Clicking Off Another Milepost

Between the end of one season and the beginning of another, there are different markers along the way that let you know you are closing in on your destination.  There’s free agency, the Hall of Fame voting, etc.  When you get to this part of the year, those markers start clicking by fairly rapidly.  Winter Warm-Up.  Pitchers and catchers report.

Today’s another one of those benchmarks, as the first full team workouts take place.  Granted, most of the team has been there for a week or so and been doing informal work on the back diamonds, but this is the first time Mike Matheny can schedule drills with all the position players.

The final members of the club showed up yesterday, as newcomer Mark Ellis got his first look at Jupiter.  Ellis, who said he picked St. Louis mainly for the strong chance of making the World Series (though there’s no doubt the money helped), doesn’t mind being a backup if the team is successful.  However, there would seem to be a good number of opportunities for him to get plenty of playing time.

As we talked about the 2014 season during the winter, it seemed given by most everyone that Kolten Wong was going to be the starter and get a majority of the playing time at second base.  That still seems to be a strong possibility, but I’m hearing more and more talk from various media outlets about that situation not being as set in stone as we might have thought.

Matheny seems to be encouraging competition in most everyone and especially in the infield.  Wong is going to have to work for his job, which is reasonable and likely the best thing that could happen for him.  This is not a Tony La Russa regime, where we immediately have the reaction that the veteran is going to play over the youngster.  I don’t believe it’s like that at all.  Wong needs to know, though, that nothing is guaranteed and he’ll need to produce to be on the field more.  Now, will that kind of pressure raise his game or get into his head?  That we will have to wait and see.

Personally, I think Wong is going to be fine.  He may not get as much playing time in the first couple of months as we may want, but I think as he gets used to the big leagues and assuming Matheny doesn’t bury him on the bench, he’ll start to really come on starting the end of May, beginning of June and be a strong contributor down the stretch.  He may do it earlier than that, I don’t know, but I don’t think we’ll be talking at the end of the year about how Ellis stole all of Wong’s opportunities.

The other side of the infield is in a bit of flux as well.  Not the starters, of course–Matt Carpenter and Jhonny Peralta are perfectly set in their roles–but in the men that will back them up.  Daniel Descalso got a raise over the offseason and has shown he can handle all of the infield positions, even if he doesn’t necessarily do so with a golden glove.  That leaves Pete Kozma.

Let me say this: Kozma doesn’t lack for confidence.  In Rick Hummel’s story today in the Post-Dispatch, he says don’t rule out shortstop as a destination for him because Peralta did play left field in the playoffs for Detroit last year.  Nice thought, but 1) the team spent a significant amount of money to have Peralta come play shortstop and 2) there are plenty of outfielders in this organization, so forcing Peralta to make a move seems way down on the list.

Kozma says part of his hitting problems last year was that he “wore down a bit”.  Pete, you hit .209 in June.  From June 1 to August 30, you hit .140.  If you are wearing down after just two months of the season, there’s a problem.  I know that major league life is more taxing in all regards than the minors and, if you’d started to tail off in August, I might have been willing to entertain that notion, that just a bit more conditioning and strength and your bat could be passable.  That wasn’t the case, though, and given that you have never really hit in the minors either, I don’t expect that to come around now.  Those six weeks in 2012 were magical, there’s no doubt, and that’s something you’ll always be remembered for, but I can’t imagine that you’ll ever hit those levels again.

Now, Hummel does point out that the two former shortstops that are working with him, Jose Oquendo and Ozzie Smith, both started out as good field, no hit guys and developed into more.  Which could still happen with Kozma, though given the offensive landscape today versus the early ’80s when those guys played, .200 probably is worse now than it was then.  The problem also is that those guys were already figuring it out by time they were 26, which is where Kozma is now.  They had more big league experience, true, but Oquendo hit .291 in his age-25 season (which capped four years of .275+ averages).  Ozzie did hit only .230 in his age-25 and dropped a bit the next year, but his OBP was much better than what Kozma is showing.

Could Kozma turn it around?  I guess.  The history doesn’t seem to be there for him and the opportunities won’t be either–Ozzie and Oquendo got regular playing time to work on things, a luxury Kozma won’t have.  I could still see him perhaps beating out Descalso for the backup role given his much better glove, but that might not be enough to save him.

The first injury of camp came yesterday, as Kevin Siegrist skipped his throwing due to soreness.  Everyone is immediately screaming “precautionary” and hopefully that’s all it is.  It probably is that.  However, we’ve seen small things blow up in the past, so it’s something to keep an eye on.  Siegrist has a chance to get out of LOOGY usage and really be a big contributor to the bullpen this year, so the Cards need him right.  (That said, Sam Freeman is probably putting in extra time today in case Siegrist can’t go.)

Nice article on Adam Wainwright and what he means to this pitching staff with the retirement of Chris Carpenter over at the official site.  It’s not like there was some significant handing-off-the-torch this offseason, as Wainwright has been taking on these leadership roles for a while now with Carp dealing with all those injuries.  Now, it’s more formal, more official if you were.  This is his team and there really doesn’t seem to be anyone better to take command of the situation.  Waino is respected both as a player and a person and there’s no doubt that he’ll earn his extension in both ways.

Joe Strauss writes about Matt Holliday and his strong second half last season, something that he hopes to sustain all year long this year.  What jumps out in that article, though, is just how much of a running thread Holliday is.  It’s hard to believe that the contract he signed the season after he was acquired from Oakland is over halfway completed.  We talk about all the roster shakeups and the new faces, but Holliday has been that rock, that baseline that ties teams together.  Very few have been that solid, dependable presence, yet Holliday does it so quietly, so effortlessly at times.

Holliday’s legacy as a Cardinal is going to be an interesting one to follow after he retires.  He’s going to wind up spending more time in St. Louis than anywhere else, but it’s still somewhat hard to think of him as a longtime Cardinal.  I think it’s because he’s been steady, but not flashy.  He goes out and continually puts up the numbers, but you hardly ever see his expression change on the field.  Off the field, you’ll get those smiles and it sounds like he’s got a great sense of dry humor, but for some reason he kind of blends into the background.

I don’t say any of this to denigrate Holliday at all.  I don’t say it as a criticism or complaint.  More some thinking out loud to try to figure out why Holliday isn’t necessarily the first name that comes up when you say long-time Cardinal.

Running out of time this morning, so I better get to the approval ratings.  Today’s player is Jaime Garcia.  Garcia has often been a divisive issue among fans, given his seeming inability to be successful on the road and the resulting implication that he’s a bit of a head case.  Last year, he came in around 64%, which seemed reasonable given the talk that usually surrounds him.

Apparently, absence did not make the hearts grow fonder in this case.  Whether it was because of doubts that he could return healthy or the fact that he’s not been able to do anything recently to shake out any negative thoughts, Garcia dips this year to 62.2%.  It’s going to take a really good year for folks to raise that number, apparently.  No 100s for Garcia and his low water mark was 23.

Our media member of the day is Jim Hayes of Fox Sports Midwest.  Personally, I’m a fan of the Cat.  Now, it’s obvious he approaches his work at FSM more from an entertainment perspective than a hard news one, but that’s fine.  He obviously has a good rapport with the players and he can get some good stuff out of them.  He’s been on the sheet the last three years and always has come in around the mid-70s.  That’s the case this year as well as he checks in with a 75.7% mark.  Two perfect scores and a low of 40.

Finally, we look at a new one for this year, the Cardinals’ internet presence.  In the past year or so, they’ve really started to up their game with the various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  They’ll do giveaways on those things, have fun things like #Nestflix on Instagram last year, things like that.

It seems to be making an impact, because their approval rating for this year is 78.8%.  Given how almost anything on the Internet will come under fire, that’s not a bad mark at all.  Four people gave them 100 and their low score was 30.

Remember, Playing Pepper will be here this afternoon again as we take a look at the Braves.  Come on back for that!

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