Spring Training brings a lot of hope to MLB teams and fans alike. But it does not come without many lingering questions – questions whose answers have an immense effect on the club’s performance in the regular season.
I am going to try to tackle the three biggest questions that will be answered this Spring.
Is Ozuna’s Shoulder Healthy?
In 2018, the health of Marcell Ozuna’s shoulder was one of the most talked about subjects among Cardinals fans – and that doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon, either. Throughout the entirety of Ozuna’s inaugural season with St. Louis, the severity of the shoulder ailment was not fully known. However, with the gingerly way he threw balls in from the outfield and how his performance was down all year, and then he peaked after he was placed on the disabled-list and received a cortisone shot in the effected shoulder, it became apparent that the shoulder issue was bigger than previously expected. The pending free-agent had a shoulder clean-up procedure on October 30th, and was reported as being a full go for Spring Training in February.
Ozuna reported to Spring Training early to begin his throwing program. Although he is just in the beginning stage of his throwing program, with how his throwing form looks it is clear why fans may still be skeptical of his health. (Video via KMOX Sports)
It is important to note that Ozuna has ample time until the regular season commences to get his throwing form worked out. With the major additions the Cardinals made this offseason, and him being a pending free-agent, Ozuna has all the external motivation he could possibly possess to follow his throwing program and be 100% by Opening Day.
How Will The Bullpen Shake Up?
Every year heading into Spring Training, there is a big question mark around what the bullpen will look like on Opening Day. This year, however, it seems as if there is a much more surplus of options than in previous instances. The only absolute locks for the bullpen are Andrew Miller and Jordan Hicks.
With what the Cardinals’ bullpen lacks in certainty, they have in quantity. The organization has an abundance of relievers who are in position to give St. Louis quality innings out of the bullpen in 2019. Although the fanbase has grown to have some animosity towards him, Brett Cecil did his part this offseason, impressing the Cardinals this winter with his work, and how he’s attacked the schedule/program they gave him. He has lost 42 pounds since last season. Dakota Hudson is another pitcher who comes to mind. Hudson, one of the organization’s top pitching prospects, burst onto the scene in 2018 as a shutdown reliever in high-leverage situations, limiting the opposition in late inning, game changing, opportunities. He looks to be reliever that is used in the mid to late-innings for St. Louis next season. Also Chasen Shreve, although he didn’t put up the most polished numbers last season, all indications still point to him having a spot in the bullpen come Opening Day – being a lefty certainly doesn’t hurt his case. John Brebbia will more likely than not earn his spot in the pen. He was one of the top relievers out of the pen for St. Louis in 2018, recording a 3.20 ERA, 3.02 FIP and a K/9 of 10.66.
Another group of Cardinals relievers will have to compete for the final remaining spots. A lot of what their roles end up being in 2019 depends heavily on their performances this Spring. An interesting case is Alex Reyes. The team does not seem too keen on inserting him right in the pitching mix right out of Spring Training, whether that be in the rotation or bullpen. After being out back to back years with major injuries, that is more than understandable. The Cardinals may opt to get Reyes some work in Memphis before they decide on his role. Along the same lines, Luke Gregerson has a lot of question marks surrounding his health. The right-handed reliever had a setback this winter, and is questionable entering camp. His health could open up a spot for another reliever to make the pen, or if he is healthy, his spot on the bullpen staff is his to be taken, unless, of course, he has a disastrous Spring. John Gant is another option. He is a long reliever/emergency starter type pitcher that can provide a lot of flexibility out of the pen. The right hander is also out of options, which will play a part in how his role is decided.
Dominic Leone is also in the hunt for a spot in the bullpen. Acquired from the Blue Jays in the Randal Grichuk trade, Leone didn’t turn any heads in his inaugural season with the Cardinals. He posted a 4.50 ERA, 3.62 FIP and 1.458 WHIP in 24 total innings. The 27-year old was injured for a portion of the season with a nerve issue in his arm, which may have inhibited his pitching ability. However, he is going to need to have a strong Spring to earn a spot in the pen, as he has minor-league options remaining. The same goes for Mike Mayers, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Giovanny Gallegos. Their role with the Cardinals entering the season hinges heavily on their performances in Spring Training. Mike Mayers is also out of options, which adds another layer of complexity to the bullpen situation.
The recent development of Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez being on no throw for two weeks, and Shildt acknowledging that him being ready for Opening Day as a starter is a stretch, throws in another strong option to the bullpen mix. With this in mind, he should only be utilized out of the pen if there is a lingering injury, or other issue, that impedes his ability to carry the workload of a starting pitcher. There’s no arguing that the hard throwing right hander is a very potent arm out of the pen, no one is denying that, but him pitching 200, or even, 150 innings as a starter, as opposed to 50-70 out of the bullpen, provides the team with much more value – translating to more wins.
Who Will Win The Final Bench Spot?
The Cardinals could have a tough decision ahead of them as it pertains to their bench. With pitching coach Mike Maddux alluding to St. Louis carrying a seven man bullpen, there will be five bench spots up for grabs. Francisco Pena takes up one as the backup catcher, and Jose Martinez is almost guaranteed a spot, as he was the team’s most consistent hitter last season, and provides flexibility by playing both first base and corner outfield. There are three more spots remaining on the bench, with four strong candidates vying for them.
Yairo Munoz is one of the more interesting of the candidates contending for a bench spot. He played every position but catcher and first base last season, although he was only a plus defender in two of the six positions he manned. His offense was not overpowering either, batting to a wRC+ of 106.
Similar to Munoz, Drew Robinson provides a lot of flexibility. Acquired from the Texas Rangers this offseason, he played six positions across the diamond in 2018 – the same as Munoz. Where Munoz and Robinson differentiate, however, is with their defensive ability. Robinson is a stronger fielder than Munoz at every position except for shortstop, where they both have negative defensive runs saved and a negative UZR/150. Robinson also holds the advantage being a left handed bat, which the Cardinals would be void of if he was kept in the minors. His offensive stats were not favorable in his 47 games with the Rangers last season, as he slashed .183/.288/.294 while recording a BABIP of .347. Although, a majority of his games in 2018 were played in Triple-A, where in 53 games he put up a slash line of .303/.379/.569, which translates to a wRC+ of 144. Comparing Major League stats to Minor league stats isn’t exactly apples to apples, but it does show that he has the potential to do some damage at the Major League level.
Tyler O’Neill would be a lock for a bench spot, but it is currently unclear if the Cardinals feel fully comfortable with Munoz and/or Robinson being the fourth outfielder. Between the both of them, they have one defensive run saved in the outfield, and overall don’t instill much certainty.
Enter Tyler O’Neill. The power hitting Canadian played a very strong outfield for St. Louis last season, totalling six defensive runs saved and a UZR of 4.8 over a total of 272.2 innings across the three outfield positions. With his bat, O’Neill brings a lot of value as well. In 61 total games, he slashed .254/.303/.500 and recorded a 114 wRC+. Those numbers certainly don’t jump off the page, but the new Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert brings with him a lot of experience, which could help O’Neill work on his plate discipline. A reduction in his strikeout rate, which was 40.1% in 2018, would go a long way in improving his overall offensive production.
The last player contending for a bench spot is Jedd Gyorko. The infielder brings with him a lot of defensive stability to go with his above average offensive abilities. Gyorko is also out of option years, and the Cardinals would not place him on waivers to send him down, which means the only way Gyorko doesn’t make the roster is if he is traded. A trade does not seem likely, though. He gives the club the most reliable infield replacement in the event of an injury, due to the consistent offensive output he’s had in his three seasons with the Cardinals. A lot would have to happen for St. Louis to be open to trading him.
The only reason Gyorko was not listed as a lock, like Jose Martinez and Francisco Pena were, was because, while the chance is slim, there is still a very slight possibility of him getting dealt.
On the other hand, the chance of either of Jose Martinez or Francisco Pena being traded is next to none. In Jose Martinez’s case, it’s due to the reports of the Cardinals’ front office wanting an MLB ready reliever in exchange for him in a trade, and if a team was going to offer up a player St. Louis wanted, Martinez would have already been dealt. The front office was wise in not trading him for a weak return. He brings the team tremendous value, as he is under team control until 2023, and is slated to make under $600 thousand this upcoming season, providing the club with a potent bat that is both controllable and low cost. As for Pena, no catcher is eager to be Molina’s backup and be held to twenty starts behind the plate all season, if even that many. For that reason alone, no one is taking the backup catcher role from him.
Credit to the sources used in this article: FanGraphs, Derrick Goold, Mark Saxon, KMOX Sports and Jeff Jones.
Photo via USA Today Sports Images