We have passed the Super Bowl, and the next official big date on the baseball calendar is, well, one of the biggies. Pitchers and Catchers Report Day is only eight days away, and let’s face it, at least for the St. Louis Cardinals Pitchers and Catchers Day is basically just Everyone Show Up Today Day.
With that in mind, it’s that time once again, everybody. Your favourite utterly meaningless offseason game has returned, for god only knows how many years in a row now. It’s time for that annual VEB tradition, the spring surprises extravaganza. Okay, so ‘extravaganza’ might be overselling it a bit, but damned if it isn’t a vaganza, at the very least.
Most of you who have been around for awhile will likely remember the rules of this game, but for anyone who is new or maybe just doesn’t recall, this is how we do spring surprises. Everyone will select one (1), pitcher and one (1), position player they believe will be grabbing all the headlines and sucking up all the air in the room come spring training. These can be major leaguers or minor leaguers, or some combination thereof. There has been some debate in the past over the use of the word ‘surprise’ here, so let me specify that the players do not have to be coming out of nowhere or qualify as huge shocks in order to be good picks here. Surprises is simply used as alliteration, because hey, “Spring Training Headline Grabbers” may be a more accurate title, but would you be nearly as excited to read it? Of course not. It ain’t got no razzamatazz, no verve, no je ne sais quoi. I may not know much in life, but by god I know a good title when I see one.
So these do not, in fact, have to be huge surprises. They just have to be the players we’ll all be talking about — and the guys getting articles written about them on cardinals.com — come the middle of March. Capisce?
With that preamble now out of the way, I’m going to make my picks here. Oh, and also, I will attempt to remember to revisit this column sometime toward the end of spring training, and I’ve mostly done so the past few years, pushing my overall success level over the years above the break-even mark, I’m pretty sure. But, fair warning, there have been years I’ve just forgotten.
So for my position player, I’m going to go with what would not in fact be at all a surprising outcome and pick Dylan Carlson as the headliner of spring training in 2020. I feel like the Cardinals’ outfield picture is going to get more confusing and murkier before it clears up, and Carlson pushing for a major league promotion as early as Opening Day is exactly the sort of further muddying of the water that I see happening. The Cardinals would ideally like for Carlson to be ready sometime around midseason, giving them three months to sort through the major league options in left while not forcing the issue in right field, where Dexter Fowler is inexplicably locked in to playing time, it seems. I think Carlson throws a monkey wrench into that scenario by clubbing the ball mercilessly in March, and the club has to deal with a ton of really uncomfortable and totally deserved criticism in order to send him down and stick with the plan. Maybe the club will be willing to be flexible, as they were when Jordan Hicks suddenly showed up throwing 103, but I would bet they’ll try to go on as they were planning, and it’s going to look very, very bad.
On the pitching side, I’m going to go with a more optimistic take, but still stick with my theme of players messing with the club’s already-laid plans and pick the team’s newest import, Kwang-hyun Kim. How will that mess with the organisation’s plans? Because the Cards re-upped Adam Wainwright yet again this offseason, and appear to be all but inking his name into the rotation, never mind the fact it sure seems like a more judicious use of the innings remaining in his arm might be in everyone’s best interests. Carlos Martinez will, I believe, come into camp ready for a starting gig, and Dakota Hudson had a three and a half ERA last year. The peripherals were obviously concerning, but it’s real tough to send down a dude who posted a 128 ERA+ all the same. Someone is going to get squeezed out of a spot, and the smart money is on Kim, regardless of what kind of spring he has. I think he makes that decision tougher, and far more fraught, by starting off hot and looking for all the world like a number three starter.
In other words, my overall prediction for spring training this year is that the Cardinals will receive the benefit of their offseason approach by having players they’re looking toward to have good seasons look good early on, but those players are going to make it very tough for the Cards to do the things they normally do when said things essentially make the on-field product worse in favour of things like, say, extending franchise icons beyond their expiration dates, or refusing to move on from bad players who have expensive contracts. In other words, the Cardinals are going to be confronted with their very worst impulses this spring, in the form of overachieving players who force tough decisions to be made. But that’s really a larger issue, and one for some other day and some other column. For now, it’s Carlson and Kim. Book it.
So pick away.