A dreamer, Nootbaar sets goals for '24

February 26th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

JUPITER, Fla. -- In addition to owning a megawatt smile, the kind of personality others gravitate to, a thunderous swing and a newfound friendship with Mark McGwire, Cardinals outfielder is proudly and unapologetically a dreamer.

As a child growing up in suburban Los Angeles, Nootbaar dreamed about hitting the big homer as a Little Leaguer, about being the star quarterback at El Segundo High School or even heady stuff like throwing the touchdown pass that lifted his beloved USC Trojans past Notre Dame.

These days, all of Nootbaar’s dreams are about baseball. More specifically, one dream dominates his brain waves when he finally dozes off at night: What kind of player can he ultimately become for the Cardinals?

Will he be a solid everyday player? Can he grow his game to the point that he someday appears in an MLB All-Star Game or even several of them? Or will his hopes, dreams and talent launch him to the stratospheric levels of good friend and mentor Nolan Arenado, allowing him to blossom into a bona fide superstar capable of carrying the Cardinals?

Seemingly, all options are on the table for Nootbaar.

“I’ve always been a dreamer,” Nootbaar said with the wide-eyed look of a child. “Even when I was a little kid, whether it was Pop Warner [youth football], Little League or making the varsity [team], I would dream about throwing the big touchdown.

“Now, I lie in bed and wonder, 'What I can be in this game?' I would always wonder in Babe Ruth [youth baseball], high school and the Minor Leagues, ‘Does what I’m doing play in the big leagues?’ Now that I have some experience at this level, I realize it can. But there have to be changes that need to be made and that’s why I’ve always been a player who is versatile and adjustable. But, really, I see no reason why I can’t become who I want to be if I continue to work.”

Work ethic has never been in question with the 26-year-old Nootbaar, who was doing manual labor at an aeronautical company during the pandemic, and as someone who usually takes several hundred swings a day in batting cages before hitting the field. On one recent day at Cardinals camp, Nootbaar was sweating profusely following a hitting session, but nonetheless he headed back into batting cages when he saw Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado heading that way. His reasoning: “If they’re working, what’s my excuse?”

“I love having Lars around because he keeps me young with all of the energy he brings,” Arenado raved. “We have fun workouts, and we push one another. But Lars knows how to keep it light and that’s what I need.”

What Nootbaar needed over the offseason was to make adjustments to a swing he felt didn’t generate enough power in 2023. He drove the ball better after the MLB All-Star Game (.832 OPS, nine homers) than he did in an injury-filled first half (.740 OPS, five homers), but he wanted a swing that might help him better showcase his power potential. Who better to turn to for that knowledge than McGwire, the former Cards slugger who mashed 70 home runs in 1998 and has been teaching hitting for years?

“It’s funny because I had some shoes on that better help you feel grounded, but when [McGwire] came in, I changed because I didn’t want Mark McGwire to think I was crazy,” Nootbaar said of McGwire, who hit 583 MLB homers. “Then, [McGwire] was telling me and Nolan about these ‘grounded shoes’ and I was like, ‘I’ve got some right here!’

“We did some drills, and I was failing, failing and failing, but once I started to feel what [McGwire] wanted the drill to be like, I realized there are some good things that came with what he was teaching. Since then, me and Nolan were working on those things all offseason and it really benefited me.”

How much those adjustments will help boost Nootbaar’s potential remains to be seen. Arenado said there’s no reason Nootbaar shouldn’t be setting his sights on becoming an All-Star for the first time in 2024. For now, Nootbaar is simply dreaming about delivering as the kind of star hitter who can propel the Cards back into the playoffs.

“I take pride in having a good eye and not chasing pitches out of the zone and I want to maintain that,” Nootbaar said. “But when I get pitches to hit, I want to back-spin them and do damage. Who is somebody who does that well? Freaking Nolan Arenado, and I’m fortunate to learn from him. I want to do everything I can to maximize my potential and be the player I think I can be.”