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The first declaration in the competition for at-bats as the St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter was made on Thursday morning, followed shortly by a shift in the roster that added a new hitch to the competition.
A few scant hours after manager Oliver Marmol revealed that Lars Nootbaar would be in the lineup at DH for Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Houston Astros, the Cardinals signed free agent outfielder Corey Dickerson, a source confirmed.
The Cardinals have yet to announce the Dickerson signing. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the signing was for a guaranteed $5 million with additional performance incentives.
Dickerson and Nootbaar are both left-handed hitters, and their presence on the roster might make at bats difficult to find for utilityman Brendan Donovan, who also hits from the left side. Donovan, added to the 40-man roster this winter, brought four gloves with him to spring training – one each for first base, the middle infield, third base, and the corner outfield.
“It gives you a chance to give guys a blow, give them a day off,” Donovan said of his versatility. “It’s different with the DH double switch-wise, but if you’re in a game and someone’s got to come in, you could slide out to the outfield or you can go to either one of the infield positions. So it’s a role that I take a lot of pride in.”
Donovan’s skeleton key to unlocking the secrets of his first big league camp has thus far been Nootbaar – “he’s probably sick of my questions,” joked Donovan joked, who one year ago was in the midst of his own first big league camp. Nootbaar’s ascendance through the system in 2021 was rapid, making perhaps the biggest leaps of anyone following the canceled 2020 minor league season.
“Completely different,” was how Nootbaar described his winter after his major league breakout.
More time in the majors meant more financial success, allowing him to invest in himself. That included a month-long trip to Driveline Baseball’s facility near Seattle, where his long-time hitting coach John Soteropulos works with his pupils with the assistance of the most modern technology available.
“The underlying thing (is), you know, hit the ball harder, swing the bat faster, be more precise in my movements, making sure that my body is moving correctly,” Nootbaar explained.
His dramatic lead-maintaining catch against the Mets in New York last September was a highlight of his solid defense, making him a stronger defender than the average designated hitter.
“It’s fine by me,” Nootbaar said of his potential new role. “To help this team win in any way possible, that’s what I’m here to do.”
Nootbaar even suggested that he might bulk up to increase his power. “Maybe gain a couple pounds and then grip it and rip it a little bit.”
How much weight did he add this winter?
“Like two pounds,” he said, which earned a laugh from centerfielder Harrison Bader in the locker next door.
Dickerson has extensive experience as a designated hitter, starting 140 games there and hitting .255 with a .502 slugging percentage, 38 doubles, and 32 home runs. His primary defensive spot has been left field and he’s not considered nearly as strong a defender as Nootbaar, who’s above average in either corner.
Despite the bevy of left-handed options, though, the Cardinals have only one true candidate as their right-side DH – Juan Yepez, who slugged his way to being named the organization’s co-minor league player of the year in 2021 and was on the active roster (though he did not appear) for the wild card game loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Yepez recalled arriving in Los Angeles knowing very few people; he hadn’t been invited to spring training with the major league club in any previous year, so walking into the clubhouse and then on the field was the first time he interacted with many of his teammates.
He quickly latched on to Paul Goldschmidt, who walked him through his own routine at first base even as he prepared to play in the postseason. That connection has continued this spring, as the two have been consistently paired together in early fielding drills.
“Since I got here, I was like, ‘hey man, I’m a sponge,’” Yepez said of his relationship with Goldschmidt. “Whatever you see that you think is wrong, tell me. And whatever you think I should do, talk to me.”
Early in spring training, Goldschmidt explained to Yepez his preferred footwork around the first base bag, demonstrating a method of receiving that allows the ball to beat the runner but keeps the first baseman out of harm’s way and prepared to make a continuing throw.
Those are all valuable lessons, but for Yepez, the path to the majors is through power. Like Donovan, he’s capable of playing both corner infield and corner outfield spots, and he’s said he intends to take some fly balls in center.
If he hits, though, the bat will play, and the position will figure itself out.
“I just want to prove to them that I can be whatever they want me to do,” Yepez said.
Most often, he will likely be designated to hit.