JUPITER, Fla. — Cardinals manager Oli Marmol stopped short of saying it, and Jake Woodford prefers to let his pitching do the talking, so I’ll be the one who ventures out onto a limb that grows sturdier by the start.
Woodford’s on the opening-day roster. If not, a Cardinal sin has been committed.
Last season the right-hander was more effective than the Cardinals would publicly acknowledge. Since then, he’s taken the feedback the team gave him and put it to good use, adjusting his slider to produce results that should make his arsenal and approach more sustainable at the major-league level. He didn’t pout. He performed.
“I could have been frustrated, but that’s not going to get me anywhere,” Woodford said Monday about often riding the Memphis shuttle last season. “To me, that wasn’t really a choice. There’s only one way forward. They wanted me to work on certain things. I went home and worked on certain things. Getting frustrated doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Woodford has had a great spring and it got even better Monday, when he shoved five scoreless innings against the Marlins in the Cardinals’ 5-0 exhibition win. His Grapefruit League ERA is down to 2.04 through 17 2/3 innings. He’s totaled five more strikeouts (18) than he’s allowed hits (13), with just five walks.
“He continues to get better and better,” Marmol said. “That’s a pretty impressive outing. We have some tough decisions, but that right there is exactly what we wanted to see today. Just pounding the zone with the fastball and the sinker. On the edges, wherever he wanted. The slider had good shape to it. That was impressive.”
The Cardinals won’t say they are going with a six-man rotation, but that’s really where Woodford should be viewed as fitting in at this point. He’s the first man up if the rotation pops a tire. But he can be that from the bullpen in St. Louis. He’s too good for Class AAA, and too good for major-league mop-up duty only.
That’s my first of 10 Cardinals thoughts now that the home opener is just 10 days away.
The rest . . .
• It now seems inevitable that reserve shortstop Paul DeJong (lower right back pain) will start the season on the injured list. Hoping to return to Grapefruit League action Tuesday as the designated hitter, he again suffered a setback Monday morning while twisting to throw after fielding a groundball. He said he does not expect to be able to play in games before the Cardinals break camp.
“I can’t touch my toes,” DeJong said. “I can’t do normal things. Not playable.”
“It’s been a frustrating spring,” he added. “I didn’t get to play in the field right away (because a dead arm phase), and now I can’t finish it out. But I’ve just got to keep going. I know things can change. I know it’s a long season. So, I just have to do what I need to do each day and eventually I’ll be good enough to be back out there on the field again, and show what I can do.”
• This DeJong development could allow the Cardinals to take left-handed hitting Alec Burleson for the corner outfield, first base and designated hitter mix. Or, if the Cardinals are not entirely comfortable asking Brendan Donovan to back up starting shortstop Tommy Edman, nonroster journeyman utility infielder Taylor Motter could get a shot, especially after Jose Fermin’s injury. Motter has proven he can play everywhere and has flashed some decent pop. He also has the kind of option in his contract that could allow another team to grab him if he doesn’t break camp with the Cardinals.
• Polite reminder: Edman exists. And the Cardinals’ starting shortstop is pretty good, too. This spring has been dominated by calls from fans for the Cardinals to put sensational shortstop prospect Masyn Winn, 20, on the opening-day roster instead of continuing to wait it out with the injured DeJong. But DeJong is not this team’s starting shortstop. He’s the backup. Edman is the starting shortstop, one who played the position better than most figured he would while providing a 2022 season that totaled a Wins Above Replacement of 6.3 that ranked third among Cardinals.
Before you rush to move Edman back to second base, where he won a Gold Glove, what about Donovan (4.2 WAR in 2022) and Nolan Gorman, who knocked 14 homers last season and is having a very impressive spring? Trading DeJong, and perhaps the Cardinals do eventually, doesn’t open a spot for Winn. He needs to play shortstop every day, not ride the bench in St. Louis. How the Cardinals figure out how to maximize Edman, Donovan, Gorman and Winn all at once is a good problem to have, but it’s a good problem for the future, not right now. Winn is ahead of schedule but still has some growing left to do.
• I won’t pretend to know how Adam Wainwright’s last ride is going to end, but I know the Cardinals should not have brought him back for it if they don’t trust him to start the home opener. Especially after Wainwright has been getting the job done for Team USA in the adrenaline-soaked World Baseball Classic.
“Velocity ticked up, which is good to see” Marmol said about Wainwright’s WBC starts. “That’s the main thing we are looking for, right? We know he can do other stuff. He can spin it. He can locate. We’re just making sure there is an uptick in velocity from when he left here, to when he comes back to us, and we are there. Can’t ask for much more than that.”
MLB is doing its best to embargo its teams’ announcements of opening-day starters for some sort of league-wide unveiling. Don’t expect an official announcement just yet. It would be disappointing, though, if it wasn’t Wainwright.
• Jordan Walker belongs on the opening-day roster. He entered a camp the Cardinals claimed was all about competition, and has not stopped finding ways to impress. He can play left field. He can play right field. He can be a part of Marmol’s designated-hitter mix. The Cardinals do not have four better outfielders than him. By the end of this season, he could be the best one.
• Do the Cardinals have a better leadoff option than Donovan? Don’t think so. He posted a .394 on-base percentage last season, trailing only National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt among Cardinals. He’s showing more power this spring without abandoning his high-OBP hitter profile. Donovan’s Grapefruit League batting line after Monday’s two-hit game shows a .341 average, a .396 on-base percentage and a .636 slugging percentage. I’d stick that atop the lineup for game one.
• My shot at predicting the opening-day, 13-man pitching staff, if everybody is healthy. Here goes.
Rotation: Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty, Steven Matz. Swing-man/sixth starter: Woodford. Bullpen: Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks and Giovanny Gallegos are locks. That’s nine. Zack Thompson makes 10. Good luck after that point. I’ll go Andre Pallante, Packy Naughton and Drew VerHagen. Could be wrong about Genesis Cabrera. Pallante will return to Grapefruit League action Wednesday, his first appearance since the WBC. He needs to come out dealing. Andrew Suarez could have a shot. This bullpen is deeper than most realized.
• Willson Contreras’ strong arm and impressive pop time will be the most underrated benefits of him joining the Cardinals. Bigger bases and new pickoff limits will mean more attempted steals. Contreras has one of the fastest pop times around and has proven a willingness — no, eagerness — to back-pick greedy runners off a base, including second. The backup catcher “competition” has been as underwhelming as Contreras has been impressive. Andrew Knizner’s job is in real jeopardy.
• Don’t be stunned if an MLB mercy rule starts getting traction in the future. Participants in the WBC grew fond of it. Ten runs ahead after seven innings. Who says no? (Bracing for responses.)
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