The great Joe DiMaggio said it: “You always get a special kick on opening day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”
Yep. I’m feeling something like that.
We’re getting close: A week from Thursday, March 29. Citi Field in New York, Cardinals at Mets.
First pitch scheduled for 12:10 p.m., St. Louis time.
Carlos Martinez vs. Noah Syndergaard.
(In case you’re wondering, which you probably aren’t, new Cards left fielder Marcell Ozuna has three hits in 14 career at-bats vs. Syndergaard, with a homer and four strikeouts.)
As another spring-training sun begins to go down, I’m thinking about what to make of Camp Jupiter 2018. More than anything — to me, anyway — are the surprises. There’s been a bunch of them.
Before we continue, I’d like to say something in advance: jinxes do not exist.
History’s greatest baseball announcer has my back.
When asked about fans who lose their minds complaining over a broadcaster jinxing a no-hitter in progress, Vin Scully said: “It’s insulting the listeners to make them think they’re silly and superstitious enough to believe my telling them that a no-hitter is going will affect the game.”
Let’s have a look at the surprises…
1. Really surprised that manager Mike Matheny is relaxed and happy and embracing change. Fired up by the new coaching staff. Understanding how much pitching coach Mike Maddux will help him. Understanding (finally) how much he needs Jose Oquendo. The spies do not lie. The spies do not regurgitate spin. The spies are not susceptible to the media Stockholm Syndrome that afflicts credential holders inside the gates. The spies are cynical. And the even the jaded spies think if Matheny can just stay this way … well, there may be hope after all. Long live The Manifesto.
2. Pleasantly surprised that the Cardinals front office didn’t even try to pretend that young backup catcher Carson Kelly would start more than seven games this season as the designated successor to Yadier Molina. (Well, more than seven, but … ) Kelly will do some more prospecting at Triple A Memphis. And by the time Kelly is actually is allowed to graduate to the role of starting catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, he’ll be 47 years old. Two words: trade chip. Look, Molina will play as many games as he chooses to play. And when Yadier wants to play, what do you expect from Matheny? How would you like all three Molina brothers coming after you on Instagram, or in radio interviews? Catchers can’t block runners, but catchers can block prospects. No knock on Yadier. It’s his job. He’s earned it. And the Cardinals gave him a three-year, $60 million contract that will run through 2020. This is EXACTLY what we knew would happen. So why should president of baseball operations John Mozeliak or GM Michael Girsch be a phony about the situation?
3. Delightfully surprised by Adam Wainwright. In 2017, that right elbow was much worse and problematic than we outsiders knew. That elbow was killing his career … and Uncle Charlie’s career, too. When the medics removed all of the bric-a-brac from Waino’s elbow last fall, they found all sorts of things: loose fragments, gristle, sunflower-seed shells, a couple of burnt ends from Pappy’s, bits of hardtack from the Civil War Era, and particles of concrete from Shea Stadium from the night he struck out Carlos Beltran. But seriously … if Wainwright is healthy, and he can snap his pitches, and he can attack hitters with his old friend Uncle Charlie … he can be a solid starter. At least.
4. Gratefully surprised that there have been no serious injuries, and remember what Vin Scully said. We are adults here, and there is no bogeyman in your closet.
5. A little surprised by the large number of bullpen arms amassed by the Cardinals. I knew this was coming, but it’s a nice surprise to see how the team is putting together the parade. A lot of of your friends, and my friends, still don’t understand the bullpen plan this season. This will not be a seven-man bullpen … will not be an eight-man bullpen … it won’t be a 10-man bullpen … it will be a 12-man, bullpen, or maybe even a 14-man bullpen. The relievers with minor-league options will be taking that I-55 express from St. Louis to Memphis and back — again and again — all season. Tired relievers will hit the road to Memphis. Fresh relievers will be cycled back to St. Louis. This isn’t forming a bullpen or bullpen decisions based on eight guys; it’s about having a much deeper pool to draw from. And view them as one unit. The Maddux army of relievers. For fans who prefer the cookie cutter stuff, this is going to be a hard summer for you.
6. In a related note, happily surprised for Mike Mayers, who has recovered from that hideous MLB debut against the Dodgers in 2016 and reinvented himself as a 98-mph son-of-a-gun reliever. He’ll be part of the floating crew. He may even be saving some games.
7. Surprised that pitching prospect Jack Flaherty grew up so quickly — very, very quickly — after appearing to be about 14 years old late last season when he made his made his MLB pitching debut. This spring, when he checked into Jupiter, the spies were like, “Who is that veteran dude? Did the Cardinals sign a free-agent? This guy looks looks like a beast on the mound.” Flaherty went from kid to adult in about 23 minutes, and his fastball went from OK to about 95 mph and “whoa, that thing is hungry and looking to eat.”
8. Luke Weaver; I’m surprised that no one is really talking about him as a break-out candidate for 2018. He’s really, really good. And before you say “But what happens when he pitches 170 innings and hits the wall,” I refer you back to Item No. 5 in this here report … the Mike Maddux army of relievers.
9. I’m surprised that I was so impressed by the Cardinals’ young outfielders. They have approximately 67 in the collection; that’s an intentional exaggeration. And it seems that every single one of these guys is athletic, speedy, toolsy, etc. When the Cardinals traded outfielder Stephen Piscotty to Oakland for a couple of “prospects” I didn’t know about Yairo Munoz. Never heard of him. He was part of the trade. He can play shortstop. He can play third. He can play second. He can play center field. And left and right. And he’s skilled. And he has some bang. Hell, Munoz may make the big club coming out of camp. There’s Adolis Garcia, Orlando Mercado, Randy Arozarena, Jonathan Machado, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill (when healthy). I don’t know where they’re all going to play, but prospects can be traded you know.
10. I think I’m surprised that starting pitcher Miles Mikolas settled down so quickly after his two kind of alarming “What … In … The … World?” starts to begin the Grapefruit League fun and games. Not saying Mikolas is going to conquer the NL. But I think this does say something about the astute Maddux and his ability to detect flaws and make quick fixes.
11. Surprised that Carlos Martinez is experimenting with a cutter. Don’t think he needs it. I could be wrong.
12. Surprised and disappointed that Marcell Ozuna is under the radar. That’s because so many fans have taken an attitude that the Ozuna deal doesn’t really count because team ownership traded for him instead of picking out some overrated free agent and overpaying the overrated free agent vast sums of money. It’s really funny. Yeah, I really wish Bill DeWitt would be incredibly stupid and hand out massive contracts money on players of limited value instead of signing off on a sensible trade that delivered a power hitter entering his prime. DeWitt just can’t seem to bring himself to dousing a pile of $150 million dollars with gasoline and setting it on fire. I have no idea what’s wrong with him. Why is he so cheap?
13. Very surprised that so many veterans players now realize how much they missed Oquendo. And realize how much he can do for them to improve their performance defensively and in touring the bases. They should have known this before. But if it means they’ll have even greater appreciation for the master teacher and instructor, that’s cool.
14. I’m surprised that if I had to choose a No. 1 star in camp, it would be … Maddux.
“The only thing I’d add,” said Girsch in concluding an interview, “is how excited we are to have Mike Maddux on the staff. As much as we like promoting from within an rewarding our staff with opportunities for advancement, sometimes it’s helpful to have an outside voice bringing new ideas to the organization. Maddux has the perfect resume and personality to introduce new ideas to both players and staff members in a way that gets everyone excited and hopefully makes everyone better. How exactly it translates to us being better on the field, I don’t know. But he has definitely brought a fresh perspective that has been a great addition.”
15. I’m surprised by my optimism. I’m feeling better about the Cardinals now. I wasn’t so sure before camp. But I always play it straight. And my optimism is misplaced, then I’ll talk about that too. Praise when warranted. Criticize when warranted.
Thanks for reading …