JUPITER, Fla. • The wheeling, waiving, and maneuvering the Cardinals did earlier this offseason to squeeze a few prospects onto the 40-man roster assured some of the young players expected to surprise or contribute would be coming to spring training.
There wouldn’t be the non-roster lightning bolts like Jordan Hicks or Dakota Hudson or Ryan Helsley to watch as they made a bid to leapfrog onto the roster a little early.
This spring, as the Cardinals ready for their first official workout Wednesday, the list of non-roster invitees is a mix of promises (Francisco Pena), prospects (Dylan Carlson), and depth (Ryan Meisinger or Seth Elledge). The Cardinals signed Pena to be Yadier Molina’s backup this season, and once the 40-man roster allows some elasticity toward the end of spring he’ll be added for that role.
Otherwise, the NRIs have a harder climb to reach the majors than in many recent years. Lefty Evan Kruczynski could position himself on the depth chart, as could infielder Tommy Edman. The 40-man has been populated now with Genesis Cabrera, a rising lefty who could have an impact as a reliever in the majors, and Lane Thomas, a centerfielder who led the Cardinals’ minors in homers and could use spring to make his case for being a fourth or fifth outfielder in the near future. They already have an edge — they’re on the roster.
The NRIs will have a different feel as a result.
Of the 24 coming to camp with the Cardinals, eight are, of course, catchers. They’re needed to help prep the pitchers. Seven are free-agents signed to minor-league deals. Nine are Cardinals draft picks, but that includes only four pitchers. The top prospects coming to camp as NRIs are Carlson, catcher Andrew Knizner, outfielder Randy Arozarena, pitcher Jake Woodford, and a few young catchers.
The Cardinals do not have any of their highly regarded third basemen prospects listed as NRIs for spring, though at some point later in March it’s likely any of the group, which includes last year’s No. 1 pick Nolan Gorman, could get a cameo in Grapefruit League games. Malcom Nunez, the Triple Crown-winner in the Dominican Summer League this past year, has been around the Jupiter facility in recent works working out with some of the big-league players and participating in the infield drills run by coach Jose Oquendo.
Here are the 24 NRIs, with some details on a few.
RHP Chris Beck, a free-agent signing and former second-round pick who pitched in the majors this past season for the White Sox and Mets. ... LHP Hunter Cervenka. ... RHP Seth Elledge, who went 8-2 with a 2.13 ERA in 44 relief appearances for Class AAA Memphis this past season. Elledge, 22, came to the Cardinals from Seattle in exchange for Sam Tuivailala. ... RHP Mike Hauschild. ... RHP Connor Jones, a classic Cardinals’ draft pick straight out of central casting. Virginia alum spent most of 2018 at Class AA with a 3.80 ERA in 94 2/3 innings. ... LHP Evan Kruczynski, a sleeper of sorts for spring after posting a 2.50 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings in six starts at Class AA Springfield. The 23-year-old lefty — and yes, that helps enhance his place on the depth chart — was 7-6 overall in 21 starts this past season with 107 strikeouts and 31 walks in 115 2/3 innings. ... LHP Tommy Layne. ... RHP Ryan Meisinger, plucked off waivers from Baltimore and then passed through them to free up space on the 40-man roster. He remained in the organization as appealing depth. ... RHP Andrew Morales, former second-round pick. ... RHP Williams Perez, who was 8-2 with a 2.45 ERA in 17 starts split between Class AAA and Class AA for Seattle this past season. ... RHP Jake Woodford, a high pick in 2015 and a Florida native who seems to have been around for many, many years and yet asserted himself as an innings bulwark in Class AAA at only 22. The righthander went 8-13 overall this past season with a 4.90 ERA — but he made 28 starts at Class AA and Class AAA combined and pitched 145 innings. That's welcome stability given the natural volatility of minor-league rotations.
Jose Godoy. ... Joe Hudson, a free-agent added for depth. ... Andrew Knizner, the priority catcher for Class AAA Memphis and the current heir apparent to Yadier Molina. Expect to see a lot of him in spring training. ... Jeremy Martinez, a Southern Cal product who hit .237/.312/.358 with a .670 OPS this past season with 64 games at Class AA. ... Brian O’Keefe. ... Dennis Ortega, tall and strapping prospect who was praised last season for his eagerness to throw and the strength of his arm. He reached Low-A Peoria this past season and hit .257/.313/.384 there. Big-bodied, strong, and improving defensively. ... Francisco Pena, who returns as an NRI but doesn’t have to get past a prospect this season to win the backup job he held all of this past season. ... Julio Rodriguez.
SS/UT Tommy Edman, a Stanford product and former sixth-round pick by the Cardinals scooted up the depth chart this past season with a strong showing at Class AAA Memphis. The switch-hitter (please note) could be poised to be the team’s fielder off the bench as soon as 2020, following the footsteps of Daniel Descalso and Greg Garcia. The 23-year-old infielder hit .301/.354/.402 overall this past season, and in 109 games at Class AA he hit .318/.382/.394. ... 1B/OF Rangel Ravelo, a production source for the Redbirds’ recent run of success in Memphis, returns. ... 2B/UT Max Schrock, who was acquired along with Yairo Munoz from Oakland in the Stephen Piscotty trade. Schrock had his spring limited a year ago by an oblique strain, and then he starred during the Cardinals’ exhibition series in Montreal. That carried into April when he hit .323/.370/.409 at Class AAA Memphis. The 24-year-old cooled to a .249/.296/.331 overall line by season’s end.
Randy Arozarena had a strong spring a year ago, overshadowed only slightly in his class by Adolis Garcia. The speedy outfielder can play all three positions and he’s been able to hit at every level. ... Dylan Carlson, a first-round pick in 2016, will get a lot of mentions entering this season as one of the Cardinals top hitting prospects and their top switch-hitting prospect. Carlson, at 20, has been one of the youngest players at every level he’s appeared, and that will continue this season as he moves up to Class AA, where he’ll find the ballparks more accommodating to offense. In the hitter-crushing Florida State League, Carlson hit .247/.345/.386 with nine home runs in 99 games. What stood out was his command of the strike zone — and his 52 walks against 78 strikeouts.
There aren’t many NRI outfielders because there won’t be many at-bats in the outfield outside of the 40-man players. What Carlson will get from spring training is time with Jeff Albert, the team’s new hitting coach, and that could slingshot him toward a season the Cardinals expect will add helium to his potential as a hitter.
ARE THE CARDINALS CONTENDERS? YES, BUT . . .
Look, I think the St. Louis Cardinals will be contenders — not just for a playoff spot, but possibly even the division title. There's optimism with the additions of Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller, and the growth of guys such as Jack Flaherty and Kolten Wong (.324/.393/.454 in August and September, in addition to brilliant defense all year).
But here are five story lines that worry me as Cardinals spring training approaches:
1. MARCELL OZUNA: MASHER?
The left fielder is the biggest offensive question for the Cards.
After a 144 wRC+ in 2017, he dipped to 106 in 2018. We know he was playing through shoulder pain. We know that the Cards are optimistic he'll be ready for opening day, but Ozuna won't begin his throwing program until he gets to Jupiter, Fla., this month. So as president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told our paper's Rick Hummel: "The question is, ‘What does that mean early in spring training games?’ He just needs to build up his arm strength. But I see no reason for him not be ready by opening day.”
So I'm worried about Ozuna maximizing his spring training. Will he see enough live pitching to have himself ready for Milwaukee's monster pitching staff to begin the season?
If Ozuna can produce like August and September Ozuna (.862 and .906 OPSs for those two months), the Cards could have a game-changing cleanup hitter.
But the mystique of his 2017 season has definitely worn off some, following an uneven 2018.
2. WHAT IS BADER'S OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION?
As I've written, Harrison Bader's relationship with new hitting coach Jeff Albert will be a key storyline in spring. Bader is an otherworldly defender, Edmonds-esque, but can he sustain offensive numbers? He had 427 plate appearances last season — what if that gets bumped up by 100?
Last year, Bader slashed .264/.334/.422, which along with his glove got him sixth in the rookie of the year voting.
But here are four aspects that worry me about Bader's offense:
• The drastic splits. The righty-hitting Bader had an .886 OPS against lefties last season (138 plate appearances). Against righties, Bader's OPS was .695 (in 289 at-bats).
• In (essentially) his first full MLB season, Bader hit an offensive wall in September. Following his best offensive month in August, he had his worst in September: .221/.289/.349.
• Against the Brewers last season, he had a .671 OPS (.218/.271/.400)
• Against the Cubs last season, he was even a tick worse. He had a .670 OPS (.279/.367/.302).
3. WHO IS CARLOS MARTINEZ?
He could arrive to Jupiter and talk the talk, saying that he had productive offseason workouts. But it'll only matter if he can walk the walk — which is to say, not walk. Get strikeouts and groundballs. And remain healthy.
An electric showman, Carlos went on the disabled list three times last season and, one might recall, had to be wedged into a bullpen spot, since there wasn't enough time after the third stint to stretch him back out as a starter. If Carlos is a top-three starter on the Cards this year, this team will be a force. If he's not, they could need to acquire someone midseason – or hope that a John Gant or Austin Gomber or somebody really takes a giant leap.
4. WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM YAIRO MUNOZ?
Will he even make the team? “Joltin' Yairo” was valuable at times last season, and he slashed .276/.350/.413 in his first big-league season. But he hits righthanded. The Cards acquired lefthanded hitting Drew Robinson, who can also play infield and outfield.
And for all the hype involving Munoz's versatility, he did commit 18 errors — 10th-most in baseball, and that was only in 690 2/3 innings. Eight of the other nine guys with more errors played well into 1,000 innings.
5. WHAT HAPPENS WITH ADAM WAINWRIGHT?
The great Cardinal enters the most uncertain season of his life. We've been down this road seemingly annually since 2016 — a rejuvenated Waino finds optimism in different things and believes he can compete. Indeed, there were key games last year in which he did, notably that Dodgers pitching duel in September.
But if he starts out poorly in 2019, the team will surely pull him from the rotation. A guy slated as one of your five starters could be out of the rotation — and maybe even baseball — by, say, June. If that happens, it will be an enormous news story, as the legendary No. 50 calls it a career. But from a team standpoint, what will that mean to the rotation? The Cards have a lot of nice young starters, but how many of them (who are currently not in the rotation) are ready to throw 150 innings in the big leagues?