JUPITER, Fla. -- Walk into the Cardinals' clubhouse and you’ll see many of the top prospects that the club has brought to big league camp this spring. There’s outfielder Dylan Carlson, who has a locker next to the other Cardinals’Major League outfielders. There’s No. 2 prospect Nolan Gorman on the other side of the room, and next to him is Matthew Liberatore, the lefty acquired from the Rays this offseason.
A few shared lockers down from those two sits Kodi Whitley. He’s the Cardinals’ 14th-ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and he’s taking in his first big league camp as a non-roster invitee. His path to the Majors might be overshadowed by the higher ranked prospects around the complex this spring, but after what he’s shown the Cardinals over the last year, he’s not too far off from a bullpen role in St. Louis.
After being drafted as a reliever in the 27th round of the 2017 MLB Draft, Whitley had a breakout year this past season. The 24-year-old had success at three levels, starting the year in Class-A Advanced Palm Beach and finishing the year in Triple-A. At Double-A Springfield, Whitley had a 1.83 ERA in 31 games (39 1/3 innings), and in 16 games (23 2/3 innings) in Triple-A Memphis, he had a 1.52 ERA. He improved his stock even more after the fact with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League.
“The year before, we kind of made some changes mechanically and with analytics, just seeing how my stuff plays,” Whitley said. “I took that into Spring Training last year, and it kind of took off. Just started to attack the zone more and trust my stuff in the zone. The numbers were making sense, and I was seeing results on the field as well. It was just a confidence thing, and it grew over time.”
Whitley tallied 78 strikeouts last year -- compared to 19 walks -- along with a 1.07 WHIP. He also allowed just three home runs in 67 1/3 innings. His high strikeout rate was in part of because of higher velocity on his fastball, which sits at 95-96 mph. He uses his slider as a secondary swing-and-miss pitch, and he focused on improving his changeup this fall, too.
Suddenly, Whitley realized, his ultimate goal -- the Majors -- is closer than he thought. The Cardinals are returning most of the relievers from last year’s bullpen, but Whitley has pitched his way to being an option if the Cardinals need bullpen help this season.
“It just gives you the confidence going forward, knowing that your stuff doesn’t play at just one level, it plays all the way up to Triple-A,” Whitley said. “I went from High-A, where you don’t really think about stuff like that, to Double-A, where you’re like, ‘It’s there, but still far away.’ And then I went to Memphis and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m one step away.’ It’s been cool to experience.”
Mike Shildt hopes sign stealing issue dies down
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt and his staff have been proactive in preparing pitchers and catchers for any sign-stealing attempts they might see once the season starts, but he hopes that after the Astros’ scandal, those attempts will stop happening.
“First of all, we’re very clear about how we compete and how we want to honor the integrity of the game,” Shildt said. “Been sleeping pretty well at night, knowing we’ve done that and continue to do that.
“But we’re also mindful of the fact that it’s an issue. Hopefully it’s a dead issue in our game. We’ve been proactive about what that looks like and making sure that we’re not giving away any edges in competition. We’ve already made sure we’ve started that internally in our camp.”
Shildt said he made sure his players know that there’s an open dialogue in the clubhouse to speak up if they see something illegal happening when facing another team or even going on in their own clubhouse.
“We’re always going to have the open-door, internal conversations to make sure we have the checks and balances -- which we do,” Shildt said. “Our staff and players interact quite well. We have a like-minded integrity about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”