Good morning, Viva El Birdos!
Can you feel the (pitch) clock ticking? Do you hear the jaunty sound of an organ playing somewhere in the distance ahead of you? Have you had the urge to go buy a new Ford pickup and drive it around an outfield warning track?
Baseball is coming. Real soon.
Opening Day is next Thursday when your St. Louis Cardinals will host the Toronto Blue Jays at 3:10 pm. Yes… the Toronto Blue Jays! It’s an odd matchup. I’m sure it’s the first time that the Cardinals will open against an American League opponent. That’s the result of the new unbalanced “balanced” schedule that will have every team in baseball facing every other team for at least one series.
Frankly, I don’t care who the Cardinals play next Thursday. I’m ready to watch it! This is a Cardinals team that should be viewed as the favorite to win the division. I am increasingly optimistic about their chances in the National League. No, I don’t think they are likely to come out of the NL playoff field with the stacked group of super teams in the East and the West. But they could have the best offense in the league. And I think the pitching staff is better and deeper than it’s credited with. They’re going to win some games. And anything can happen in the playoffs.
As always, health will be the determining factor. So could the development of the club’s young talent.
Yes, this team’s success will probably rise and fall with the health of its core. We’re a week away from “bold prediction” time, but here’s an early one for you: Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt will mean more to this team’s success than Jordan Walker or Nolan Gorman.
I know I’m really going out on a limb there.
That said, getting production out of a young, talented group of position players and pitchers can significantly raise this team’s floor. While the club’s stars have been off at the World Baseball Classic playing for their countries, the kids have been in Jupiter showing off. And they are forcing the club to make some tough decisions about roster spots and player usage once the regular season starts.
It’s been a good spring for the rising talent in the system. It hasn’t been such a good spring for once-stalwart players who entered spring in a fight to retain their spots.
Here are some news and notes from the final full week of Spring Training and what they will mean for the Opening Day roster.
1. Paul DeJong Will Likely Start on the Injured List
Katie Woo, among others, reported Monday that the Cardinals’ beleaguered veteran shortstop will be starting the season on the IL after aggravating his lower back in pre-game warmups.
DeJong has fought against back stiffness and weakness in his throwing arm for most of camp. That has kept him from playing much in the field and limited him primarily to a DH role. DeJong has appeared in just 6 games this spring and has just 13 at bats. DeJong has 2 hits on the spring but has made those hits count. He has a double and a homer with 6 walks and 1 strikeout. That’s a .154 batting average, but a more-than-solid .883 OPS.
Woo reports that DeJong will require at least a week of rehab before he’s able to return to action. Don’t expect him to miss only the minimum.
DeJong entered the season in a battle just to hang on to his roster spot. While President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak frequently expressed his hope that DeJong could regain the offensive form he showed early in his career, he stopped short this winter of assuring DeJong’s position on the roster. That he would have to earn through performance. It’s fair to say that he hasn’t done that.
So, DeJong will have at least a week to get himself healthy. Then he’ll likely get a few weeks of rehab appearances with Memphis. At that point, the club will be forced to decide his future. DeJong does not have options remaining. The club cannot hold him in AAA indefinitely. Once his rehab period has concluded, they will have to activate him and find space for him on the roster or designate him for assignment.
Can the club get by without him? DeJong was the most logical candidate for the backup shortstop position. However, Tommy Edman has been an iron man throughout his career. He’s not going to need much time off early in the season, barring an injury. Brendan Donovan played some shortstop in DeJong’s absence last season and showed he can handle the position in a pinch. The club is also motivated to keep his bat in the lineup while also giving plenty of playing time to Nolan Gorman at second base. On the rare days that Edman gets off, it makes sense to keep Donovan’s bat in the lineup while letting Gorman see the field.
Finally, with his very strong showing this spring, the club has Masyn Winn waiting in the wings and he’s already pushing hard for playing time. Ideally, Winn would get a full season at AAA, with some MLB roster time sprinkled in to give him a taste of competitive pitching at the highest level. That would prepare him to compete for a starting role with the club in 2024. However, with just one open spot on the 40-man roster and Jordan Walker likely to claim that the easiest path to get Winn time in the majors this season is by cutting another shortstop off the roster.
That’s the fine line DeJong has to walk. He has to rehab his back, and show he can hit enough in Memphis to push against Donovan’s playing time, all while holding off the very talented Masyn Winn. Then, if DeJong reaches the majors again, he’ll have to prove himself in sporadic plate appearances primarily in a bench role. It’s a challenging situation, to say the least.
2. Dakota Hudson is Optioned (and Has a Velocity Problem)
We have optioned RHP Dakota Hudson and LHP Matthew Liberatore to the Memphis (AAA) roster.— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) March 21, 2023
The Major League camp roster now stands at 41 players.
Speaking of beleaguered players, Dakota Hudson will not make the Opening Day roster for the Cardinals, having received an option to AAA Memphis to start the season a week before the final roster deadline.
In 8 and 2/3’rds innings this spring, Hudson has allowed 17 hits and 6 earned runs, while walking (4) more batters than he has struck out (3). Most of that damage came in his first and only start of the spring on Sunday when he gave up 10 hits and 5 runs in just 3.2 innings.
John Denton reported following the game yesterday that Oli Marmol and the club have given Hudson an “action plan” to work on at AAA to get back to the Majors. Most of that plan centers around Hudson’s need to regain lost velocity.
In 2018, working exclusively in relief, Hudson averaged 95.9 mph on his power sinker.
A drop in velocity was expected moving to the rotation. Hudson averaged 93.5 and 93.0 in his two seasons in the rotation in ’19 and ’20.
2021 was a lost season for Hudson and he returned in ’22 following surgery and a lengthy recovery to post just a 91.9 mph average on his sinker.
In Sunday’s outing against the Mets, Hudson averaged 91.0 on his sinker and maxed out at just 92.5.
Hudson has always relied on his power sinker to bail him out of jams caused by BABIP’ed ground ball base hits and walks from his overall poor command. He never possessed the ability to miss bats. That was amplified last season with his drop in velocity. His K rate plummeted to just 13.2%; nearly on equal terms with his 10.2% walk rate. He has always had a high home run rate.
Simply put, Hudson relies on velocity. The higher the better. With that much of a drop in umph, there is no reason to believe that he can recover even the sub-1.0 fWAR potential that he displayed earlier in his career.
Unlike DeJong, Hudson does have options remaining. The Cardinals can keep him in AAA for as long as needed for him to recover his velocity. Still, it seems likely that Hudson’s spring performance has lowered his standing on the reserve SP pecking order. Jake Woodford has certainly outperformed him. Andre Pallante could be the odd man out among the right-handed bullpen options and could find his way to the Memphis rotation to work out as a starter. Matthew Liberatore was optioned at the same time as Hudson, but he’s only helped his standing with the club after an exceptional spring. Hudson probably ranks somewhere around Connor Thomas and the young Gordon Graceffo.
He has work to do. My guess is that we will not see Hudson in St. Louis anytime soon. Not until he shows that he’s recovered some of his lost velocity, regardless of the results he’s able to get against AAA batters.
3. A Random Update on Torty Craig
Newsy: Daniel Descalso says Torty Craig is still going strong. #STLCards— Jim Hayes (@TheCatOnBallyTV) March 21, 2023
Trust Jim Hayes to provide the best regional cable content that a regional cable journalist can provide!
Torty Craig, the erstwhile mascot and hero of the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series run, is still alive and… uh… ambling? Crawling? Can a tortoise kick? Anyway, he’s fine.
There was no comment from the Rally Squirrel or the Rally Cat, but presumably, they are all hanging out together on the weekends without me. Like Heather, Gabe, and Drew Silva.
4. The WBC was Awesome
On Tuesday night, Japan and the USA squared off in the finale. As I write this, Japan is up 3-1 in the bottom of the 6th after throwing more splitters in one game than all pitchers threw in the majors last year. (That’s not true. It just seems that way.)
I’m not sure that I even care that much about the results. My head tells me “root for the USA like the Olympics, you corn-fed, Missouri-born dolt!” Another part of me has kinda fallen in love with the Japanese team, Ohtani, and Nootbaar.
This 6th inning perfectly illustrated my rooting dilemma. Seeing Japanese fans jumping up and down like crazy when Noot came up to bat with the bases loaded was just too cool to root against. But I did cheer when he popped out to right, keeping the US’s hopes alive. And later when Schwarber – not one of my favorite players – smoked a homer to make it a one-run game.
So, go USA! Go Nootbaar! Go baseball! Go Schwarber?
Win or lose, I agree with friend-of-the-site Kyle Reis:
The baseball season hasn't even started. What an awesome baseball treat this has been.— Kyle Reis, 58% Neanderthal (@kyler416) March 21, 2023
And we’ll get more of this soon. Bob Nightengale reports that the WBC will officially be returning in 2026.
It’s official: The WBC is returning in 2026— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) March 21, 2023
I’m here for it. And if I’m still writing for Viva El Birdos then, I’ll put more effort into covering the Classic on the site then.
That’s all for now! Over the next few days, keep your eyes on the backup catcher battle and the final roster spot. Will Walker secure his roster spot? Will Knizner make the roster? If not, how will they clear space for Barrera? (And, the better question, why didn’t they just sign a reliable veteran backup knowing that Willson Contreras would need regular time off?)
Enjoy your Wednesday. Opening Day is coming soon.