With A Week To Go, Let’s Do An Audit of the Cardinals’ 2019 Spring Training

A week from now the Cardinals will be settling into Milwaukee and preparing to begin the regular season. Spring training, thankfully, is winding down. Let’s just hope that the Cardinals can avoid injuries or other mishaps in the final days of rehearsals.

I thought it would be a good time to do a fun, quick-hit audit of what’s transpired down on planet Jupiter. Let’s go through the categories:

Best part of spring training: the positive, early trend shown by the starting rotation. Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright have looked good. And even though Miles Mikolas has gotten knocked around a bit here of late, I wouldn’t sweat over that. The Cardinals have a starter ERA of 3.84 this spring; that ranks fourth among the 30 MLB teams.

Worst part of spring training: That’s easy. Despite having an entire offseason to work hard, train properly, and follow the team’s specific plan, Carlos Martinez and Marcell weren’t ready to go. Yeah, I’m still smoldering over their neglect to rehab their shoulders. There’s no excuse for that. And given the tough early schedule, with the Cardinals needed to stack as many wins as possible, they needed Ozuna and Martinez to be at maximum capacity. As is, no one knows for sure when Martinez will be ready to pitch … and there are at least questions, if not doubts, over Ozuna’s physical capability of coming through with a strong, early-season form.

Stock is rising: The 20-year-old outfield prospect, Dylan Carlson. He’s legit. So impressive that president of baseball operations John Mozeliak doesn’t rule out Carlson as a late-season possibility to be of service to the big-league roster should the Cardinals need outfield help. Carlson is advanced beyond his years in pitch recognition, and in strike-zone judgment. And his power will click in now that he’s moving from a Class A pitcher’s league to a Double A hitter’s league … It wasn’t a surprise, at least not with me, but Dakota Hudson responded to the challenge of an open competition for the No. 5 rotation spot by pitching beautifully and mastering hitters with his heavy sinker and slicing slider.

Stock is dropping:  Dexter Fowler. I’m not writing him off. But let’s be honest here, shall we? After experiencing a positive offseason, having the full support of the Cardinals’ front office and manager, and being handed the starting job in right field before he even arrived in Florida — Fowler carried a .194 batting average, .222 onbase percentage and .222 slugging percentage into Wednesday’s exhibition game. The Cardinals and the friendly media in Florida can talk all they want about improved exit velocity and Fowler’s increased strength. But none of this has translated into reassuring results. And we were looking for actual evidence — facts — to generate momentum and confidence for Fowler as he nears the start of the regular season. In 38 plate appearances Fowler has one extra base hit, one RBI, and only two walks, and 10 strikeouts.

Biggest surprise: The impatience of the fans who are ready to fire new batting coach Jeff Albert. Calm down. I know it’s been a rough spring. But can we hang on for a while … you know, maybe wait for the regular season to start? And some real games to be played? And can we take more than, say, a week or two of the regular season to deliver a verdict on Albert? The approach he’s teaching will pay off. Give it a reasonable amount of time, please.

Biggest concern: Bullpen. This team doesn’t have a reliable second lefty to pair with Andrew Miller, and that’s a problem in a division that’s loaded with acclaimed and dangerous left-handed hitters. And once again, Cardinals relievers are gifting opponents with too many walks. Cardinals relievers have the second-worst walk rate among the 30 teams. And the ERA (5.11) is ugly. But: it’s only spring training, and the bullpen should be a heckuva lot better than that. That said, I’m tired of watching STL relievers being wild and walking do many guys. That was a terrible problem last season.

Area of team that looks better than anticipated: I’m liking Kolten Wong’s spring. (Except for his recent illness.) The second baseman is a happy camper. And with offense (as usual) so difficult to fire up at Roger Dean Stadium, shortstop Paul DeJong has hit the ball the ball hard and limited his strikeouts. I’m up on the middle infield.

Area of team that looks worse than anticipated: It’s never smart to overreact to spring-training digits. (Yeah, and I break that rule too. So don’t feel bad. But we’d like to see some bats come alive for their the presumptive starting outfield of Ozuna, Harrison Bader and Fowler went into Wednesday with a combined .174 batting average, no home runs, two extra-base hits, and three RBIs in 120 plate appearances. They’d struck out 28 times with only eight walks.

What we like best about manager Mike Shildt’s first spring training: He’s organized, smart, has fun. He’s earned the trust of his players. The Cardinals have baseball issues, yes. (All teams do). But the overall morale and clubhouse culture should be much healthier this season.

What gives us pause about Shildt’s first spring training: The only thing that gives me “pause” is this: can Shildt make those agonizing decisions that await all managers? He’s supportive and positive and that’s good … but he’ll have to make lineup choices, and allocate playing time, and make changes, and sit certain players and pitchers who aren’t getting the job done. And that’s when hard feelings can set in. Shildt has to be the so-called “bad” guy in at times. EVERY manager does. I’m curious to see how he handles all of this, especially after spending the last couple of months heaping unconditional praise on every Cardinal in camp.

Late-camp worry: Matt Carpenter’s “back tightness.”

Late-camp thumbs-up: Paul Goldschmidt is getting closer to taking the field for the Cardinals’ home opener at Busch Stadium on April 4.

As spring training winds down, do I feel more — or less — optimistic about the Cardinals’ postseason chances? Answer: Probably less, slightly less, for this reason: this team faces a brutal early schedule and I’d like to see more lineup regulars be locked in and poised to put up a bunch of runs. The Cardinals will be taking on formidable or improving pitching staffs early — the Brewers (especially the bullpen), Pirates, Mets, Dodgers, Nationals, Phillies, Reds.) It would be nice to see this team establish early traction.

Thanks for reading …