Top prospect Winn strong on all sides in spring debut

February 25th, 2024

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Minutes after Cardinals pitcher Gordon Graceffo instinctively jabbed out his pitching hand and tried unsuccessfully to grab a comebacker, hustling shortstop was pressing him with questions on Sunday at CACTI Park.

“I came in the dugout after trying to barehand that ball and [Winn] was like, ‘What are you doing?’” Graceffo said later of being accosted by his high-energy shortstop. “I was like, ‘What do you mean? I thought I could get it.’ He was like, ‘I was literally right there.’”

Of course, Winn was right there and ready to make what likely would have been another spectacular play on a day he dominated from start to finish. The rookie shortstop probably had a good case considering that he was almost everywhere making plays for the Cardinals in their 3-0 win over the Astros on Sunday.

Winn not only went 3-for-3 with two singles and a double in his Grapefruit League debut, but also stole a base and delivered the defensive play of the day by ranging to his right, backhanding a slow roller and throwing a dart to first to retire Houston speedster Trey Cabbage. It was quite the 2024 debut for the 21-year-old Winn, who missed time earlier this week with back stiffness and was unable to play in either of the Cardinals’ split-squad games on Saturday.

“It pissed me off -- not in a bad way -- but because I wanted to be out there,” Winn said of his delayed debut. “We had two games going and I couldn’t be a part of either one of them. Our training staff did a great job, and it felt great to be back out there.”

For Winn, his three hard-hit balls on Sunday were quite the introduction to 2024 considering the way he struggled at the plate late in 2023, when he made a six-week cameo with the Cardinals. In 37 games, Winn hit .172 with a .230 on-base percentage and nearly three times as many strikeouts (26) as walks (10). Those struggles led to doubts about whether Winn -- the top-ranked prospect in the Cardinals system, per MLB Pipeline -- was ready to become the team’s everyday shortstop for 2024.

In reality, those struggles somewhat humbled the usually brash Winn and caused him to work all offseason on improving his hitting. These days, his stance is a little wider, his leg kick isn’t as pronounced and his swing is shorter and quicker through the zone. On Sunday, he led off the game by roping a high fastball from Hunter Brown back up the middle for a single. Much the same in the third inning, Winn pounced on a high fastball from Bennett Sousa and ripped the ball past Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña. In the fifth, the Kingwood, Texas, native not only doubled down the line, but also got a congratulatory high five from Astros superstar second baseman Jose Altuve.

“He swung it well, he brings energy that you expect, and it was just good to see him out there doing his thing,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “He’s very confident. He believes in himself, we believe in him and he plays like it. … He has a certain confidence about him and doesn’t scare. When he goes through some struggles -- and we saw it last year -- he never backed down, and played the game with energy and confidence, which is hard to do.”

The play Winn made at shortstop was hard to do, but he made it look simple because of a throwing arm that once registered a 100.5 mph throw in the 2022 Futures Game. Even though he was shaded up the middle, Winn got to the ball hit to his right, and his throw was perfect despite an imperfect grip.

“I grabbed it like a palm ball or a changeup grip and tried to throw a fastball,” Winn recalled. “It was a nice sinker over there that [Luken] Baker handled. I’m happy to know that this [right arm] still works.”

If Winn sounds like a pitcher with the lingo he uses, it’s because he was drafted as a shortstop/pitcher prospect. He threw one inning of scoreless relief in High-A ball in 2021 before shifting his focus entirely to playing shortstop. However, he still reminds pitchers like Graceffo about his abilities on the mound nearly every day.

“Like three or four times a day,” said Graceffo, when asked how often Winn talks pitching. “He likes to tell us that he can take our jobs whenever he wants.”

For now, though, the only job Winn is focused on is being the Cards’ everyday shortstop.

“I definitely had some adjustments to make and I’m still working on it, but today was a good day,” he said with a smile.