Opening his sixth season at the helm of the St. Louis Cardinals, manager Mike Matheny welcomed two important newcomers to spring training camp in February, Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil.
Center fielder Fowler was signed to a five-year deal as a free agent, essentially taking departed free agent Matt Holliday’s spot on the roster. The only other significant 2016 contributor to leave was outfielder/first baseman Brandon Moss, who likely played his way out of a 2017 contract due a horrendous September 2016.
With Zach Duke out for most, if not all of 2017, the Cardinals signed fellow lefty Cecil to a four-year contract to join Kevin Siegrist in the bullpen.
Other free agents not asked back for 2017 were oft-injured reliever Jordan Walden and journeyman pitcher Jerome Williams.
Left-handed starting pitcher Jaime Garcia, with one year to go on his contract, was traded during the off-season to Atlanta for three prospects.
For the second year in a row, free agent catcher Eric Fryer signed with St. Louis on a minor league contract with the intent of being added to the big-league roster at the end of spring training.
In a widely-celebrated deal announced on February 2, ace Carlos Martinez avoided arbitration, agreeing to a five-year, $51 million contract with additional options covering his first two free agent years in 2022 and 2013.
There were two key changes in the coaching staff from 2016. Triple-A manager Mike Shildt was added in a new position, quality control coach, and high-A manager Oliver Marmol was named first base coach. 2016 first base coach Bill Mueller returned to his 2015 assistant hitting coach assignment after Derrick May was not retained.
Spring training injuries
On the pitching side, the major blow of the spring was delivered on the very first day of camp. The top pitching prospect in the game and projected starter Alex Reyes was lost for the year due to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery.
This put greater focus on the questions coming into spring camp with two returning starters - the strengthened, but untested shoulder of Michael Wacha and the repaired elbow of Lance Lynn. Both passed their spring tests with flying colors.
Wacha’s resurgence was crucial because not only was Reyes lost, but prospect Luke Weaver struggled in camp and reliever Trevor Rosenthal, promised a chance at starting, was injured for much of the spring and opens the season on the disabled list.
Along with Duke, Reyes and Rosenthal, two other pitchers will begin the season on the shelf. Impressive spring starter John Gant, part of the take in the Garcia trade, suffered a groin injury late in camp. Likely, he would have opened with Memphis had he been healthy. Also, lefty Tyler Lyons, coming back from off-season knee surgery, was deemed not quite ready to go.
All position players are healthy for the April 3rd opener – a major contrast to 2016, when three hitters began the season on the DL.
Spring training results
On the field, the club played well in Florida. In fact, its 20-8-4 record (.714) was St. Louis’ best showing in its 20 years of Grapefruit League play at Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium. However, spring attendance was down almost 20 percent from 2016 with a 20-year low in per-game average.
Continuing the pattern from the prior three years, the pitching led the way, with the very best staff ERA in MLB at 3.28. The offense was inconsistent, however, with a .735 OPS that was 23rd in MLB. The Cardinals were 22nd of the 30 teams in spring runs scored, something to watch in the regular season.
With an announced focus on baserunning for the third straight spring, the Cardinals were smack in the middle of the MLB pack with 22 stolen bases. Their success rate was a below-average 64.7 percent. For comparison, the MLB spring average was 67.6 percent.
The Cards did take a few extra bases as evidenced by their MLB-leading 17 triples. However, do not celebrate, as their spring doubles count of 48 was 50 behind the MLB leader and just one two-base hit out of the cellar. Overall, the team slugging mark of .407 was 23rd.
The March after the Cardinals and Kolten Wong agreed to a five-year contract, the second baseman was again in the news, but for the wrong reason. Late in camp, the 26-year-old took exception to his manager’s suggestion to the media that he might be platooned during the regular season, leading to a trade demand from which he quickly backtracked.
With Yadier Molina the final year of his current five-year contract, the catcher's agent put the Cardinals’ feet to the fire. Either an extension needed to be in place by the start of the regular season or the 34-year-old would test the free agent market in the fall. The two sides are reportedly close to a three-year deal, which has yet to be announced.
Though no one would likely admit it, there were really only two open roster spots in camp. Sure, not all names were written in ink, but the leaders at each spot would have had to play their way off the team - and they did not.
The one exception to that was outfielder Tommy Pham, who had been with St. Louis all of 2016, between being active and on the disabled list. He was thoroughly outplayed by the hitting surprise of camp, Jose Martinez, and the former is slated to open the season in Memphis.
The final bullpen spot went to Miguel Socolovich. With no options remaining, it was not surprising the right-hander made the team after pitching well during spring training.
Actually, that turned out to be the second-to-last bullpen spot. Rosenthal was not placed on the DL until camp ended, with Sam Tuivailala recalled from Triple-A in response to make his first-ever opening day in the majors.
With a full 40-man roster as camp closed, the Cardinals placed Duke on the 60-day disabled list to make roster room for Fryer, a move that was expected all spring.
Among minor league pitching standouts in spring games were starting prospects Gant, Mike Mayers, Jack Flaherty and Sandy Alcantara and lefty reliever Ryan Sherriff.
Hitters catching coaches’ eyes included infielders Paul DeJong and Patrick Wisdom and outfielders Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra. Recent signee Adolis Garcia also showed glimpses of speed and strong defense. Carson Kelly did not hit much (.182), but the catcher continues to draw praise for his maturity and leadership.
Individual spring results
Among starters, Lynn and Martinez posted spring ERAs of 1.20 and 1.38, respectively, with Wacha also at a solid 2.42. Mike Leake came in at 3.81 but Adam Wainwright limped to a concerning 7.78 spring ERA over six starts.
Among the relievers with ERAs under 2.00 were Siegrist, Jonathan Broxton and Rosenthal. The unheralded bullpen star, however, was 2016 Rule 5 pickup Matt Bowman, who did not allow an earned run over 12 innings.
On the offensive side, .300 hitters included Aledmys Diaz, Matt Adams, Fowler and Martinez, the team leader at .380. Martinez also paced the club with 15 RBI, and his four home runs were one behind leader Matt Adams. The slimmed-down reserve first baseman was also second on the club with 11 RBI, but fanned over 37 percent of the time. Late in camp, the club began experimenting by playing Adams in left field, intended to increase his versatility.
In a bit of a concern, four players who open the season on the active roster finished the Grapefruit League under the Mendoza line – Matt Carpenter, Wong, Jedd Gyorko and Stephen Piscotty. Then again, it was the second straight spring that Carpenter and Gyorko batted under .200 in Florida and both went on to perform well in 2016.
Lineups and roles
Still, there seems enough concern about Piscotty’s spring that veteran Jhonny Peralta may open the season as the cleanup hitter, with the right fielder hitting sixth.
The top three in the batting order appear set in Fowler, Diaz and Carpenter, followed by Peralta, Molina and Piscotty, with Randal Grichuk, Wong and the pitcher bringing up the rear.
Martinez was named to make his first Opening Day start, followed by Wainwright, with Lynn, Leake and Wacha expected to follow in the rotation.
Seung-hwan Oh returns for his first full season as closer. Other bullpenners are Cecil, Siegrist, Broxton, Bowman, Socolovich and Tuivailala.
Reserve hitters are Gyorko, Greg Garcia, Adams, Jose Martinez and Fryer.
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