We're really coming down to it now, folks. The final gasp of the offseason. Pitchers and Catchers Report Day, that most holiest of holidays, is tomorrow, and our beloved lads in cardinal will open up training camp 2015 in an officially official sort of way, even though I know at least a handful of players have already been down there for awhile.
Which means, of course, the time has come around again for that mid-Februray tradition unlike any other, that of our annual Viva El Birdos Spring Surprise post. (And contest, I suppose i should add, since the idea is to try and guess the most accurately, but I'm not all that great generally about remembering to look back on these in a timely manner throughout camp and again at the end, so I feel kind of bad going whole hog on the contest aspect of the thing.)
If you've been here for awhile, you probably know the rules by now. If you're new here, or just don't pay that much attention to the things I write (and I don't blame you), then here is what we're going to do: I want you to give me one (1) pitcher and one (1) position player who will come into spring training and serve as this year's big storyline. It doesn't have to be a minor leaguer, by any means, though those are the guys who usually end up most likely to make that big impact, simply because seeing even a semi-established major leaguer look good in camp is very rarely a big surprise. Those kinds of surprises do happen, however; look no further than Lance Berkman in the actual Best Shape Of His Life back in 2011 to see how surprising something like that can be.
Also, we're looking only for positive surprises here. Just good things that would be noteworthy, and maybe good for a profile column or two, during the cipherous opacity of spring training. Sure, we could see a previously trusted stalwart of the roster come in chubby and slow and get that collective sinking feeling in the pit of our communal stomach, but that's not what this week is about. This week is about rebirth, and renewal, and optimism. The baseball season, in a very real and tangible way, starts here. We're looking only at the bright side right here and now.
It is furthermore important for me to note the player you choose does not absolutely have to make the club to be the surprise of the spring. Stephen Piscotty has been this guy in the past, and he has yet to make his major league debut. Players like Dennis Dove have been the talk of camp and not headed north with the club right out of spring training. The storyline is the thing here.
All that being said, I'm ready to make my picks.
Last year on the positions side I picked Stephen Piscotty, and actually turned out to be pretty much right on the money with that selection. It's kind of tough to think back on now, considering how much of Randal Grichuk we saw last season and how his star really started to rise in training camp, but Piscotty was very much the talk around camp for much of March. He hit well, he impressed the coaching staff all to hell and back with his intangibles, and he stayed with the big club much later than most expected. The fact he did not make his major league debut in 2014 was much more due to the constraints and vagaries of roster limits and things like that than a failure on Piscotty's part to at least put his name out there early in the season. (He did, however, ultimately end up having a somewhat underwhelming year with the bat, due in large part to a rather brutal slump in the second half of the season, so there's that as well.)
I'll be honest: this is a tough one to choose this year, largely due to the real lack of positional talent the Cardinals have in the upper minors. I'm honestly tempted to predict Piscotty again, thinking he may have taken the winter as an opportunity to put in work to try and make the big league club, with it paying off for him. But, instead, I'm going to go another direction.
My pick: Peter Bourjos. He's healthy, in his prime, and hopefully more than a little pissed off to have been relegated to afterthought by a second team for which he is easily good enough to start. So I think he comes in to spring training with a real chip on his shoulder -- not to mention five extra pounds of muscle he didn't have last year -- and proceeds to make it a real conversation as to whether he or Jon Jay should be the guy taking the starts in center field.
On the pitching side, I went with Carlos Martinez last year, which turned out to be a more complicated pick than I had anticipated. Carlos didn't come in and blow the doors off the place the way I thought he could, but he also pitched better than the man he was competing against for the fifth starter's job, which I feel should have at least opened some eyes along the way. On the other hand, I don't feel like I can entirely claim to have been right, since while Carlos did, I feel, pitch very well, he didn't exactly take over camp and make himself the story the way he might have.
Well, for 2015, while I demurred from doubling down on Stephen Piscotty as a positional pick, I actually am going to put my money down on Carlos again this spring as The Guy who inserts himself into pretty much all the conversations. We saw his repertoire look, at various times last year, positively untouchable. The problem was, it was very rarely the whole repertoire at once. Sometimes the changeup was awesome, sometimes it seemed to disappear. The slider was usually really good, but he also struggled to spot it against lefthanders at times. The fastball always looked amazing, but there were still times when hitters seemed able to time him better than you might expect. Taken at any given moment, though, a snapshot of Carlos's abilities in 2014 would have shown you between 40 and 60 percent of an ace. It was just rarely the same 40 to 60 percent from day to day. (Of course, the way he was used likely didn't do him any favours in terms of developing consistency, either. But that's another subject entirely...)
I think 2015 will be a different story. I don't want to go too far down the road of why exactly we might see a more mature, focused Carlos in 2015 -- I'm sure we all know -- but this is a player I think has done a lot of growing up the last couple years. I think he's ready to take that next step forward, and become the pitcher his raw talent would suggest he can be. El Gallo will be the story of the spring, and those Pedro comps are going to seem more and more prescient with every day that goes by.
So those are my picks. You make yours, even if they're the same as mine, and we'll keep an eye on things through the spring. I'll try to revisit this topic sometime toward the end of training camp, and we can determine then whether any of us knew what we were talking about or not.
In the meantime, happy Pitcher and Catchers Day, everyone. I'll see you all next week, by which time we'll have seen pictures and even video of 2015 ballplayers doing 2015 ballplayer things. Sounds pretty wonderful, doesn't it?