By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
JUPITER — Cardinals reliever Chasen Shreve had an honest inquiry about the schedule in the midst of a conversation on Saturday morning. He wanted to know what exactly the media did with themselves all day.
He wasn’t accusing anyone of shiftlessness, of course. Shreve’s familiarity with the strictly regimented workouts of the players in camp left him wondering how those covering the team broke up their days to see as many players as possible. The freedom to move around is likely particularly envied by the team’s catchers as they find themselves shouldering a great deal of work as spring training gets underway.
“It’s very difficult,” said Joe Hudson, a catcher who’s starting his first season with the organization. “You can catch bullpens in the offseason all you want, but you can’t really prepare yourself to stand around for 4 or 5 hours at a time.”
“You can’t go walk around the mall in the offseason with cleats on.”
Hudson is one of eight non-roster invitee catchers on the Cardinals roster. He and the others – Jose Godoy, Andrew Knizner, Jeremy Martínez, Brian O’Keefe, Dennis Ortega, Francisco Peña and Julio Rodriguez – can be seen most days clad in their equipment in the warm Florida sun as they rotate through catching bullpen sessions for the 33 pitchers invited to major league camp. With Yadier Molina’s recovery from off-season knee surgery keeping him from behind the plate until mid-March, the workload for each catcher takes an uptick.
The pitchers are roughly divided into groups of four, each group pitching a formal session on alternating days. That means 16 pitchers every morning are in need of a receiver, leaving about two per catcher. At roughly 40 pitches per session – to start – that leaves every catcher receiving about the equivalent of five innings of work every single morning. That’s after their stretching and calisthenic work and before their batting practice.
“Early on you’re still getting your legs under you a little bit,” said Knizner. “I got down [to Jupiter] January 31st, so I kinda had that about 10, 12 day buffer of guys coming in. So I’ve been catching two to three pens a day.”
“I was playing winter ball so I was ready to go,” Peña said. “I was working out and at the same time I was playing so I think I’ll be good to go.”
Hudson, Knizner and Peña represent the three most likely candidates to fill the major league catching depth chart behind Molina. Peña, last year’s primary major league backup, is slotted for that same role this season. Hudson and Knizner are odds-on favorites to start the season at Triple-A Memphis, with Hudson taking the role of a veteran who can help guide the younger Knizner alongside the Redbirds staff.
“Part of being a catcher is opening up those lines of communication with the pitchers, and especially being a new guy, those lines become even more important to open,” Hudson said. “That’s the biggest key for me right now.”
Hudson made his major league debut for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last season at the age of 27, appearing in eight games behind the plate. He’s racked up 453 games played and 3782.1 innings caught over six minor league seasons, and that experience was part of what drew the Cardinals to him and him to the Cardinals.
“They were one of the first teams that called, and they made it a point that they had a plan for me and they wanted me here,” Hudson said. “Other teams called and they really couldn’t tell me what they wanted to do with me. They really didn’t have a plan. But the Cardinals seemed to make me believe that they wanted me here and they had a plan, and that felt good. That was a good call for me.”
After Carson Kelly was included in the trade which brought Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis from Arizona, Knizner became the organization’s top catching prospect. Now in his third major league spring training, he has developed a regimen based on experience and understanding both his body and the expectations of the team.
“It’s actually kind of like an art,” Knizner said about piecing together his offseason plan. “This is my third offseason so I have a little bit of experience. Each year I get better and better coming in, being able to take that workload right away.”
“I think physically, I’ve been ready every single spring training and I think this year’s no different. The plan I have is a good plan. I’m gonna stick with it until something crazy happens.”
Peña’s value to the club comes in the shared comfort between he and Molina and his experience in working with most of the club’s pitchers. He filled in admirably for more than a month when Molina suffered a groin injury and clearly has the esteem of the others in the clubhouse. “Frankie,” as he’s called, also understands the importance in developing a relationship with the pitching staff.
“I gotta give them the feedback but at the same time just get a little bit familiar groove going on with them,” Peña said. “I had them last year, but the guys that I don’t know, that’s what I try to take a little bit more pride in. See what they like to do, why they like to do it and go from there.”
Perhaps the most notable pitcher that Peña’s learning about is Andrew Miller, signed as a free agent to provide punch from the left side of the bullpen. He was Peña’s pick for the pitcher who surprised him the most in the early going, saying, “I caught Miller the other day and he was dotting some fastballs left and right. He was the one that surprised me the most in the way that he hides the ball and the way that he has that calmness on the mound.”
Hudson had high praise for Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty and John Brebbia. Mikolas is renowned for his ability to control each pitch in his arsenal, and Hudson noted the same. He said Flaherty’s fastball is “eye opening” in the way it “jumps out of his hand” and that Brebbia’s velocity was “sneaky. [Brebbia] might not light up a radar gun, but the velocity plays.”
Knizner opted for diplomacy. “Every bullpen I’ve caught so far, guys have been outstanding,” he said. “We’re talking first, second pen of spring training.”
“I’m telling you what, everybody looks good.”
Knizner specifically pointed to the mental approach of the pitching staff as something he noticed as a change from last year’s camp to this year’s. “They’re locked in,” he said. “They’re not up there just throwing pitches, they’re actually like, ‘ok, this is what I’m gonna do, and I’m gonna execute it.'”
That execution requires a full schedule for receivers. Thankfully, mercifully, and with a concession to Chasen Shreve, it’s a little more flexible for writers.