What a difference a week makes during spring training.
The perceptions of a few players in camp for the St. Louis Cardinals have been altered—some for better and others for worse—in a short period of time.
Let’s assess the first two weeks of action in the Grapefruit League for the defending National League champs, to find out which players are trending up or down.
On the Rise
Wong was eager to prove that he was much better than the disappointing .153 average he displayed over 59 at-bats at the end of last season. But the heralded second-base prospect started 0-for-10 and was clearly pressing.
The speculation began regarding Wong’s role with the Cardinals. Would veteran Mark Ellis be forced into more playing time? Would Wong start the season in Triple-A?
Fortunately for Wong and the Cardinals, he snapped out of his funk. A 3-for-4 afternoon against the Mets on March 7 started a hitting spree. He’s gone 7-for-14 with two homers and six RBI over the past week.
The visible anxiety emanating from Wong has been replaced with confidence. The left-handed-swinging rookie even went deep off Mets southpaw Jonathan Niese.
When the Cards signed Neshek to a minor-league deal right before spring training, he had a slim chance of breaking camp on the 25-man roster. After all, St. Louis had plenty of pitching depth, even without Jason Motte returning from Tommy John surgery.
But then starter Jaime Garcia suffered a setback with his left shoulder. And Motte’s return date got pushed back. With a rotation replacement likely coming from the bullpen and Motte unavailable the first part of April, a door opened for Neshek.
Neshek has pitched effectively, allowing two runs over six innings while fanning seven. The right-hander submariner has also been able to retire lefties. According to Derrick Gould of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that’s something manager Mike Matheny said would be pivotal for his chances.
If we’re looking at the possibility of having (Neshek) on our club, you’d be very hand-tied if you had a lefty like (Randy) Choate, who can only face lefties, and a righty who can only face righties. It doesn’t work. You’d end up killing the rest of the bullpen. You’d end up using three guys in one inning.
Martinez’s value as a power arm hasn’t changed. However, given his performance in Florida and his injuries, his role with the 2014 Cardinals could be different.
At the start of spring training, Martinez was to be used as a starter, signaling the probability he’d begin the season in the Triple-A Memphis rotation. He’d then be available for spot starts or as an injury replacement.
Of course, with Martinez’s dominant work out of the bullpen last October, he could’ve stayed in that role setting up closer Trevor Rosenthal.
Joe Kelly, who was expected to fill Garcia’s spot, has struggled mightily, giving up seven runs over four innings. On the other hand, Martinez owns a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings.
Martinez now has a much more realistic shot of filling the No. 5 spot in the St. Louis rotation than he did a week ago.
Piscotty’s value got a boost with his play in the minors last season, and he’s continued to open eyes in Jupiter, Fla.
The third-baseman-turned-outfield prospect is crushing the ball right now, batting .389 with a homer, six RBI and a 1.209 OPS. No matter how well he does this spring, it’s still improbable Piscotty makes the big-league club. The possibility that he starts the season at Memphis and makes his debut before the All-Star break can’t be completely discounted, though.
The dearth of power from the St. Louis bench, coupled with Oscar Taveras’ nagging injuries, could mean Piscotty bumps a player like Shane Robinson sooner rather than later.
On the Decline
Kelly hasn’t fooled anyone this spring. In compiling a 15.75 ERA, he’s allowed nine hits and four walks over four innings.
Kelly has built some credit with Matheny after his 2.10 ERA last September and four solid postseason starts. However, with Martinez’s outstanding spring and Kelly’s superior strikeout numbers as a reliever, he could find his way back to the long-relief role he occupied for most of 2013.
It took Taveras until March 7 to see his first Grapefruit League action as he worked his way back from ankle surgery. He doubled in his first at-bat, then went 0-for-5 before being sidelined with a tight hamstring.
It’s all but certain the team’s top hitting prospect will start the season in the minors. Taveras had an outside chance of making the team with a strong showing at the plate while proving the ankle wasn’t an issue.
Now, there’s more uncertainty regarding Taveras’ role with the Cardinals this season.
“The whole winter I was hoping to have him right and ready and I thought that ankle thing would be a thing of the past,” Matheny told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Now, it delays us watching him on a consistent basis. It’s not looking good at all. We were talking about a kid who could come in here and make an impression. Now, we’re trying to figure out if he can be a part of our club, at some point. Not being able to see him doesn’t help us.
“He just hit another roadblock.”
Jay came into spring training in competition with Peter Bourjos for playing time in center field. The former Angel clearly is the superior defender, so Jay needed to show solid defense while performing at the plate. That could’ve meant a platoon situation between the two.
But Jay’s bat has been silent thus far in the spring, batting .143 (3-for-21). Bourjos, on the other hand, has flashed the leather while hitting .364 (though he's only had 11 at-bats).
Jay has tried to increase his versatility by playing right field. Still, unless Jay hits, Bourjos’ glove will earn him the bulk of the starts in center.