Major League Baseball’s ongoing lockout of its players permeates every conversation about the game and sits, unwelcome and unavoidable, square in the middle of any room in which the national pastime is being kicked around.
As players continue to seek out a more equitable economic system and owners continue to apply leverage by slowly and deliberately squeezing out pennies into the singular proposal they’ve made this month, an on-time start to spring training appears less and less likely. Without an agreement by Feb. 1, it seems certain that camps will be delayed, and once they are, the time to prepare for the upcoming season is necessarily compressed.
Many players — especially hitters — believe spring training is already a touch too long, owing largely to the care which teams take in preserving valuable pitching arms. If a delay does come to pass and teams do find themselves trying to squeeze seven weeks of preparation into perhaps a month of time, there are some St. Louis Cardinals who might stand to benefit.
The right-handed pitcher has likely nothing left to prove at Triple-A Memphis, and yet despite his background as a starter, would be unlikely to break spring as part of the St. Louis rotation, assuming good health of the five starters (Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Steven Matz, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright) ahead of him.
Woodford has made 29 relief appearances over the last two seasons, and has a marginally better earned run average and on base percentage against as a starter. He’s also suppressed power at a better rate (.394 slugging percentage against as a starter, .469 as a reliever), suggesting that perhaps the more comfortable and familiar role allows him to better utilize his pitch mix and attack hitters with increased deception.
He provided five solid starts for the club down the stretch in September, filling in as necessary due to injury and doubleheaders. He pitched better as he went, suggesting that he’d be able to seize the opportunity and fill in ably should the Cardinals have to dance around the schedule in the season’s opening months after a shortened spring training.
Baseball America’s newly released list of the top 100 prospects in baseball featured three Cardinals among the top 50, including Gorman, who came in at 34th overall. The lefty slugger was the club’s first round pick in the 2018 draft and doesn’t turn 22 until May 10, so the prodigious power he showed in the minors last season is likely to remain a temptation that’s off the table until later in the summer.
Indeed, as he completes his transition from third to second base, it could well be argued that Gorman would actually be restrained in his development by a shortened spring. However, as Gorman himself once told reporters in a frank, self-aware exchange, “the bat is the carry tool.” If Gorman is hitting, the Cardinals will find a place for him in the big leagues.
He struggled last spring in his first extended exposure to Major League camp, but if he comes into a shortened spring schedule with his swing in sync, he could find himself slugging up and down the Florida coast and hard to deny. Lars Nootbaar seems inked in as the team’s fourth outfielder and utility bat Brendan Donovan seems destined for a spot on the bench, but Gorman could outslug them both.
If he bashes enough lightning into a bottle — especially if the designated hitter is added to the National League as expected — he could conceivably hit his way north past Memphis and on to St. Louis to open the season.
Incumbency can be tricky to determine. Is DeJong the returning starting shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals? Is it Edmundo Sosa? Sosa started the Wild Card game — and the majority of games down the stretch — with a healthy DeJong on the bench. And yet DeJong, who started last season as the club’s cleanup hitter, is lightly penciled in atop the depth chart to kick off 2022 unless the Cardinals make an unexpected play in the free agent market once it reopens.
A shortened spring would benefit DeJong in perhaps the most coldly practical way of anyone — if there’s not enough time on the calendar for Sosa to take his job away once again, then DeJong is likely to get a great deal more runway to prove that he’s sorted himself out and can once again approach performing as the star the Cardinals thought they had following his sensational rookie season.
DeJong has two guaranteed years remaining on his contract and two team option years on the books beyond that. Whether he has a future in St. Louis is likely to be determined by whether he can grab onto and hold his job with both hands this season. He’s likely best served to hit the ground running and get the game reps he couldn’t find as last season came to a close, and a short spring could help him add to an assumed head start.