Hope will be awaiting the Cardinals in two forms when they arrive in Cincinnati on Monday evening.
Three nights out from Opening Day against the Reds, their arrival will signal the beginning is near for a championship-hopeful campaign, with the blockbuster acquisition of Nolan Arenado bolstering confidence and excitement across all reaches of the organization.
And hope will also come in a way that it has for many Americans these days: The Cardinals are optimistic they will have doses of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot COVID-19 vaccine available for members of their traveling party who want it in Ohio, where eligibility for vaccination dropped to ages 16 and over starting Monday, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said.
“I would say that I'm hopeful people will do it,” Mozeliak said, “because obviously, the more vaccines that go into arms, ultimately, I think, the more freedom or normalcy we'll be able to experience.”
As for the players in Minor League camp, Mozeliak said the club is trying to secure vaccinations through the state of Florida before the players head to their respective Minor League cities by the scheduled starts of the seasons in May. If not, the club is optimistic about Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s announcement that vaccines will be available to all adults in the state by April 9.
All members of the alternate training site roster, which is yet to be released, should be vaccinated before the Cards’ home opener on April 8, Mozeliak said.
“I'm excited for our country, the fact there's an opportunity to get a vaccine that allows us to maybe get back to more normal things that allow us to enjoy life a little bit more, enjoy each other a little bit more,” said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. “... But I am grateful, man. We're going to have fans at Busch Stadium; we're going to have fans at different ballparks. It's what we play for, us to share our game with people that love the game with us.
“And so I'm excited for the season to get started. I'm glad we're playing a complete season. I'm glad it looks like there's a possibility for things to open up for our country and for our sport, and for our team to have more freedoms and enjoyment with our game. I'm ready for our team to play. I'm excited.”
• Kwang Hyun Kim (back tightness) could miss two to three turns in the rotation, Mozeliak said. He’ll throw again this weekend after appearing in a Grapefruit League game on Saturday but will not travel with the Cardinals to Cincinnati.
“We just have to see how he responds each time he gets that opportunity [to throw],” Mozeliak said.
• Miles Mikolas (right shoulder) is further behind, targeting a late April/early May return, as is Harrison Bader (right forearm soreness). Mikolas is playing catch but is yet to face live hitters since Feb. 25, and he will head to the alternate training site in Sauget, Ill.
Laying the outfield scene
The decision to option Lane Thomas on Sunday was a bit of a surprise. Yes, Thomas faded down the stretch of spring action, and yes, the Cards believe he’ll be a contributor at some point this season. But a Thomas-less bench gives the Cardinals only one true center-field candidate with Bader shelved.
“Overall, we still really believe in him,” Mozeliak said. “But when you look at the camp that [John] Nogowski and [Austin] Dean had, you can't ignore it.”
Dylan Carlson will get the lion’s share of reps in center field, but Mozeliak said that the club sees Tommy Edman sliding out there from second base as well. Edman is the everyday second baseman, but slotting him at center and shifting Carlson to the corners would allow Matt Carpenter to get some consistent at-bats at second base after a 2-for-37 spring.
“I think two things. One, past history and track record, of course,” Mozeliak said of Carpenter's spot on the roster. “I think, two, he did hit the ball hard. But remember, Daddy always said, ‘Hit ’em where they ain't.’ And unfortunately, he hits them where they are. That part of it wasn't ideal. And clearly, when you're looking at it from just a pure boxscore view, it was a bit head-scratching. But I do feel like there were some underlying factors that we feel there's some reason for optimism.”
The status quo until Bader’s return will likely be Tyler O’Neill in left, Carlson in center, Justin Williams/Dean/Nogowski in right and Edman at second, but the Edman's super-utility past gives the Cardinals flexibility. O’Neill could also make some starts in center.