By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
JUPITER — Perhaps the most illustrative attitude witnessed at unofficial workouts at the Cardinals spring training facility on Monday morning was that of a young pitcher, overheard expressing surprise to a teammate that so many people were here and working so early in the morning.
“I was afraid I messed something up,” came the response.
Fear not. The Cardinals who haven’t yet reported to the complex in Florida are still within the bounds of acceptable reporting, but many of their teammates have been eager to get ahead of the curve and jump in quickly.
Of the players comprising the 40-man roster, at least 25 were seen in and around the clubhouse and fields either working out or preparing to do so. Others, like pitcher Adam Wainwright, have been at the complex in recent weeks preparing themselves for the official reporting deadline for pitchers and catchers on Tuesday.
Position players aren’t required to be on site for another full week, and yet seven of the eight players who are expected to be in the team’s opening day lineup were already going through workouts, in some cases as a unit.
The most intriguing addition to that group was 17-year-old Malcom Nunez, seen running through different types of ground balls hit by José Oquendo next to Matt Carpenter. Nunez then followed Carpenter to a back field where the third baseman-presumptive joined Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong and Paul Goldschmidt in a series of drills.
Nunez’s presence in that group speaks volumes about the future the Cardinals envision for the almost-too-young-to-believe Cuban third baseman who put up eye-popping numbers – a .414 batting average and 1.272 OPS – in last year’s Dominican summer league.
The other scenes of spring were those that you might expect. Four of the five pitchers frequently projected to be in the opening day pitching rotation took the mound for a bullpen throwing session, with Miles Mikolas next to Carlos Martínez and Jack Flaherty next to Michael Wacha. Only Wainwright was absent. Alex Reyes, himself a rotation candidate, ran through a series of drills and played catch on a back field, but did not climb the mound with the others.
Other changes were more subtle. Oliver Marmol, formerly the first base coach, is now the bench coach and the next in line to take up the manager’s helm in the event that Mike Shildt finds himself removed from a game by an aggrieved umpire. He laughed when asked if friends have been encouraging him to encourage Shildt to find his temper and increase his chances of taking the reins.
Pitcher Dakota Hudson was seen introducing himself to his namesake battery mate, catcher Joe Hudson. The landscape of spring training locker assignments was evaluated and there was great disappointment that pitcher Tommy Layne and outfielder Lane Thomas didn’t end up as locker neighbors. Daniel Ponce de Leon’s jersey hung with his name freshly corrected, the “de” in lower case. He may be the only Cardinal to ever receive that distinction.
Fresh jersey numbers were also seen all over the clubhouse. Jack Flaherty transitioned to 22 from 32, now available with the departure of former manager Mike Matheny. Austin Gomber switched to 36 from 68, and with Francisco Peña’s former 46 now worn by Goldschmidt (pitcher Luke Gregerson has Goldschmidt’s former 44), Peña seized 47. His father Tony, a former Cardinal catcher, wore 26, which remains available with the departure of Bud Norris.
All around the complex on Monday, the mood of settling in was unmistakable. Pitchers who are unlikely to need their batting helmets much – if at all – were being fitted and asking for replacements if they were uncomfortable. An equipment assistant was dispatched in search of socks for one player while another politely inquired about the location of baseballs with which to play catch.
The air of anticipation is understandable and, indeed, welcome. After three baseball seasons in St. Louis without a trip to the postseason and with many moving roster pieces at the end of 2019, this group understands that its construction is designed to chase victories in the short term.
The best way to start is by running, and several Cardinals were doing that on Monday morning as well. Throwing, too. And lifting sets of weights in a workout room whose overhead door was left open to a muggy and breezy morning punctuated by occasional showers. It looked, to the untrained eye, like a functioning camp running at near-full steam.
You can excuse the young pitcher for his anxiety about getting the schedule wrong.