup remains a work in progress.
“The changeup is definitely coming along,” Lucas said. “I just have to get more consistent with it to build that confidence needed to throw it more (to hitters in counts).”
Lucas, who has a chance to be the second coming of Keith Butler for the Cardinals with late-inning experience and the ability to pitch multiple innings in middle relief, has one goal for the upcoming season.
“My goal this year is the same as every year,” Lucas said. “Make it to the big-leagues.”
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
© 2017 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com and scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.