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Grapefruit League: Final Edition

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Let’s overreact to largely meaningless Spring Training performances, lineups, and usage. In the final week of Spring Training games, who is trending up and down? What do the roster and lineup look like right now?

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals are down to their final few Grapefruit League games. They have three final games before heading out of Florida for Cincinnati and Opening Day on Thursday. Spring Training stats might be a con-artist, but there are some useful ones, too. Regardless, this space permits us to overreact to small sample sizes, looking deep into the insignificant and crystal-ball some future lineup and roster decisions. With just days to go before the start of the season, I am ready to make some final predictions that you can hold against me when they prove wrong!

Who is trending up and down after Grapefruit

League week 3?

WHO IS ON THEIR WAY UP

The Big-Name Cardinal Prospects

Gorman. Thompson. Liberatore. All were cut on Thursday evening. None will make the opening day roster. How are they trending up? Because none of the three players have any official time above that A-ball and missed an entire minor league season in 2020. Yet, they look sharp and ready to compete at a high level in the high minors. Based on what I saw this spring – in admittedly limited opportunities – I would have no issue with giving any of those three high-caliber prospects time in the major leagues late this season if circumstances allowed it. They’re close. They’re going to be good players. Gorman’s swing looks terrific. He took immediately to the challenge of a new position with promising results. He didn’t have the box score results he might have wanted, but he displayed the ability to generate strong exit velocities against major league-caliber pitchers. He did not look overmatched at all. Liberatore’s curveball command looked more refined to my untrained eye. His fastball had more depth to it, too, which is noteworthy since he is still a little light on velocity. Here, he talks about his outing on March 13:

Thompson left me wondering – again – why he isn’t getting more serious attention as a top 100 prospect. The Cardinals need to hit on all three players. So far so good! We will see them again soon enough.

The Starting Pitchers

Finally, the starting pitchers had a pretty good week. If spring training stats are largely irrelevant, at the very least you want to see improvement as pitchers progress through spring. Consider these lines from the current 5 starters:

3/20: John Gant - 5 IP, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
3/22: Jack Flaherty - 5.1 IP, 3 ER, 3 BB, 5 K
3/23: Adam Wainwright - 6 IP, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K
3/24: Carlos Martinez - 6 IP, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
3/25: Daniel Ponce de Leon – 4.1 IP, 3 ER, 6 BB, 3 K

That’s a lot of good looks from the starters in their final full week. Flaherty’s start is a bit misleading; he pitched much better than his line indicates. Carlos was brilliant and he needed that. Here are a few highlights of his last outing:

Adam Wainwright has continued right where he left off last season. I argued earlier in the offseason that Gant should be fine in the rotation and I’m sticking with that. Ponce was good early but has been disappointing since. His stint in the rotation might be short-lived. KK is progressing well and should be back after a minimum stay on the IL.

Kodi Whitley

If you’ve read these articles every week then you know how hard I’ve stumped for Whitely. Well, here he is in the “trending up” section with no writer bias at all factoring in! Why is he here? Because I have a fascinating stat for you. Kodi Whittley has not allowed an earned run this spring. That’s not the fascinating part. The fascinating part is that he didn’t allow an earned run last spring either. Or the spring before that. Kody Whitley has never allowed an earned run in three Spring Trainings. He’s only allowed 1 earned run while wearing a Cardinals uniform – in one post-COVID September outing last fall. This video from @Cardinalsgifs perfectly encapsulates what Kodi Witley can do:

A quiet, consistent delivery. Swing and miss stuff. Pinpoint command. If you love Gio Gallegos – and you should – then you’ll like Cody Whitley. The Cardinals love high octane relievers who walk too many batters. I’m all in favor of relievers who won’t make me want to drown myself in heartburn medication. Witlee won’t do that. He’ll just calmly get outs. He’s the last pitcher on my final roster but he’s no 26th man. He’ll slowly work his way into high-leverage roles.

WHO IS ON THEIR WAY DOWN

My spelling. Also...

Johan Oviedo

Oviedo was on the cut list Thursday after appearing in one game and throwing 2 innings, all early in the spring. That’s after he made five starts for the Cardinals last season and was the talk of last year’s camp. Can someone explain what’s going on here? I know the Cardinals had something of an innings crunch this year and they weren’t able to give as many opportunities to fringe players as normal. Still, this seems extreme. Angel Rondon saw action in 4 games. Connor Jones appeared in 3. Roel Ramirez made 5 appearances. Jesus Cruz was in for 6 games. Most of those arms were cut a week ago. Still, Oviedo didn’t get into a game. Realistically, he didn’t have much chance to make this team. Neither did Thompson and Liberatore and the Cardinals made sure they saw the field. Oviedo will head to AAA and we’ll just have to see where he sits on the pecking order. Maybe there is some injury concern that I’m not aware of, but it’s hard to see Oviedo as anything but “out of favor”, which is surprising considering how “in favor” he was last year.

Harrison Bader and Lane Thomas

It was a bad week for the Cardinals’ pure center fielders. Bader’s forearm injury got bad enough to affect his swing and the club shut him down for 4-6 weeks. This was supposed to be a season for Bader to build on his small sample successes from 2020. Now, it’s going to start with injury and who knows how that will affect his bat heading into summer. Meanwhile, one of the best prospects in the game has been handed his position. If Carlson hits and fields well in center, can Bader even get that spot back from him?

Speaking of which, two weeks ago I would have guessed that Lane Thomas would get the first crack at center if Bader went down. Instead, Shildt has turned to Carlson and there’s a lot of buzz around Justin Williams and even John Nogowski. Thomas’ spring started strong but he’s been trending downward. He now has a .523 OPS and no part of his slash line is over .300. Thomas should get his opportunities while Bader is hurt, but he has to perform and he has to do it soon. It’s a make or break year for every outfielder except Carlson. Thomas has to take advantage of this window of playing time or he might not get another.

My 26-Man Lineup/Roster Predictions

(changes from last week in italics):

Offense (13):

1. Tommy Edman (2b)
2. Paul Goldschmidt (1b)
3. Nolan Arenado (3b)
4. Paul DeJong (SS)
5. Tyler O’Neill (LF)
6. Yadi Molina (C)
7. Dylan Carlson (CF)
8. Justin Williams (RF)

Bench: Andrew Knizner, Matt Carpenter, Lane Thomas, Edmundo Sosa, John Nogowski

Pitching (13):

1. Jack Flaherty
2. Adam Wainwright
3. Carlos Martinez
4. John Gant
5. Daniel Ponce de Leon

Bullpen: Hicks, Gallegos, Reyes, Miller, Cabrera, Webb, Helsley, Whitely

Heading to the IL:

(In order of projected return): Kwang-Hyun Kim, Harrison Bader, Miles Mikolas

Just Missed:

Offense: Jose Rondon, Max Moroff
Pitching: Jake Woodford

What changed?

Outfield: I have Justin Williams penciled in as the starter for the moment in right. As the lefty batter, he should be the heavy side of platoons with Thomas and Nogowski, if he makes the roster. O’Neill could probably benefit from some time off against righties with tough breaking balls. That leaves a lot of early-season PAs available for Williams.

Bullpen: Whitely is on my final roster for the reasons I list above. Woodford, who also had a good spring, should head to the taxi squad to stay stretched out as a stater in case of another injury. This competition is probably closer than I’m making it appear. It just depends on whether the team wants a backup starter on the roster or a bit better bullpen stuff.

Middle Infield: Lastly, I have long argued that the Cardinals like to take the path of least resistance when it comes to roster moves. So, I’m caving to that. Rondon is out of my final roster. Sosa will take the job; not because he’s earned it this spring, but because the Cardinals can keep all three candidates – Sosa, Rondon, and Moroff – if they promote the one who is out of options. That said, if Shildt keeps Sosa, he needs to play him and he needs to produce or he needs to be replaced. Paul DeJong has suffered from overuse in the past. A weak bench middle infielder sets the club up to replay 2019, when DeJong played in 159 games because Shildt didn’t have an alternative he wanted to play. Let’s not repeat that scenario.

Opening day is Thursday. I’ll see you then with some final roster analysis and some season predictions.