JUPITER, Fla. -- By the standards of most, Nolan Arenado’s 2021 season -- one that saw him win a ninth straight Gold Glove Award and make the All-Star team a sixth time, all while helping the Cardinals reach the playoffs -- was a spectacular one.
However, by Arenado’s own impossibly high standards, some of the struggles he endured while hitting 34 home runs and driving in 105 runs last season left him feeling unfulfilled. Those issues, real or imagined, demanded Arenado’s full attention throughout the offseason and led to him retooling a swing that helped him become one of baseball’s best third basemen. Greatness, you see, is a never-ending chase, and the 30-year-old said he expects more out of himself than what he provided in his first year as a Cardinal.
“To be honest, it did bother me,” Arenado said, referring largely to his .255 batting average in 157 games last season. “I thought last year was a good season, and I was very proud of some of the things that I accomplished, but it wasn’t good enough for this team. I know some of these guys would say that I had a fine season, but in my heart I didn’t feel like I did nearly enough.”
Arenado’s feelings stem from not being able to take full advantage of a season in which he felt he had a chance to win in a big way for the first time in his Major League career. Unlike his first eight seasons in Colorado, where the Rockies were often the plucky underdogs hoping to sneak into the playoffs, Arenado was inspired by being a part of a Cardinals organization with a rich history of success and an insatiable desire for more.
Alongside fellow star corner infielder Paul Goldschmidt, the likely Hall of Fame battery of Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina and a bevy of young and talented players, Arenado knows the Cardinals have a shot once again to win it all. Unlike last season, when St. Louis fell in the NL Wild Card Game to the Dodgers, Arenado said there will be widespread disappointment if the Cardinals aren’t World Series contenders.
“We’re very confident in this team and we believe in who we are,” Arenado said. “God willing, we’ll stay healthy so we can play to our potential. If we do, I really think we can accomplish some great things.”
Arenado’s focus and readiness for Spring Training has already been noticeable to new Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol and several of Arenado’s teammates.
Three batters into Spring Training, Arenado made a diving stop to his left and threw a runner out from his knees. In his second at-bat of the spring, Arenado laced a fastball into the gap to plate his team’s first runs. And on Tuesday in the Cardinals' 4-3 win over the Marlins, Arenado fouled off a couple of pitches on a 3-2 count and then drilled a pitch 394 feet over the left-center fence for his first spring home run.
Marmol said that he got reports early in camp that Arenado was “as ready to go, probably, as he’s ever been,” and the manager has seen nothing to debunk that information. Marmol isn’t surprised that Arenado was displeased with a season many Major Leaguers would love to have.
“That’s what makes him great, he’s never satisfied,” Marmol marveled. “He’s always looking for ways to improve, and that’s the sign of a great player. Those guys have higher expectations of themselves than you can put on them.”
Cardinals fans also had high expectations for Arenado last season, and he wasted no time in earning hero status in St. Louis lore. In his first game at Busch Stadium as a Cardinal, Arenado launched a two-run homer off Milwaukee’s Drew Rasmussen in the eighth inning of a 3-1 victory. Even though the crowd was limited to 13,328 fans because of COVID-19 restrictions, Arenado was given a curtain call -- one he said was the first of his career.
Arenado eclipsed his career averages of 30 home runs (34) and 96 RBIs (105), but he was bothered by his batting average slipping to .253 in 2020 and .255 last season. In the batting cage several days a week throughout the offseason, Arenado changed the positioning of his hands to help make himself quicker to the ball. All of it was done so that he can present a better version of himself in a season that he will be infinitely more comfortable with and a season in which he believes the Cardinals will contend.
“I don’t know how the season is going to turn out, but I feel very confident in where I’m at compared to last year, no question,” Arenado said. “I’m in a better place -- 10 times better place -- than I was coming into Spring Training last year. I know what I’m getting myself into and last year I really didn’t. From a physical, mental and swing standpoint, I’m in a way different spot now and that’s a good thing.”