ESPN has made the Cardinals opener against the Cubs it’s featured Sunday Night Game. The game starts at 7:30 pm central on Sunday night and Aaron Boone is part of the broadcasting crew along with Dan Shulman, Jessica Mendoza, and Buster Olney. I talked with Boone about Sunday night’s game as well as the Cardinals outlook for this season.
VEB: There’s been some talk that the Cardinals clubhouse had some problems last season, but that Dexter Fowler has been transformative this spring in changing the attitude of the team. How big or small of a deal is that?
AB: First and foremost, they are getting a really good player. That solves the premium position in center field. He’s so good at getting on base from both sides of the plate. He’s such a polished hitter. Then, add the fact that he is another guy in a long line of really good clubhouse presences. They come in many different shapes and sizes. There is no one way a player has to be to be a great clubhouse guy. He’s certainly come in and by all accounts had a major impact, but first and foremost his impact on the field will allow other guys to move to other positions and flourish. I think it’s going to turn out as one of the more impactful signings, especially this year for the Cardinals.
VEB: Jon Lester doesn’t throw to first base, yet players seem to take a somewhat conservative “I dare you to throw” lead instead of just getting 20-30 feet off the bag and actually making him do something. As a player, does it just feel too ridiculous to do that? What is the mindset there?
AB: Players understand it intellectually, but it is just such an uncomfortable place to have to get to--and you have to get there because he is quick to the plate. With Ross you have a guy that was so good at throwing behind runners, and I’m sure Contreras will be similar. It feels like a ridiculous place and you’re so uncomfortable so you don’t get the right jump. When you play against him and you play against him a lot like the Cardinals have and it’s the regular season, you’ve got to push the envelope and be willing to make a mistake and at least force him to attempt to shut you down.
VEB: Carlos Martinez was throwing 100 mph in the WBC and he’s been very good the past few seasons. Does he have one more level? What are you looking for from him on Sunday and this season?
AB: I do think there is another level for him. The question is does he get there. Hes obviously been a very good pitcher. Now with the passing of the torch if you will--Wainwright on to Carlos Martinez as the ace of the staff, it’s a big night. The next step for carlos in becoming one of those super aces-obviously the stuff is there, there is enough of a track record now--can he get to the next level where he’s a horse a guy you can lean on for 210, 215, 220 innings in a season. He hasn’t gotten to 200 yet.
I think a lot of going to that next level comes from a command standpoint. At times, he’ll overthrow a bit or get a little bit excitable and he’s gotten in a little bit of trouble in the past. Strike one is a big deal for him as it is with many pitchers, but him especially. Hitters hit over 100 points higher when the difference is 1-0 compared to 0-1. I think it will be imperative to manage his pitch counts and limit some of the walks so he can become a true ace and get over 200 innings in a year.
VEB: Martinez has obviously benefited a lot from Yadier Molina. What’s your take on his current contract situation? Is it something they need to take care of now or can it wait until after the season?
AB: Either way, I would expect something to get done. He’s such an iconic player and he’s still such a great player. He showed in the WBC that he looks healthy. Last year he was coming off an injury, and he was able to start from the get-go, but I don’t think he was ever really from a physical standpoint--Yadier--and i think he wasn’t quite as elite as he normally is defensively. I think he showed in the WBC he is in great shape and I think the is ready to have a really impactful year.
VEB: The Cardinals missed the playoffs last season, and much has been made about the Cardinals poor fundamentals, particularly defense and baserunning. How does a team go about improving in those areas?
AB: I think they have addressed some of those issues. With Yadier being healthy, I think you will see a more impactful center behind the plate--more in line with his career as one of the all-time greats. Dexter Fowler allows Randal Grichuk to move over so overall you get a little more athletic in the outfield. I think Aledmys Diaz should improve. He had some throwing issues early in the year last year. I think he’ll be more consistent this year in his second year at the position.
If Kolten Wong can get it rolling I like the upside he has defensively. If he can prove himself everyday offensively and really grab hold of that position then you get another potential impact defender in the middle of the diamond. I think Matt Carpenter going to first base full-time is a good thing. Going into the season i think they have a chance to improve what was really a problem last year.
VEB: Expectations are always high in St. Louis, and the team missed the playoffs last year. Do you think they are a playoff team this year? Should there be a little extra pressure on Mike Matheny after last year’s disappointment?
AB: I don’t know about that. I do expect them to make the playoffs. I didn’t feel that way before Spring Training. I like what I’ve seen with Lynn and Wacha’s health, and it will be a better defense. I like where Yadier is at physically. I do think they are going to be a playoff team and even push the Cubs for the Central. I’m still picking the Cubs to win the Central but I’m picking the Cardinals to make the playoffs. They have a chance at a really good year.