Even a team as deep and loaded as the St. Louis Cardinals can’t expect to roll through spring training without setbacks.
That unexpected injury always seems to rear its ugly head just in time for the regular season to begin. The young prospect poised to secure a key role on the roster regresses, resulting in a move to Plan B.
Without fail, the annual soap opera of spring training provides drama for contenders and pretenders alike. The Cardinals have endured their own episode of theatrical twists and turns as Opening Day draws near. It leaves them with a roster resembling something slightly different than what they had imagined.
Everything about Stephen Piscotty has been impressive. His approach at the plate has been poised and mature. Defensively, he’s shown a very good arm and range in right. His intelligence and attitude have gotten the attention of manager Mike Matheny.
Oh, and the results have been there, too. Piscotty is batting a cool .357 with a 1.064 OPS through 28 at-bats to go along with a homer and six RBI.
He has “done a very good job the way he goes about it—squaring the ball up," Matheny explained to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about his young slugger. "We’re excited to kind of watch him because we heard what he did in the fall league. We were anxious to see him at this level and see him with this group. He’s made the most of it.”
The former Stanford standout is still behind Oscar Taveras in the prospect pecking order, but he’s gotten everyone’s full attention. Still likely ticketed to start the season in Triple-A, Piscotty could receive a phone call from St. Louis sooner rather than later.
Pat Neshek entered camp as a non-roster invitee with a slim-to-none chance of making the team. Now, thanks to his performance and a couple injuries, he’s a virtual lock to head north with the Cardinals.
The right-handed submariner owns a 2.57 ERA with nine strikeouts over seven innings. Neshek’s ability to handle lefties further cemented his spot now that Matheny feels he’s not just a situational option.
And Neshek’s long-term future in the St. Louis bullpen is no longer necessarily tied to Jason Motte’s return. Even when the bearded former Cards closer comes back in mid-April or early-May, Neshek could stick around—as long as he’s effective, of course.
Despite not having any home runs this spring, Randal Grichuk has displayed the power that was his calling card in the Angels organization. He’s got five doubles and one triple in 31 at-bats. A couple of fly balls would’ve easily left the park had it not been for some robust winds in Jupiter, Fla.
Although the 12 strikeouts are concerning, Grichuk has exhibited enough plate discipline to garner consideration for a reserve role. He would stand out among a light-hitting supporting cast with his ability to leave the yard.
Jorge Rondon has yet to allow a run over 7.1 spring innings, while showing an ability to work out of jams. That’s impressed the skipper. And it could be enough to earn him a spot on the Opening Day roster.
"I think it's been a very, very good spring for Jorge," Matheny told Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. "We approached him with a simplified approach, and he embraced it and did a great job of trying to figure out how to make that work. Our instructions to him were: 'You can help us with your stuff, but you're going to have to be in the strike zone. That's all there is to it.'”
Control has been issue throughout Rondon’s minor league career. He’s walked 230 batters in 467 career innings.
Taveras stayed healthy just long enough to get injured again. He frustrated the coaching staff by not pushing his surgically-repaired ankle early in camp. When he finally got on the field, he registered five at-bats before a hamstring ailment got him sent to minor league camp.
Taveras will look to get his health in order down in Triple-A. Unfortunately, the team’s top prospect has to contend with more than just the physical side. Questions about durability, makeup and resolve are creeping into the equation for a player surrounded by so much hype.
In addition, quality spring performances by Grichuk and Piscotty have propped up their status, even if just in the short term.
Seth Maness has struggled to find the same groove that made him an asset out of the Cards’ bullpen late last season. He’s allowed 16 hits in 8.2 innings, while surrendering eight runs and walking three.
Understandably, spring numbers don’t mean everything. But for a control pitcher like Maness, who relies on inducing grounders and pounding the strike zone, the small sample size in the Grapefruit League is cause for concern.
Maness still will likely make the club when camp breaks. However, his leash may have grown a little shorter with the pitching of Neshek and Rondon, as well as Motte’s eventual return.
Motte recently faced live hitters for the first time in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Assuming there are no setbacks, he’ll continue to progress and could find his way back in the Cardinals’ bullpen sometime in April.
Jaime Garcia was shut down early in spring training after experiencing soreness in his surgically-repaired left shoulder. He’s yet to get back on the mound, despite doctors finding nothing structurally wrong. He plans on throwing by month’s end, but his return is completely up in the air.
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