Zoomin’ With Mo

Most of you know this, but every year since 2011, the Cardinals have hosted the United Cardinal Bloggers at a game.  The interactions, the suites, the food and drink are all well and good, but what most people come for is the question-and-answer session with John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt III before everything kicks off.  With no fans going to games this year, most of us just assumed that there’d be a pause in the tradition and hopefully the club would pick it up in 2021.

Instead, on Wednesday afternoon the Cardinals hosted a Zoom meeting for the bloggers with Mo, who held court from up in Minnesota.  The president of baseball ops opened the meeting by remarking that he had been discussing the past events and decided that they could do a virtual one this time.  He remarked that things are feeling a little normal and a little odd.  He felt a little funny talking about any baseball problems when there are real issues in the world, such as sickness, unemployment, and the like.

He said, basically, they are continuing to learn as they go, doing their best to “keep it together”.  “I’m not usually one that gets nervous, but this year, I’m nervous.”  Mo stated they are going to do all they can to take care advantage of Springfield and he feels, overall, that the team is in a good spot and he’s hoping they’ll be able to get through.

With that, he opened up for questions.  Overall, we were a bit of a hesitant bunch, with everyone seeming to be wanting to make sure they didn’t talk over everyone.  Mark Tomasik had a couple of issues unmuting his Zoom (as did Kyle Reis), which allowed Mo to express his normal dry sarcasm.  “Mark, go get your wife,” he said after the second attempt at talking without sound.  He followed up with, “I expected this group to be more technologically with it.  I do this with the writers every day and they are always on mute, so I expect it from them.  But you guys, I expected more.”

Mark did get the first question asked, though, and wanted to know if the Jupiter complex was open and if there was any concern about sharing that with the Marlins, who had been so ravaged by the disease (and, of course, with Florida being a COVID-19 hot spot).  Mozeliak said that technically, the complex was open, “but there is only one player and two staff using it”.  John Brebbia is doing his rehab work down there an hour or two every day and that’s it.  Given that, and given that nobody there will be traveling into the team’s bubble, he wasn’t terribly concerned about the Marlins also having access.

Tara Wellman asked a question relating to the Marlins and the positive tests that threatened to bring baseball to a screeching halt.  She wanted to know about the process of deciding to play and how much input teams had on that.  Mo said that for them, Moises Rodriguez runs point on the contact tracing.  If there was a positive test, that player would be removed immediately and any that had been in contact.  That was his concern about putting prospects in the player pool, because you can’t get them out without waiving them but you might wind up needing them if a contagion spreads far enough.  He also said that he thought you could play a baseball game with “10 hitters and 5-7 pitchers”, meaning that even if things got bad, hopefully you could get through one game and then start tapping into that player pool.  He also noted that they’d be adding to Springfield since Miles Mikolas is out for the year, an addition we saw today with Evan Mendoza.

After Kyle got unmuted, he asked about the rumored extension of the 30-man roster beyond the first two weeks as originally scheduled.  Mo said that he’d be all for it.  He noted he’s not one that usually likes the expansion of rosters in September, having 35 guys or whatever around, but in this situation, with all that is going on, the insurance would be very helpful.

I jumped in around here and asked what he was looking for out of the Springfield group, given that there weren’t real games to be played.  He said that for the guys that were true insurance, it’s all about getting the reps.  The club has told these guys if they need more, they’ll get more, with these things being treated like the minor league games in spring training where a player can bat every inning, for example.  The prospects, it’s mainly about getting baseball experience, especially for guys like Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn who were in high school not long ago.  He said they were hoping for an instructional league later on, but he felt like it was pretty iffy.

Around that time we noted that we had an interloper.  Honestly, I thought he was just crashing the party because he could, but it turns out Jim Hayes thought it was a regular media scrum.  The Cat tossed out his question about how much slack players get in such a season and then bowed out after he got his answer, but it was fun to see him in there.  (Also, he used this exchange during the broadcast that night.)  Mo basically said that there’s no simple answer to this.  On the one hand, you want to give opportunities but the level of patience is different in this season.  Performance eventually matters.  However, he cautioned that the schedule–three on, one off, two on, one off–doesn’t help in trying to get a rhythm.  With the next run of games, basically two weeks before an off day, he hoped that would tell more.

Kyle returned with a question about the minor leaguers that weren’t selected to go to Springfield and how much control the club has over what they are doing this summer.  Mozeliak said that he’d rather use the word “influence” and that they are still checking in with those players twice a month, plus the strength and conditioning staff is also checking in twice a month.  He felt like the players were going to be taking advantage of this time, just like the major leaguers did with the break from March to July.  “It seemed like they came to the summer camp in even better shape than they left spring,” he said, and he expected the minor leaguers would be the same.  Again, they want to try to for an instructional league like the Arizona Fall League, but it’s all up in the air right now.

He used that to segue into a discussion about the changes in the minor league system.  Mozeliak said that for the last few years, the Cardinals have been looking to condense their minor league teams.  However, he said he wasn’t sure what was going to happen for 2021, whether that contraction plan with the minors would be implemented or not.  As he said, the two sides still have things to work out and he tries to keep a finger on the pulse of those negotiations.

Tara then followed up with that asking why the club had been looking for downsizing and why they felt it was the team’s best interest.  Mo said he’s never been a big “cast a wide net and see what you catch” guy, that he’d rather be more focused in their development.  With fewer teams and fewer players, it allows them to be more intentional with their resources, more specific to the player.  He knows that you do occasionally have the late-round guys that work their way up but he thinks talent usually will be found and win out.  He would rather put the resources into things like nutrition for the minor leaguers “so they don’t have the hot dogs that didn’t sell that night”.  However, he understands how angry people get about losing teams and how ingrained they are in their local communities.

Brian Swope asked if there were any players in the minors that Mo was particularly worried about given the lack of development time.  “All of them.”  They all have the same challenges because baseball is learned by playing and they aren’t able to do that.  So the club is going to do its best to optimize the future for these players but it’s tough times for everyone.

Mark queried whether scouting is going on right now.  According to Mo, it’s very limited.  Area scouts are allowed to take day trips, but that is all.  The rules allow for five scouts to go to any sort of national tournaments but only three can be in the stands, so they can rotate for different games.  However, even those opportunities are starting to dry up.  At the major league level, all the scouting is video.  “If we’d said last year we were doing all the scouting via video, we’d have been hammered; this year, it’s great.”

I then asked him about his comment to the media about looking for external options after Mikolas went down.  He said that he went home after that press conference and realized how that comment was going to be misinterpreted.  He said that he feels good about the internal options (Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, etc.) and that any external signings would be for depth at Springfield rather than to shore up the major league rotation.  He doesn’t expect a robust search for those sort of signings either.

Returning to Kyle, he asked if anything had been surprisingly easy with the return of the team.  “Not really.  It’s been curveball after curveball.”  (Which would likely be a huge issue for Harrison Bader, though obviously Mo didn’t say THAT.)  He noted that something as simple as going to the office isn’t like it used to be.  You have to have a pass to get in and go at certain times, and if you forget your pass you aren’t getting in.  Usually he likes to look forward and perhaps get wrapped up in the game, but now it feels like it’s just enough to get through the day.  He reiterated, though, that he realizes he’s lucky because he’s still working and doing so in a position many people would really like to have.

Tara asked him if he’d been able to really relax enough to watch the team.  He said that he’s caught the games, at least in part, but he can’t really put the same priority on just focusing on the club like he normally would.  He think he’ll have a better feel for things after the road trip, after they’ve done those “firsts” and know how it is going to go.  The job is not what he’s used to but it’s still pretty great.  He also noted that with the 30-man there’s not quite as much for him to do when it comes to maximizing the roster.

Returning to Kyle, he asked the key question about whether we’d see cardboard cutouts in the stands of Busch Stadium, indicating that he believed Mo wasn’t a fan.  On the contrary, however.  Mozeliak said he’s fine with that idea and he does think that you’ll see those soon.  “Now, what that’s going to look like, whether you can get a Kyle or whether it’ll be my dog, I don’t know the details yet.”  He does hope that they’ll do something.

He used that to elaborate on some of the other changes.  “2020 is a unique opportunity to do weird stuff.”  He was fine with the runner on second thing because he felt like if you are going to do it, this is the year.  He welcomes having some fun with the game and apologized to all the purists out there.  We didn’t specifically ask about the DH and the seven-inning doubleheaders weren’t agreed to yet, but I imagine he’d have a similar point of view for those things.

I never ask three questions in these things, but with everyone else being quiet, I went ahead and asked if there was some more confidence now that baseball had gotten through this with the Marlins and kinda weathered the storm, if he felt more confident about the season being completed now.  He said that he does, likening it to a student that didn’t study before a test and failed, then was more prepared next time.  Now that they have seen how it can go, they can have a better strategy about how to deal with it.  He also felt like it was a wake-up call for the players, who realized just how seriously that they need to take things.

Tara picked up on that and asked if it was an asset to have veteran leadership versus a team full of mainly younger players.  Mo said that was definitely a huge asset now.  “You see Yadi, you see Adam, they’re wearing face coverings.”  He also said that the training staff has been amazing, that they are funny and disarming while still pointing out that players need to be wearing masks and doing all the right things.

Matt Graves chimed in and asked about the though process that led to Kwang-Hyun Kim being a starter and how he took the news.  Mozeliak noted, as most knew, that KK preferred to be a starter, but more importantly wanted a “dynamic” role on the team.  He addressed that there was thought of moving Kim to the rotation after Mikolas went down, but they felt that it would be less disruptive to keep him where he was at right now.  However, Mo cautioned against getting too tied to roles, especially in this year when anything might be needed.  KK would need to build up a little bit, but they also have enough long men on the staff that he could probably do that.

Matt then asked where we’d see Giovanny Gallegos and Mo said probably the 8th and the 9th.  He stated that protecting the pitching was really a goal for this season.

Brian asked if Mo agreed with the sentiment that baseball could bring a sense of normalcy to the nation through all of this, similar to what it did after the attacks of 9/11.  While noting his bias, he definitely felt like it could.  This is Mo’s 28th season in baseball and it’s all he knows.  He said when he’d be getting gas or at the grocery store, people were always asking him about when baseball would return.

However, he was disappointed (though not shocked) to find that the return of baseball wasn’t enough for a lot of people.  With the focus on Black Lives Matter during Opening Day, he noted that his inbox was “not so nice”.  He hated to see that the return of the game wasn’t enough for people to put aside some of their differences and enjoy the sport, but he said it was an indication of how polarizing and political everything is in society these days.

Hayden from STL Sports Central asked if the strength of the Cardinals, the pitching depth, might mean less in a sprint of a season than it does in the regular marathon.  Mo said he doesn’t really know as they are continuing to adjust to what this season looks like and what it will require, but he feels like it’s baseball and pitching should still carry the day.

Finally, Diane Schultz asked if he anticipated fans in the stands at all this season.  Mo said that really would be a challenge.  He wouldn’t rule it out but he noted that it’s a huge effort just to get the team and everything surrounding it to the park every day.  It didn’t sound like they’d be opening up the gates real soon.

It was a wonderful surprise to have this opportunity and again I have to thank the Cardinals for going out of their way, especially in such ridiculously unknown and disruptive times, to give us this chance.  My thanks to Mo and all of the folks behind the scenes that made it possible!

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