106 or bust? Hicks will settle for return to health

January 20th, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals closer on Sunday showed off his full right arm extension -- and added in a left arm extension, just for good measure -- demonstrating the health he feels about six months after he had Tommy John surgery.

Hicks is still eyeing midseason as the time for him to return. While the Cardinals were playing in October, Hicks was beginning his lifting program, and he said he has gained 10 pounds. He began playing catch when he moved from St. Louis to the Cardinals complex in Jupiter, Fla., after Christmas and is throwing two to three times a week. He also has started fielding drills with coach Jose Oquendo.

“Feels really strong,” Hicks said, “headed the right direction, in my opinion. … I’m pretty much a day-by-day kind of person. I don’t look too far ahead. I’m not like trying to make future goals right now. I’m trying to take it one step at a time -- be myself, get strong and get back out there. Right now, it’s about tossing. It’s not about full-intent throwing.”

This past season was Hicks’ first as the Cardinals’ closer. In June, he tore his UCL and required a full repair. The recovery timetable puts his return at around the All-Star break, and the Cardinals have allowed some flexibility in that timeline because of the impact that his type 1 diabetes might have on rehabbing. Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch praised Hicks’ recovery this offseason, especially staying in St. Louis from the start of the offseason to the holidays.

“[Diabetes] can, at times, impact blood flow and the like, so that can impact his recovery time,” Girsch said. “They were going to be cautious. They were not going to push the envelope just because he was feeling good because he had an additional complication relative to the average guy who has had Tommy John.

“As far as putting together that schedule, he’s been able to stick to it perfectly fine because everything has gone well. … It was more about just being aware that he had a physical complication that could impact his recovery. So far, there’s been no evidence of any sort of issue, so he’s been progressing pretty well.”

Known as the fireballer who averages 100 mph on his fastball, Hicks has fielded many velocity questions from fans this weekend at Winter Warm-Up. He’s seen the “106 mph or bust” comments on his Instagram -- but his goal is just to get back to the mound healthy.

“At the end of the day, it feels really strong right now,” Hicks said. “I don’t have any goals. I don’t care to throw 106, none of that. I know how I pitched before without 100, and I know how my stuff moves. I feel like a better pitcher nowadays just having two years under my belt, and I’m very confident regardless of the velocity. It makes [it] a little bit easier throwing 100 mph, but, at the same time, I feel like I have good enough stuff.”

Carlson has chance to compete for a roster spot
Outfielder , ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Cardinals’ top prospect, has never played a game in the Major Leagues, but he’s experiencing full fanfare at Winter Warm-Up -- Cardinals fans lining up to get his autograph and photos with him, and, of course, asking when he’s going to make his big league debut.

“It’s a real honor to be here,” Carlson said. “For me, personally, my only goal each and every day is to find a way to get better. So, for me, I try to keep it as simple as possible. And that's the way I look at things.”

Carlson, 21, blossomed in the Texas League in 2019, earning All-Star honors and the league Player of the Year honor. He had a .281/.364/.518 slash line with a .882 OPS and 21 home runs over 108 games. When he was promoted to Triple-A Memphis late in season, he hit .361/.418/.681 with a 1.098 OPS over 18 games.

Left fielder is still on the free-agent market, and manager Mike Shildt is holding out hope that Ozuna will return. But if he doesn’t, there’s an open path for some of the younger outfielders to take hold of a lineup spot -- and Carlson is one of them. , and are among the others, and and also are outfield options.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with any other possible additions to the roster,” Shildt said. “If it doesn’t happen, we’ve got guys who can compete, and definitely Dylan is one of them. Based on not only Spring Training – I don’t want him to feel like he’s got to come in and hit whatever. He’s just got to go play. Go play. Play the game the right way. Continue to evolve. Get better. Be a part of what we’re trying to do, and then see where he fits in the greater picture of where we compete.”

Carlson says he can play all three spots in the outfield -- he just wants to be in the lineup anyway he can -- and Shildt said the Cardinals are comfortable he can start in left and right. Carlson told reporters Sunday that he has gained about 10 pounds this offseason from weight training and is doing everything he can do to be ready for Spring Training.

“I'm just looking forward to getting out there and playing, honestly,” Carlson said. “All the work I've put in and just all the things I've worked towards, I'm really excited to get out there and just show everyone what I can do -- whatever the role is. Me, personally, I don't know the role, so I'm just going to go out there and play when they have me go in. I'm real excited and eager to get out there and get going.”

Gomber looking toward a healthy 2020
Left-hander has had a normal offseason after he was sidelined for much of 2019 with first a left biceps injury and then shoulder weakness. After making eight Triple-A starts to begin 2019, he was sidelined for three months. After he returned Aug. 23, he pitched only 4 1/3 innings over four games before the end of the Minor League season.

Because of that, he has had a slightly extended offseason and is hoping 2020 gives him the health he needs to stay in the Majors. He’s going to Spring Training as a starter, but he’s open to any role the Cardinals see for him. Before his injuries last season, Gomber was going to be used for rotation depth -- similar to his 2018 role. With working toward a return to the rotation, along with the signing of Korean left-hander Kwang-Hyun Kim, Gomber could be in a similar role this year.

“It’s a wait-and-see type thing, right?” Gomber said. “I could say I’m healthy, but until I go out there and throw and they see that I’m what I was before, if not better, then they’re not going to come in here and tell me I have a role, which I understand.

“I feel like if I was healthy, I would have made starts here last year. So that’s my plan. But if halfway through Spring Training they tell me I’m going to be in the bullpen, I’m not going to be frustrated about that or anything. For me, it’s just I’m excited to pitch again. I’m excited to get back out there.”

Worth noting
• Thomas has no restrictions after he ended the season on the injured list with a right wrist fracture. The 24-year-old will compete for an outfield spot come Spring Training.

“Lane made a great impression in his limited time in the big leagues last year,” Girsch said. “We know he’s an athlete; we know he can play defense. I think for the most of these guys, hitting the ground running offensively at Spring Training is going to be a big factor in sort of what their spring looks like and sort of how the season begins for each of them.”

• Right-hander , who avoided arbitration this year with a one-year contract, said he’s coming to Spring Training as a starter, hoping to get a chance at the rotation. Gant was a viable piece out of the bullpen last year, going 11-1 with a 3.66 ERA over 66 1/3 innings in 64 outings. With Martínez looking to return to the rotation, the Cardinals need a closer until Hicks returns. Gant is seen as one of those options.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Gant said. “I’d love that. Ultimately, I just want to pitch. But I’d like to get a chance to crack that rotation.”

• The Cardinals are planning to have around 70 players in big league Spring Training -- their largest contingent in years -- because there won’t be an early camp for top prospects this year. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Saturday that he doesn’t think that number will get much higher between now and when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 11 in Jupiter.