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Spring Surprises 2021

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The slightly belated return of an annual tradition, with hopefully better results than the last time we tried this.

MiLB: JUN 23 Florida State League - Cardinals at Blue Jays Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Good morning everyone, and happy Sunday. Also, happy first official game of spring training day, which I hope you will be able to celebrate by actually watching the baseball being played, which is currently a rather dicey proposition given the nightmare that is Sinclair broadcasting and its approach to, well, pretty much everything.

But enough of that. It’s time for the return of an annual tradition once again, everybody. You know what I’m talking about.

Actually, it really was time for the return of an annual tradition about a month ago, which is when I usually pen the spring surprises column for the year. Right after the Super Bowl, roundabout, is when I’m usually in the mood to gear up for training camp and Grapefruit League baseball and some good old fashioned overreaction to tiny samples of performance by non-roster invitees.

Of course, I would imagine you all understand why that was not the case this year. It wasn’t that I wasn’t ready for all that stuff the Monday following Tom Brady Fellatio Day 2021; rather, it was more the fact I was unsure how realistic spring training was really looking this year, even at such a late date as the beginning of February. We already knew camp would be delayed opening, and I think there was still a real question as to what kind of camp we were getting, what kind of 2021 season we were getting, and just generally whether or not baseball was coming back with the same kind of excited rush of years past. I didn’t want to jump the gun, you understand.

After all, who remembers the winner(s) of last year’s Spring Surprise competition? Anyone? A couple years ago Jordan Hicks was the kid who came rampaging on to the scene to become the talk of the town. Once upon a time Dennis Dove was the name on everyone’s lips, when he came out of nowhere to become Dave Duncan’s darling de jour, throwing upper 90s sinkers and looking for all the world like a future closer. (Sadly, Dennis Dove got homesick and went right back to nowhere soon after, proving how tough that particular small town is to escape.) Yairo Munoz made a big impression one year, which sounds weird to say aloud now, but at the time it really looked like he might have a special bat. Last year, I picked Dylan Carlson and Kwang-hyun Kim to blow the doors off the place in March, and I felt good about my predictions. And how did that go? Well, Carlson came in to camp looking awesome, played really well, and Kim had some legitimate buzz and ended up having a surprisingly good 2020 season. So I pegged the surprises, right?

Well, no. Of course not. The real surprise of spring 2020 was an international kid we didn’t know much about at the time, but who would take the literal world by storm. Corona-something, which sounds Latin to me, but I’m told he was Asian, so what do I know? Amazing how much he accomplished at just 19, isn’t it?

The real surprise of 2020 was, Surprise! There’s no baseball! I went back and looked through the comments section of last year’s Spring Surprises post, and there was plenty of negativity and snark, which I’ve come to expect from the comments here (not to the degree of most other places still, to be fair), but no predictions of a closed camp and baseball not starting up until July. Therefore, I conclude you all lost. Everyone who predicted something in last year’s column lost. Everyone who read it and thought about it lost. Everyone who read it and didn’t think about it lost. Even the people who didn’t read the column, didn’t play the game, and didn’t even know about our annual game or even this website lost. All of us, losers. It was a year of losing, in fact. I hope I never see another like it.

In the spirit of optimism, however, we’re going to take another crack at this game this year, cross our fingers it goes better than the last edition. First off, I do have to shout out Aesop Rock in the comments last year for his bold prediction of Nolan Arenado grabbing the spring training headlines. Oh, and also vances law right above that. Sorry, vance, almost missed you. Turns out you guys were just way ahead of the curve, but here we are in 2021 and you can feel free to just roll those predictions out again if you would like.

So, the rules of the game are as follows, the same as every year. I want one (1), position player and one (1), pitcher who are going to come out of the gate hot in spring training and make a huge impression on everyone. They do not have to be young players, though that is typically where the nature of this exercise leads. They do not even have to be players who necessarily make the major league roster coming out of spring training; a player who makes a crazy impression but still just isn’t quite ready is entirely fine for this game. I just want to know who, come the 18th of March, will be getting articles written about them on the Cardinals’ website. (And also around here, but I would imagine that goes without saying.)

I do not want negative surprises. No collapse predictions, no predictions of failures to launch or injuries or old age jumping out of nowhere to steal Matt Carpenter’s power away from him. What I want is optimism, a sentence I have never once uttered in any other context in my life, so give me the breakouts, and we’ll leave the breakdowns for reality. Got it? Good.

For my own picks this year, I very nearly went with the Super Best Friends duo of Matthew Liberatore and Nolan Gorman, but in the end I decided to demur on Gorman and go in a more unexpected (dare I say...surprising?), direction. Liberatore, however, does get my nod as the buzziest pitcher of camp, as he comes in to his second spring training as a member of the Cardinals’ organisation and looks for all the world like the reason the Cards ultimately did not sign another starting pitcher to shore things up in the short term. Matt Liberatore in spring training this year will mix pitches like Bill Evans plays a melody, and no one will mention the name Jake Odorizzi even once.

My runner-up here is Alex Reyes, who I have no confidence in when it comes to staying healthy as a starter, but is still one of the handful of most crazily talented pitching prospects I can recall in my lifetime. Reyes could very well blow the doors off the place this spring; the only question is what sort of role he’s best suited for, and for how long.

As for the position side, I wanted to go with Gorman initially, simply because I think Gorman is so incredibly talented and is playing a new position and feels like a slightly devalued stock right now, and I think he could make a huge impression if he made some advancements with his swing and miss issues during the lost summer of 2020. I also very nearly landed on Justin Williams, because I actually think he just might be the talented left-handed bat we were all hoping to see the Redbirds bring in. The last couple of years have been basically impossible to analyse for Williams, save for the obvious caveats he should not punch things, but he does have a whole lot of talent in the bat, and has made real strides since coming to the Cards’ organisation in unlocking some of that prodigious natural power. He also has a very clear path to playing time with the club this year, given how heavily right-handed the lineup skews, and so I think 2021 could be a big year for Williams.

However, in the end I decided to go with a guy a little further off, but who I’ve been a huge fan of since the Cardinals drafted him a couple years ago out of USC. I’m talking about Lars Nootbaar, another lefty-swinging outfielder for whom the lost season last year really could not have come at a worse time. Nootbaar lost his age 22 season, after reaching Double A in just his first full year in the organisation in 2019. Nootbaar is a guy who makes hay with an extremely good approach at the plate, a little in the Matt Carpenter mold, and who has yet to show significant power since being drafted. However, even moderate power could be enough for him to make it with his natural hitting ability, and he’s not a bad fielder at all to boot. I think if the 2020 season had gone off as we would normally expect, Nootbaar would have been one of the big movers on the offseason prospect lists. As it is, though, it’s impossible to say how things actually went for him over the summer of quarantine, but I’m hopeful that he used the time as best as possible to hone what skills he could without the grind of constant games.

I don’t expect Nootbaar to make the club out of spring training, by any means; the option situation alone basically ensures that Justin Williams, barring injury, will at least get a long look in the majors to begin the year, simply because the club needs someone very much like him to step into a role, and Williams himself needs a chance to showcase his abilities following a year when he lost out on that chance through no fault of his own. However, Nootbaar is going to be the guy whose FanGraphs page the most people here will be bookmarking as camp closes, and he’ll be the guy fans are salivating over in mid-May when he’s putting up an .890 OPS in the PCL and the Cards’ offense is looking a little anemic.

So those are my picks. You can still go ahead and make your own down below in the comments, thought I really don’t see the point of anyone not just accepting what I have now decreed.

There’s a game today, everyone. Just roll that around in your heads for a moment. A baseball game. Today.