JUPITER, Fla. -- While it will undoubtedly feel odd that Major League players still aren’t around, the opening of Minor League Spring Training on Monday will serve as a substitute to provide a feeling of normalcy and familiarity to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The sights and sounds of players filling baseball fields throughout the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium complex, gloves popping and the crack of bats in BP, will finally bring a familiar feel to what is already another highly unusual Spring Training. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Major League season and knocked out the Minor Leagues entirely. In '21, Minor League camps were pushed back and shortened to limit the exposure to Major League players. Now, Major Leaguers are missing this spring because of an ongoing labor dispute that has stretched past 95 days, and the Minor Leaguers find themselves in the spotlight.
Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak is excited about his organization finally getting baseball back on Monday -- at least in Minor League form.
“I will say, being in Jupiter, seeing baseball players in the clubhouse and in the building, and ultimately seeing players on the field the last couple of weeks, has been welcoming and nice to see,” said Mozeliak, winner of three MLB Executive of the Year awards during his time as GM and president. “[On Monday], when you see the majority of these fields stocked with individuals who are working at the game that they love, I think that’s going to be a feel-good moment for a lot of people.”
Some 153 players will be on the fields on Monday when the Cardinals open their Minor League Spring Training under the warm Florida sun. There will be 82 pitchers, 28 outfielders, 26 infielders, 17 catchers and 26 field-staff members. At the forefront of that group of players will be standout second baseman Nolan Gorman, left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore and slugging third baseman Jordan Walker -- the franchise’s top three prospects, per MLB Pipeline.
New Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol and bench coach Skip Schumaker will be present for the Minor League workouts in observatory roles, Mozeliak said.
Cardinals fans in the Jupiter area will be welcome to watch the workouts on the back fields of the sprawling complex. That’s just another aspect of trying to return Minor League workouts to a sense of normalcy following two years of upheaval. Also, the Cardinals will resist the urge to move Minor League games -- scheduled to begin on March 17 -- to Roger Dean’s main stadium to also maintain some normalcy for their Minor Leaguers, some of whom are as young as 18.
“I have not asked that question, nor do I think that’s a great idea at this point,” Mozeliak said of Minor League games potentially being played in the stadium instead of the smaller back fields of the complex. “Candidly, I think keeping the routine as routine as possible is probably what’s best for everybody.”
Mozeliak and his staff are still processing the full effects of Minor League baseball being heavily disrupted by the pandemic that has gripped the nation much of the past two years. Those disruptions could have played a role in the Cardinals' Minor League franchises all enduring major struggles in 2021. The Triple-A Memphis Redbirds (61-67), Double-A Springfield Cardinals (45-75), High-A Peoria Chiefs (45-75) and Low-A Palm Beach Cardinals (37-80) all struggled, leading to one of the franchise’s worst combined records in years.
Some of the reason for that, Mozeliak contended, was the Cardinals' aggressive nature in challenging their prospects. Whereas Liberatore might have spent the year at Double-A in normal circumstances, the Cardinals instead positioned him at Triple-A while trying to speed up his progress. Others, such as left-handed slugger Alec Burleson and Walker, received midseason promotions to test their skills and challenge them personally.
“Using the last 24 months, looking back, 2020 was a disaster because there was no [Minor League] baseball and that was very challenging,” Mozeliak surmised. “Last year, there was an abbreviated camp and a shorter season, but at least people were able to get back on the field, and they were with their managers and coaches.
“We were probably one of the youngest Minor League systems in all of baseball [last year], and that had a direct effect on it. Ultimately, we decided to put players in spots where we thought we were pushing them a little bit and to challenge them. … I will say, historically, that has been a philosophical issue. Coming off the pandemic, we were doing the math of where would [players] have been had they had a normal year. In hindsight, that was maybe a little too aggressive. You certainly saw it affect the win-loss column, but I do think from a developmental standpoint, a lot of people grew from it.”
One such player is top prospect Gorman. Gorman, the 19th overall pick of the 2018 MLB Draft, hit 11 home runs at Springfield and another 14 at Memphis in '21. He has been in Jupiter for weeks while working with Minor League infield coordinator José Oquendo to help him transition from third base to second base. If Gorman’s glove is sound, he has a chance to start the season at the Major League level because of the organization’s need for a left-handed thumper.
With no Major League players on hand this spring, Mozeliak and his staff will have plenty of time to evaluate the progress of top prospects such as Gorman, Liberatore and Walker in workouts. Another top prospect, Masyn Winn, will focus solely on playing shortstop this spring instead of splitting time as a hard-throwing pitcher and a middle infielder, Mozeliak said.
“Overall, the men who showed up early, they were taking advantage of their time, and Nolan was doing just that,” Mozeliak said. “Very impressive from what I could see. I think these guys are pacing themselves, but also taking advantage of some wisdom from people like a José Oquendo.
“With [Gorman], his development and how he’s growing and creating more value for himself by being able to play multiple positions, it’s a positive. And from an offensive standpoint, we’re all excited to see what he’s capable of doing.”