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What matters for the Cardinals in spring training

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and what doesn't.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There's still snow outside my window, but the only calendar that matters says it's spring, and that's good enough for me. Also good enough for me was Mike Shannon's voice yesterday, both in describing a dominant but brief Carlos Martinez outing, and in exhibiting mid-season form name butchery with "Itchy Row Suzuki." It's nice to have actual Cardinals baseball back in our lives, even in an embryonic stage.

And so here we are in the strange borderland of spring training. It's not baseball, exactly, but it's definitely not not baseball, either. We're a bit like the prisoners in Plato's cave, only we're aware it's just shadows we're seeing this month. Rusty timing and mixed competition in games with no meaning over a small sample size aren't exactly fertile ground for viewers digging for real meaning. On the other hand, it's all we have for the time being, and what the hell else are we going to talk about?

Of course, there's always a temptation to try to suss something from those shadows because sometimes they do in fact reveal the form casting them. For instance, recall that bizarrely shaped silhouette last spring of an old reliever on a non-roster invite suddenly recapturing past glories with tweaked pitch selection. The 9IP, 11K / 2BB line was tossed by the man who would in fact turn out to be the Cardinals' best reliever in 2014, and the folks willing to peer earnestly into the spring training haze were the only ones who could have seen it coming.

Will there be another Pat Neshek who can make a mark during this period of pretend almost baseball that truly augurs something out of the blue? Eh, probably not. Most likely if, say, Matt Belisle looks significantly better or worse than we expect this spring, come the regular season he'll still look a lot like the Matt Belisle we figured he'd be from the moment he signed. Most likely if Xavier Scriggs hits .660 with 6 dingers in 16 games in March, he'll still end up being the guy who should backup Mark Reynolds in the role of RH backup to Matt Adams once the calendar turns to April.

This isn't to say there's nothing that can learned in these murky times. There just isn't much that we should take too sincerely to heart. The following is what I'll be doing.

Completely ignore:

Any pitcher's ERA. The handful of appearances that make up a spring training resume are simply nowhere near sufficient for ERA to mean much. The veterans will be trying out new toys, the youngsters will sometimes be asked to do specific things rather than win the games, and again, it's just way way way too few games.

Here is a picture of the pitcher who threw the most innings (9 1/3) without allowing a run last spring:

That's Jorge Rondon. I'm sure you recognized him. He didn't allow a run last spring! That's a zero ERA! But, he also had just 7 K's against 5 BB and 3 wild pitches before going on to have a so-so year in the PCL.

On the other hand, Lance Lynn's spring ERA was over 6 last season, and Seth Maness' was over 8. They worked out ok.

All of the batting lines. Sure, I remember Albert Pujols explosively announcing himself in the spring of 2001. But, again, it's a tiny, tiny sample size against often mediocre competition. What you will learn in the next month is dwarfed by what you already know based on each players' career and background. Yes, I'd love to see Jason Heyward lead the grapefruit league in dingers, but it wouldn't mean any more than it meant that Matt Adams and Kolten Wong were the best hitters for the Cardinals last spring.

Here are some other stars last spring: Allen Craig (.313 BA), Peter Bourjos (.324 with 3 doubles and a triple), Stephen Piscotty (hit .351 and was complimented endlessly by Mike Matheny).

They went on to be terrible and traded, lose a starting gig quickly, and be good but not as good as we'd have liked in the minors, respectively.

On the other hand, Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter each batted under .200 with a combined 3 doubles and no other XBH.

One last bit of fun: Over the last three seasons, the best lines by a Cardinal in spring both came in 2012. They were authored by Shane Robinson and Pete Kozma, who in 64 AB's a piece batted .428 and .359 with 9 and 5 doubles and 3 home runs each. It did not turn out to presage greatness.

Pay just a little attention to:

The rest of the overall pitching lines. There are some specific exceptions found below. It's good to see the pitchers pitching well, and even in a small sample size against mediocre competition, great peripherals aren't nothing, or at least they're not the nothing that ERA is. But, they still don't necessarily mean a whole lot for the reasons already mentioned. One early outing where a pitcher has trouble finding his grip can irreparably damage a spring line, and again, many pitchers won't be pitching with the same goals and repertoire as in the regular season.

However, it's hard to pitch even a few games with great strikeout and walk numbers without having things working well, even against mixed competition. Paging back through the spring training stats of the last few years,  you can see a better correlation between spring peripherals and actual skill than you can between ERA or batting lines and skill. This is where Pat Neshek showed up on our radar last year, and it turned out to be well-deserved notice. Same for Michael Wacha in 2013, though there aren't any other similar standouts of recent vintage.


Roster competitions. Remember the competition for the 5th spot in the rotation last year between Carlos Martinez and Joe Kelly? Carlos Martinez clearly won the competition and was handed a spot in the bullpen. These competitions are generally a farce for the reasons outlined above. The organization will (and should) choose their opening day rosters based on where they think the players need to be developmentally and how they best fit based on their entire skill sets, not what they flashed in a handful of games. This is why Michael Wacha had to go throw 85 innings in the minors in 2013 despite treating spring training like his personal playground.

There might be some genuine competition here for the last spots on the roster, but unless something very unusual happens, there will be a lot more going into the decisions about who among Ty Kelly, Dean Anna, Pete Kozma, Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty is with the Cardinals when they play the Cubs than their spring performances. This is as it should be.

Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia, and Marco Gonzales are all battling for the same spot in the rotation, but barring an implosion or stunning showing, the ultimate decision will have more to do with what the Cardinals brass already thinks than what they'll learn in the next few weeks, just as it was last year.

Player Health: Redbird fans are understandably nervous about pitcher health given how 2014 unfolded for Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, and Tyler Lyons as we collectively realized how prescient Ben Humphrey's article about "the illusory nature of pitching depth" would prove. And we don't need to be reminded about what happened in the spring of 2011. I'll breathe a sigh of relief after each newsless evening following a start by Adam or Michael or Jaime this March, but we shouldn't forget that every spring is full of minor strains and pulls and soreness that actually do in fact turn out to be not all that bad. Chris Sale and Cole Hamels overcame early terrifying sounding maladies early last year to put up two of the better seasons in baseball.

Actually pay attention to:

Specific things, especially with pitchers, that indicate a real change in skill. It is very difficult to tell the moment a hitter has revealed themselves as a markedly better or worse player. A change in skill can take a long time to clearly exhibit itself over the noise of streaks and sample sizes. This is not always the case with pitchers. Pat Neshek's good spring last year was hard to accept as indicative of how good he was going to be, but a strong piece of evidence that buttressed his outstanding peripheral numbers was that he was clearly doing something different than what he did the previous years. In 2013, he threw his slider 72% of the time and in 2012 he threw it over 80% of the time. With the Cardinals, starting in the spring, he threw his sinker close to half the time, so it made sense that his newly shaped arsenal could be deserving of very different results. He was a new pitcher.

There's a caveat here, too. Just because a pitcher does something new that seems to work over a handful of spring outings doesn't mean it will work throughout the regular season. Nevertheless, this sort of thing is as meaningful a morsel as can be found in spring training.

Here are some specifics I'll be looking for:

-Carlos Martinez' changeup. As the pitcher himself discussed, Carlos only threw the pitch around 3% of the time last year, despite having a lot of trouble with LHB. As Joe Schwarz found here, Martinez has a very strong change, but given how little he's thrown it in the past, he has issues with it as far as feel, tipping, or consistency in location. According to those who saw, he threw it "great" yesterday:

It's something he's planning on working with a lot this spring, and if he's able to gain consistency with the pitch as a weapon against LHB, he'll be a different pitcher than what we saw last year, even if nothing else improves. Derrick Goold also mentioned in the article linked above that Martinez would like to use both his curve and slider this season. His curveball was terrific in the minors, but he shifted to a slider because his arm was too slow on the curve, tipping the pitch. If he is able to make the curve workable again, it would be another big development, and that's also worth paying attention to this spring.

-Similarly, Goold mentioned in his always essential chat last week that Lance Lynn is intending to try to use his changeup more this spring. He tried to do so last spring, but abandoned it. It's a pitch he threw occasionally in 2012, but it's been slipping away from his arsenal despite his poor LHB splits. As with Martinez, it would be a game-changing development if he can use the change as a consistent out pitch to lefties. It has been "working for him" in his recent sessions according to Goold. Watch for Lynn to play with it a lot in his spring training starts.

-Is Michael Wacha throwing all three of his pitches comfortably? The plan is for him to carry on in full at this point. I'm anxious to see that. It should be remembered that his curve made big strides before his injury last season, and it will need to re-emerge if he's going to be a true top of the rotation pitcher, Providence willing.

-Marco Gonzales was instructed to work on his cutter and sinker this off-season. The results of that experiment will likely have a large impact on whether we see a big step forward from him this year. (morning edit: oh hey, Ben wrote about it this morning)

-Trevor Rosenthal and Jordan Walden were eerily similar pitchers last year, each exhibiting outstanding strikeout rates and poor walk rates.

2014 K% BB% HR/FB%
Trevor Rosenthal 28.3 13.6 3.2
Jordan Walden 30.2 13.2 4.9

I'll be looking very closely at each pitcher's control, as that is what makes them good instead of elite options in the bullpen. The similarity above is deepened by the fact that they both walked far fewer batters in 2013, 7.3% for Walden and 6.4% for Rosenthal. Perhaps working exclusively out of the stretch will help Rosie, and perhaps a mechanical adjustment in Walden's percussive avalanche of a delivery can help the fireballers find their targets a little more regularly. It would be a big development if either pitcher can regain their 2013 control, and there's a real chance that we can see inklings of that even in these spring games.

-The above are the things that strike me as most deserving of close attention, but there are other possibilities. Maybe Sam Tuivailala makes it plain he's ready to do what the organization hoped he could do late last year. He worked on his offspeed offerings this offseason and theoretically could form the third part of the hardest throwing trio in any bullpen in the majors with Rosie and Walden. Maybe Matt Belisle changes his pitch selection and surprise everyone. Maybe Carlos Villanueva discovers he just needs to throw his eephus more often, delighting crowds and infuriating batters everywhere. Goold mentioned in the above chat that he thought Mark Reynolds could push for a starting job. I'm skeptical, but I'll watch for it anyhow.

___

If much of what happens in spring training is ultimately meaningless outside of the small details, at least there's still baseball. I always enjoy getting to see glimpses of possible future Cardinals like Aledmys Diaz whether they eventually graduate or not. James Ramsey never played an inning for the Cardinals in the majors, but he was briefly a part of the organization, and it's good we got to see him play in that capacity last spring. Finally, if the quality of the games isn't the same as what we'll get in April, many of its charms remain. Meaningful or not, seeing a Matt Carpenter walk, a Matt Holliday liner, or a Matt Adams home run is simply better than not seeing those things.