One fact about baseball which has never changed, and hopefully never will, is the beauty of four simple words after a long, cold winter: “Pitchers and catchers report.”
For the Cardinals, this year’s reporting date is earlier than normal, next Tuesday, followed by the first official workout a day later. Position players are scheduled to report to the team’s Jupiter, Fla., facility by Feb. 18, with the first full-squad workout set for Feb. 19. The exhibition schedule begins on Feb. 23.
There will be 63 players in the major-league camp, the 40 players on the roster and 23 non-roster invitees. All bear watching and have a story to tell, but naturally some will stand out. Presented in alphabetical order, these are 10 players who deserve the most attention over the next six weeks:
Dexter Fowler – Fowler was on this list a year ago as he joined the organization and he’s back again this year because of his anticipated move from center field to right field. Fowler had an up-and-down debut season with the Cardinals, not playing as well in center as anticipated but hitting with a little more power, also having to adjust to moving out of the leadoff spot because of Matt Carpenter’s success there, and lack of success in any other spot in the order. Fowler did not want to move out of center last season, and how he copes with the move to right will likely be one of this spring’s top storylines.
Luke Gregerson – Barring any late moves, Gregerson arrives in Florida as the Cardinals’ closer, a decision based primarily on his experience in that role. Knowing how the team struggled in the ninth inning in 2017, the bullpen was a point of emphasis for the organization this winter, but most observers thought Gregerson was signed as a free agent to fill more of a setup role and another newcomer would fill the closer role. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet, which leaves the Cardinals counting on Gregerson, at least until another younger pitcher is ready to assume that role.
Ryan Helsley – One of the younger pitchers identified by John Mozeliak as a candidate to become a closer in the future is Helsley, one of the organization’s latest small college finds who has become a legitimate prospect. Drafted in the fifth round from Northeastern (Okla.) State in 2015, the right-handed Helsley, 23, will be in camp as a non-roster player. He reached Memphis at the end of last season and in his first 52 professional games (49 of them starts) he has gone 22-6 with a 2.22 ERA and has averaged more than one strikeout per inning.
Jordan Hicks – During his media briefing at the team’s Winter Warmup in January, Mozeliak also mentioned Hicks as a candidate to be moved from a starting role to closing. Hicks, 21, throws harder than Helsley – hitting triple digits – but is not as far along with the other aspects of his development. He split last season between the organization’s Class A teams in Peoria and Palm Beach, going 8-3 with a 2.74 ERA. In most of the Cardinals’ off-season trade conversations, Hicks’ name was brought up frequently by other teams.
Dominic Leone – One of the two pitchers obtained from the Blue Jays in the Randal Grichuk trade, Leone is another hard-throwing right-handed reliever. A product of Clemson University, Leone was drafted by the Mariners but also has already pitched for Arizona and Toronto. He had a very good season last year, appearing in 65 games and recording 81 strikeouts in 70 innings. If Gregerson is closing games, Leone figures to be one of the top setup relievers along with John Brebbia and Matt Bowman.
Miles Mikolas – A free agent signee, Mikolas last started a game in the major leagues for the Texas Rangers on Aug. 25, 2014 before heading to Japan, where he had three outstanding seasons. His performance there prompted the Cardinals to sign the 29-year-old right-hander to a two-year deal and pencil him into a spot in the starting rotation, basically replacing Lance Lynn. The challenge for Mikolas will be to show that he can have the same success in the majors which he enjoyed in Japan, where he was a combined 31-13 with a 2.18 ERA in 62 starts.
Tyler O’Neill – When the Cardinals traded former first-round pick Marco Gonazles to the Mariners last July for O’Neill, one of the reasons was the fact they believed O’Neill was unlike any players in the farm system, a player with legitimate major-league power. Between the organizations Triple A teams, he hit 31 homers last year, a total reached by only nine players in the minor leagues. With the power came a lot of strikeouts, however, 151 in 495 at-bats. Just 22, O’Neill definitely has some time on his side to learn how to retain his power stroke and cut down on that total.
Marcell Ozuna – The centerpiece of the Cardinals’ off-season moves, Ozuna figures to attract a lot of attention this spring with the hope that he can become the impact bat in the middle of the lineup the team has lacked since the departure of Albert Pujols after the 2011 season. In addition to what he is expected to provide on the field, Ozuna also arrives with a reputation as being a popular player and a leader in the clubhouse and he also has the built-in advantage of being friends with new teammates Yadier Molina and Carlos Martinez.
Daniel Poncedeleon – Of all the players in the Cardinals’ camp, nobody will be happier to be there than Poncedeleon, whose last game action came on May 9 last year, when he was hit in the head by a line drive while pitching for Memphis. Poncedeleon had to undergo emergency brain surgery, and his baseball future was not the doctor’s biggest worry at the time. He has since recovered, however, and will be in camp as a non-roster invitee eager to regain his prospect status and prove there will be no lingering effects from last year’s injury.
Alex Reyes – The Cardinals plan to bring Reyes along slowly this spring as he recovers from Tommy John surgery almost exactly a year ago, projecting he might not pitch in a regular-season game until May 1. Reyes’ performance and how his arm recovers this spring, however, could change that timetable, especially if he starts the year in the bullpen. The Cardinals do have a legitimate concern about trying to limit Reyes’ innings this season, wanting to be certain he still will be available to pitch in September, perhaps as a member of the rotation.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains for full spring training coverage
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