One of my favorite things about Spring Training is tracking the young guys and seeing who on the team is making changes. Whether it’s a new pitch being added, a pitch mix being changed, a new bat being used, or new swing mechanics being implemented, I love seeing the changes that players make and hearing their reasoning for the change.
So, with that in mind, I’m going to do something a bit different in this article. Instead of focusing my attention on one particular player or subject, I’m going to provide a smattering of all the St. Louis Cardinals Spring Training storylines I’ve found so far and provide any analysis or commentary that I have.
Hopefully this provides a resource to use with spring games starting as we can watch for changes with certain players. It should also be fun to return to this article later in the season and see which of these changes, if any, had positive meaningful impacts.
So, with that little preface out of the way, let’s dive in with our first storyline - the health of Tyler O’Neill.
Outrunning injury-strewn year, Cardinals Tyler O'Neill has a plan to regain powerful pace https://t.co/Uo17kwvRMY— STL Cardinals News (@STLCardsNews) December 2, 2022
I think this qualifies as out first best shape of his life story as Tyler O’Neill reportedly switched up his workout routine this winter in an effort to stay healthy. For him, that meant more running and less lifting.
Whether this pays dividends or not remains to be seen, but even though O’Neill spent more time running, he definitely hasn’t been skipping the gym.
TON setting the bar for "best shape of his life" tweets.#SpringTraining pic.twitter.com/7bhXqL9DmD— MLB (@MLB) February 17, 2023
Yep, that’s still the same Tyler O’Neill; and I mean that in the best way possible. What is different is O’Neill’s bat.
It appears the extra running TON did this offseason didn’t come at the expense of lifting weights. pic.twitter.com/9Ffgr5TljX— Ryan Boyer (@RyanPBoyer) February 18, 2023
As you can notice is the picture above, O’Neill appears to be the latest Cardinal using the hockey puck knob this year. Whether this new bat will work as well for him as it has for other hitters remains to be seen, but O’Neill is certainly willing to make changes in an effort to return to his best form.
Asked Marmol earlier if anyone stood out to him appearance-wise, and he singled out Nolan Gorman as someone who showed up with the body and swing transformation they were hoping to see this winter.— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) February 15, 2023
Recently, I wrote about Nolan Gorman and the hole in his swing when facing high fastballs. I may have noticed this issue and written about it in February but this appears to be something that the Cardinals and Gorman have been aware of for a lot longer.
#STLCards manager Oli Marmol said one of the most noticeable differences with Nolan Gorman is how the second-year second baseman is handling high fastballs at the plate. Those led to his late-season swoon in ‘22. Now, he’s fixed the mechanics to help him better handle that pitch.— John Denton (@JohnDenton555) February 17, 2023
Besides the body transformation, if Gorman has transformed his swing to be able to handle high heat, then he could really tap into his power more often this year. We still need to see whether his swing transformation can translate to more in-game production and he still needs to prove that he has indeed fixed his issue with high heat, but it is encouraging that the 22-year-old has put in work this winter to make himself a more complete hitter.
To me, this is one of the biggest storylines of the spring as Gorman has tons of potential at the plate but also the most obvious hole of any hitter on the roster.
Drew VerHagen tells the media this morning he's working on incorporating a true four-seamer into his pitch arsenal and shifting away from his traditional two-seam sinker, a pitch he said started falling flat last season. Something to watch for in spring. #STLCards— Katie Woo (@katiejwoo) January 16, 2023
I touched on this in my last piece but it appears that Drew VerHagen will be more of a four-seam pitcher than a sinkerballer in the upcoming season and I think that’s a good change. The pitch has good velocity (94.9 mph) and a well above average spin rate and if he can increase his dismal active spin (79%) he could get a really nice rising effect with the pitch, considering it already has about a league average amount of rise. It he can turn some of his gyro spin into active spin to create more movement, the pitch could not only be good in isolation but it could also pair nicely with his two breaking balls.
After VerHagen’s last season, it can’t hurt to try something and this particular change could give him a viable fastball after both his fastballs got crushed last year. I’ll be watching VerHagen closely whenever he takes the mound this spring as he competes for a role on the Opening Day roster.
Cardinals pitcher Jordan Montgomery shares that he’s reinstating a pitch to his repertoire.— Benjamin Hochman (@hochman) February 16, 2023
“I’m just starting to spin a slider again.”
Montgomery had 8.9 strikeouts per 9 last year, but both he and #STLCards manager Oli Marmol think it can go up: https://t.co/o05c2LUX5Q
Drew VerHagen isn’t the only pitcher eyeing a change this year. Jordan Montgomery last threw a slider in the 2019 season and then started throwing a cutter after that. He never threw his slider much as it’s usage peaked in 2017 at 13.1% before fading out of existence.
In it’s limited usage, the pitch was actually an asset, garnering a 33.9% whiff rate, .231 wOBA, and .242 xwOBA in 2017. He didn’t throw it much the next year, but it was still effective in a small sample size of only 41 pitches.
The pitch had below average movement in both directions with more downer movement overall and it was thrown moderately hard, around 85/86 mph. That’s not an exceptional profile but the results were good. His cutter may have evolved from his slider but that pitch was much less effective and saw it’s usage fall to just 4% last year.
Perhaps that’s why Montgomery is reviving the slider. I would love to see him add some sweep to the pitch to make it tunnel more effectively with his sinker, which has grown in usage.
I’m excited to get a first look at the pitch whenever Montgomery takes the mound, and though I don’t expect it to be a huge part of his arsenal, it could be an effective offering.
Part of Moises Gomez’s program to improve strike zone discipline is standing in on bullpens. Here he’s facing Leahy on the back six bullpen setup. #stlcards pic.twitter.com/NduRS1GWIO— Derrick Goold (@dgoold) February 16, 2023
This one is pretty straightforward. Gomez can crush the ball but he has an issue with whiffs and chases and improving those issues is going to be the best way to make Gomez an effective major league hitter.
A lot of minor league metrics like chase rate aren’t publicly available but Kareem (@KareemSSN on Twitter) and Jacob (@CardinalsReek on Twitter) have us covered in that department. According to their data driven prospect ranking, Moises Gomez had a 30.9% chase rate in 2022. That would have ranked in the 36th percentile among major league hitters but considering he was facing AA and AAA pitching, it’s reasonable to expect his chase rate to be a bit higher at the game’s highest level.
That’s honestly not awful but there is a lot of room for growth and it’s good to see the Cardinals using every opportunity to help Gomez find that growth.
According to Baseball Savant, there were 19 knuckleballs thrown in MLB in 2022, all by position players.— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) February 18, 2023
What if I told you there was at least a 20th, thrown by a pitcher, that’s on the verge of wider deployment?
The Lizard King knuckles up:https://t.co/aC3saGzB7I
Jordan Montgomery isn’t the only one adding a pitch to his repertoire as Miles Mikolas could be adding a new weapon at the age of 34. The knuckleball isn’t a commonly used pitch anymore but Miles Mikolas seems like a classic knuckleball pitcher even if he’s never thrown one. There’s just something about the mustache and the personality and his style of pitching that makes a knuckleball seem like the perfect addition to his arsenal.
Jordan Montgomery re-incorporating a slider is exciting but what’s more exciting that someone breaking out a knuckleball? This is perhaps the change I’m most excited to see even if it’s not the change that’s going to have the biggest effect.
Mikolas has pumped the brakes on the pitch so I don’t know how much we’re going to see him use it, but I really hope he breaks it out in a spring game at the very least.
Miles Mikolas has been tinkering with a knuckleball. Some of his teammates have seen it and were impressed. Miles says it’s far from game ready. #STLCards— Jim Hayes (@TheCatOnBallyTV) February 17, 2023
A little window into how the Cardinals are looking at their competition for lefty reliever spots: Zack Thompson’s time this spring will be spent solely as a reliever.— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) February 18, 2023
I’m not exactly sure how I feel about this one. As I stated in my last article, I prefer keeping pitching prospects in the rotation until they prove they can’t handle it and Thompson has yet to prove that. But yet he did prove to be effective in the major league bullpen last year and may be the best and most reliable lefty option this year.
He was primarily a two-pitch pitcher last year, too, so he may fit better in the bullpen long term and even though the Cardinals have a wealth of upper level starting pitcher prospects, I would still like to see Thompson get the chance to start long term.
That’s not likely to happen now, though, since he will work exclusively as a reliever this spring and will likely make the team as a reliever. If that happens, he will have spent too long out of the rotation to really be considered for a starting spot next year. I also expect him to continue focusing on his fastball and curveball as a reliever and a two-pitch mix doesn’t exactly set him up for success in the rotation either.
So, it appears, at least from this report, that the Cardinals might be content with Zack Thompson being a reliever long term. I will acknowledge that I am reading into this a lot but if Thompson is a reliever again in 2023, I don’t have a lot of confidence in him escaping the bullpen.
#STLCards manager Oli Marmol said the staff spent 30 minutes today talking about newcomer Wilking Rodriguez & how they can help him build repeatable mechanics. Rodriguez can hit 100 mph with his fastball & he has the potential swing-and-miss stuff STL is seeking out of its ‘pen.— John Denton (@JohnDenton555) February 17, 2023
The final storyline I’ve tracked down is about Wilking Rodriguez and it seems that the Cardinals are enamored with his profile but would like him to clean up his mechanics. I am curious to see how much progress he makes with that this spring as I expect him to be in a battle to make the opening day roster, and, as I said in my last article, I do expect him to make it.
With a 100 mph fastball and a power curveball, Rodriguez does have the potential to give the Cardinals another flamethrower capable of missing bats out of the bullpen. He may take some refinement but the Rule 5 draft selection is as good a project as any and has plenty of upside if the Cardinals can get some consistency out of his mechanics.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Feel free to discuss these storylines in the comments and add any that I may have missed. There is certainly a lot to pay attention to this spring and I’m excited to look for these storylines when games begin on Saturday.