JUPITER, Fla. -- Alec Burleson’s first Spring Training last year was far from a normal experience, with COVID-19 restrictions severely limiting interactions with teammates and his access in the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse.
The left-handed power hitter knows this year’s Spring Training will likely be unusual as well, but in a good way for Minor League prospects such as Burleson, the club's No. 11 prospect per MLB Pipeline.
With the CBA negotiations ongoing and no big league camps, much of the organizational spotlight has shifted to Minor League players hoping to make strong impressions that might lead to callups later in the season. Instead of being tucked away on back fields with few people watching them perform, prospects in the Cardinals organization might find themselves performing under the watchful eye of president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and general manager Michael Girsch when Spring Training opens on Monday.
“That will be awesome,” said Burleson, who rose quickly through the Cardinals' farm system last season and hit 22 home runs at three levels. “Rooming with [first-base prospect] Luken Baker, I was talking with him about that the other day. It will be great, obviously, having [upper management] watching."
Cardinals prospects are due at the team’s Spring Training headquarters by Saturday. After two days of physicals, testing and various baseball housekeeping, players are scheduled to hit the fields at Roger Dean Stadium on Monday.
The Cardinals unveiled their 153-man Minor League Spring Training roster on Friday. It includes 82 pitchers, 28 outfielders, 26 infielders and 17 catchers. They will be supervised by 26 field staffers, which includes four Minor League managers and former Cards standouts Jason Isringhausen, Ryan Ludwick, Bernard Gilkey and Jose Oquendo. Oquendo, a member of the Cardinals organization since 1985 and the franchise’s Minor League infield coordinator, has worked for weeks with many of the players already in camp.
“He’s in here every single day, and he just wants us working and giving it our all,” 18-year-old outfielder Joshua Baez said of Oquendo. “He pushes us to the limits and beyond. He just has so much knowledge from his time around baseball, and he tells us everything he knows about the game.”
Gorman has been working for weeks with Oquendo to learn the mechanics of playing second base, a spot where he might break into the big league lineup to utilize his powerful left-handed stroke. Liberatore has also been in camp for weeks to better prepare himself for Spring Training following an uneven 2021 performance.
Other talented Minor League prospects, such as first baseman/outfielder Juan Yepez and third baseman Brendan Donovan can’t participate in Minor League Spring Training because they are on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster.
As for a prospect like Burleson, the 70th overall pick of the 2020 MLB Draft, he's hoping to play his way onto the Cardinals’ 40-man roster with a solid Spring Training. A 6-foot-2, 212-pound outfielder from East Carolina, Burleson started last season at High-A Peoria before matriculating his way through the farm system to Double-A Springfield. There, he hit 14 home runs and drove in 44 runs while batting .288 in 63 games to earn a promotion to Triple-A Memphis.
In Memphis, Burleson drilled another four home runs, but his play flattened out as the season progressed. He says he learned a lot from playing 119 games at three levels of baseball, and he has come to camp this time around better prepared.
“Last season, it was my first full season [of pro ball], and I didn’t think I took care of my body as well as I should have,” Burleson said. “That’s something I’m going to focus on. I kind of hit a lull when I got into Memphis, and it was just me getting tired and not doing the things that I need to do to perform throughout the year. I want to be able to do that for a full season.
“So for me, it’s not so much working on baseball stuff, even though I will obviously be doing that, but it will be about how I take care of my body, eating right and working out. I think that will allow me to have a good year, being healthy and being prepared to play every day.”
One avenue to the big leagues for Burleson could be via a designated hitter spot that might become universal throughout baseball in the coming years. Burleson grew up as a first baseman and played one game there in Double-A. In Memphis, he played exclusively as an outfielder. He admitted that Oquendo has ridden him hard already about developing better habits as an outfielder so that he could become a more well-rounded player. Doing so, Burleson stressed, could make him more valuable to the Cardinals as a potential midseason callup.
“Last season, having [Oquendo] come in [to Minor League Spring Training] for a couple of weeks, he was really on my case about my defense. But it was great,” Burleson said. “We had a great conversation a couple of days ago about the importance of defense and how that can take you to the next level. My bat is obviously going to carry me, but as far as being able to stay -- if I’m able to make it [to MLB] -- being able to play solid defense would really allow me stay up there."