Excitement 'very real' as Cards open camp

February 17th, 2021

Not at Cardinals camp in 2021 are the usual handshakes and hugs, the long catch-up chats, the speeches from franchise legends and motivational speakers -- at least in person. The Cards are not alone in this reality; every team is adapting to unique circumstances at Spring Training in order to ensure safety.

But there is still palpable excitement.

“One of the things I can tell you is that the anticipation for the start of today is still very real,” said president of baseball operations John Mozeliak on Wednesday, the report date for pitchers and catchers to Jupiter, Fla. “It's still exciting for everybody that's down here.”

Part of that has to do with the revamped roster, most obvious in the addition of superstar . The third baseman is part of a small group of position players to arrive early and start intake with the hope of getting a head start on preparation.

“I understand St. Louis is a lot of warm and fuzzy even in a cold temperature right now,” said manager Mike Shildt. “For a lot of reasons, including Nolan. ... He's a pillar to what we're doing as far as being strong on both sides of the baseball. And he also is a high-character guy that is super dedicated about winning and loves the game of baseball. He's going to fit right in.”

Joining Arenado among the early position players are outfielders Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and Justin Williams, as well as shortstop Paul DeJong. No pitchers and catchers have had issues arriving to camp except for right-hander Johan Oviedo, who is working through visa trouble, Mozeliak said. Other position players are set to arrive by Monday.

With that in mind, with a pennant-contending roster thought to be in the final stages of construction, do the Cards have another move in the works?

“Overall, very confident in the roster we have,” Mozeliak said. “Obviously, there's still some players out there -- and I can't imagine us doing anything on the Major League level at this point. But never say never. But ultimately, I feel like after we had our roster meeting yesterday, most everybody felt like we were in a pretty good spot. We felt like we had depth into our overall coverage. We feel pretty good about it.”


New coach, big role
The Cardinals made an under-the-radar hire ahead of Spring Training, bringing collegiate coach Dusty Blake aboard as their Major League pitching strategist. Blake, who had served as Duke’s pitching coach since December 2017, will be tasked with modernizing the Cards’ approach to pitching. He boasts an extensive background in Rapsodo, TrackMan and Edgertronic technology.

“We were looking for someone that had an understanding of advanced metrics, newer technologies, and Dusty was someone that was highly regarded at the collegiate level,” Mozeliak said. “And he had a strong relationship with Mike Shildt going into their history.”

Shildt and Blake are longtime friends, working together at Baseball For Life, a non-profit that mentors young baseball players in the Charlotte, N.C., area. Blake will work with a bullpen thought to be among the best in the National League, and a rotation not far behind.

“He's got a baseball background, understanding how the big picture of things look from a baseball perspective,” Shildt said. “But he's also got real expertise. And I don't use that word lightly.”

Doctor, doctor
Save for (out for the year after Tommy John surgery in September), every Cardinals player is thought to be healthy at the onset of camp. Most notably, right-hander (who missed 2020 after surgery to repair his right flexor tendon) is in line to be a full-go, Mozeliak said.

The club will be cautious with , their young flame-throwing righty who has not appeared in a game since June 2019. Hicks underwent Tommy John surgery that month and opted out of the '20 season as a high-risk individual (Type 1 diabetes).

Plans for closer?
Shildt said it’s far too early to cast anyone in the role just yet, and it “quite candidly probably won't even be figured out until the very, very end of Spring Training,” he said.

Hicks would be the logical fit, given his track record and pedigree, but his game readiness will need to be examined. What reassures Shildt is that he has a plethora of options with prior closing experience: Andrew Miller, Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes and Carlos Martínez also fit the bill -- the latter two of which are aiming for a spot in the rotation.

The Cards feel confident they can move someone into the role as spring progresses, even if there are less Grapefruit League games on the docket to test arms. For one, Mozeliak said there has been agreement among the East Coast pod teams to play all nine innings of game action and try to set up some “B” scrimmages on back fields.