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Spring Training Storylines

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While you can ignore spring training, usually a few important storylines emerge.

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Before I started writing regularly for this website, I tended to have the approach of completely ignoring spring training. And honestly, I still basically ignore it. From the outside looking in, it just doesn’t matter. Spring training matters... to the people playing it and the people who are analyzing the people playing it at the camp. And even then, spring training might end up impacting one or two roster spots, more if you’re rebuilding.

So oddly enough, spring training matters more if your team sucks. A player like John Nogowski could have a great spring and actually have a chance of making the team if he were on a bad team. Which would be interesting from a fan’s perspective. Nogowski probably needs a few things to go badly for other players in order to actually make the roster on this team though. And it really doesn’t help when half the bench has no options and need to be on the roster.

That said, I don’t completely ignore spring training. There are always a few storylines that end up bubbling to the surface that end up mattering to your average fan. For example, last year, one of the storylines was “Will Dylan Carlson force the Cardinals to start him in the majors?” which was a question specifically because of how well he did in spring training 2019 and how good of a minor league season he had following that spring.

So what are the storylines for 2020 spring training?

Can Matt Carpenter be the starting 2B?

Most fans are not asking this question. This is the Cardinals management and Mike Shildt asking this question. Most fans have their own answer. I myself am very conflicted about what I want Matt Carpenter to do in spring training. He is one of my favorite players ever and him having one last good year with the Cardinals would be fantastic. The problem is... I don’t know if he has it in him.

I am and have always been a big proponent of Matt Carpenter actually being underrated defensively because of how ugly his throw looks. Being underrated does not mean I think he’s a good defender, he’s just not a bad one. But five years removed from playing a significant chunk of his season at 2B (318 innings), I actually think he’d be pretty bad at 2B. The worse his defense is, the better his offense has to be. And while I can talk myself into an average hitting Carpenter, it’s harder when the bar needs to be raised in order to justify a starting spot, which I believe would be the case with Carpenter.

So as I said, I’m conflicted in what I want. And it’s complicated further because I’m not sure what the Cardinals motives are. Are they just throwing him a bone and have no intention of actually putting Carpenter above Edman? Does it not actually matter how well he does, because they’re just going to give him the spot? Are they truly giving it a shot and if he fails, plan to put him on the bench? I really don’t know.

Carpenter is 0-11 to start spring, which doesn’t mean much except it seems unlikely his performance will justify him getting the starting job at 2B.

Is Miles Mikolas healthy?

This is one of the few important things about spring training. Health is about the only useful thing you can gather from spring training performance. I realize exit velocity and some advanced stats can give you better information than the past, but at the end of the day, it’s still a small sample and guys are going to go on hot streaks or have slumps. But health is undeniable.

The situation with Mikolas is fairly straightforward. Will he start pitching soon, can he continue pitching without setbacks, and can he start the season on time, or close enough to Opening Day to not impact the season too much? Mikolas pitching and continuing to pitch, regardless of results, is the only important question of Mikolas’ spring training. Which brings me to my storyline....

Who will be the 5th starter?

If Mikolas isn’t ready, it’s an open competition. There’s a good chance the Cardinals already know who the 5th starter will be if Mikolas isn’t ready. Barring a complete collapse from whatever pitcher they’re intending to start, I think they mostly know who they want already. Spring is just there so they don’t screw it up. We the fans don’t know though, so we follow the performances.

If they want potential, it’s Alex Reyes. They think he has the arm to start for at least a portion of the season, but they want him to excel in spring. So far, so good. If their past is any indication, it’s Daniel Poncedeleon. All the other realistic candidates have been relievers and probably will remain so. And if it’s simply a guy who can throw roughly 5 innings every time he comes out, it might very well be John Gant. But for now, we remain in the dark.

Does Justin William have an option remaining?

In completely insane news, the Cardinals still don’t know if they can send Justin Williams down to the minors. Regular season starts in a month, no pressure MLB. It is both extremely important for the Cardinals and not important at all. It’s extremely important because the Cardinals have three roughly analogous outfielders competing for the bench and Williams performance could who the Cardinals pick. And it’s not important at all because Williams happens to be the only lefty outfielder on the 40 man roster, so he seems uniquely well-positioned for a bench role, regardless of the answer to this question. But it’d still be nice to know if the Cardinals could send him down if he sucks for a month.

Will “no option” bench players play good enough to stay on roster?

Both Justin Williams, who as my above question points out, might have an option, and Edmundo Sosa are targeted for bench roles, less for the Cardinals confidence in their MLB bonafides and more for the fact that they can’t be sent down without exposing them to waivers. And both would almost certainly be claimed by some other team, so it would amount to losing them.

But I do think Edmundo Sosa specifically is in some danger of being traded or dropped before spring. Do I think it will happen? No. But is it outside the realm of possibility? Also no. So far, Sosa is 0-4 with 2 BBs. The two walks are absolutely encouraging from a guy who really doesn’t walk much, but obviously you’d also want some hits. And he also apparently homered in a B game that was not put in the official stats. So yeah I wrote this paragraph before learning of the B game and he will make the roster. So think of my question more as a “deserved stay on the roster” and not literally speaking. Still worth following his progress though.

Who will be the backup catcher?

If the Cardinals put any stock whatsoever in spring peformance, Andrew Knziner is going to make it impossible to pick anyone but him. So far anyway. He’s 4-8 with a 2B and only one strikeout. Two bad games and he’s suddenly having a bad spring, so it’s still far too early, but he’s the early favorite, especially since he’s on the 40 man already. It seems like a competition between him and Tyler Heineman even though the latter isn’t on the 40. The other two catchers on the 40 don’t seem particularly likely to make team. One, Ivan Herrera, is not ready, and the other’s bat probably needs to show some life in AAA first.

Can Carlos Martinez turn his spring around?

Lastly, I am extremely concerned about Carlos Martinez and I think his first spring training start is a situation where I break my own rules about ignoring performances. Because I would like to see some indication of Martinez possibly having a good 2021. He had a 9.90 ERA in 5 starts last year, and it may have been the residue of getting COVID, but he also didn’t really look like a guy who was ready to move to the rotation when he was in the bullpen prior to that either.

Plus, the thing you would normally blame for early poor performance doesn’t necessarily apply to Martinez, who is fresh from playing in a Winter League. And while he allowed 3 ER in 14.2 IP, he also walked six and hit four batters, not exactly a sign that his control is going to improve this year. In any case, I’m hoping for some optimism with Carlos and spring performance is going to have to provide it.

I think that about covers it. It at least covers the storylines for spring training that I personally am interested in. The fact that three of my questions concern the rotation certainly helps express my worry with relying on internal options.