After I left active duty in 2005, my job as an Army contractor took me all over the world. One unexpected benefit of that was having to attend a class at Fort Gordon in Georgia that coincided with Spring Training for the Cardinals. During one of my breaks, I learned another classmate was also a fan of St. Louis so the plan was hatched right then and there! We had a long weekend in-between sessions and decided nothing sounded better than a drive to Jupiter. It may well have been another planet away because that was pre-GPS days and wow, Florida is an extremely long trip. It was all worth it, however, after crashing for a few hours and realizing you were there.
With the changes to the Minor League system, having Palm Beach serve as the hub after Spring Training makes too much sense overall. New players won’t have to change their routine in a normal year and rehabbing players have the facilities and staff ready to get them back on the field. The best update at least for position players will be knowing that some of those long fly outs will be going over the fence once they are promoted to Peoria or Springfield. On the pitching side, taking advantage of the weather conditions as well as Roger Dean Stadium’s dimensions surely boosts the confidence before jumping into a higher level.
The Low-A Southeast replaces what was formally known as the Florida State League which had long stunted the growth of many St. Louis hitting prospects. It was becoming common practice already to see some players bypass a trip to Florida altogether or simply get a late summer cup-of-coffee. Now the more traditional route will start right where all the hope does each February after the long (and sometimes still going) Winter under the Arch. Within the unique 2021 schedule, Palm Beach and co-tenant Jupiter (Marlins) only have Daytona (Reds) and St. Lucie (Mets) to compete against to claim the East Division crown.
It was slightly surprising to not see Washington or Houston use their Spring Training home, but the Toronto Blue Jays currently calling Dunedin home has to be the bigger story. With six teams battling for the West Division title, the Cardinals open tonight at home and will be plenty comfy with three consecutive series at home before a trip to face Bradenton (Pirates). They also spend all but one week in July at Roger Dean which coincides with a later Draft that now takes place around the MLB All-Star game.
Palm Beach will have the most roster movement, simply given the uncertainty behind the Gulf Coast League and players currently listed at extended spring training such as Tre Fletcher. Masyn Winn still plans on playing both ways but will start out manning shortstop and getting his feet under him before finding innings on the mound. His partner in crime on the left side of the infield will be fellow prospect Jordan Walker, the most recent first round selection. Adding another future 3B talent to the mix may seem odd now, but Nolan Arenado wasn’t in the picture last year. Walker may very well transition to first base down the road, but he isn’t in danger of being blocked anytime soon.
Rounding out the roster, third round pick Levi Prater will anchor the rotation for the Cardinals at least starting today. Tink Hence may fill in for him once newly drafted players enter the mix or hopefully even before with a little good fortune. Fellow teenager Edwin Nunez should be followed as well, but his role won’t be defined until seeing how he recovers. The same can be said about any of the initial hurlers who make up the staff, as reinforcements can be found from all over. Movement between Peoria and Palm Beach will be fascinating to watch early with Springfield also playing into the mix. Expect more changes than can be posted every few days, as clubs work to manage the six-game series with the needs of other rosters.
No one can predict how a season away will impact the game. It seems arm injuries are on the rise but truthfully, pitching has been a dangerous game more and more every year. The Cards as an organization recently dealt from a position of strength and added one of the best players in the sport but what about in July? The trade deadline will be magnified even more given the state of the National League Central but more importantly – Arenado holds an opt out this year and in 2022. Will St. Louis stay aggressive in order to maintain top position for their star? I’m ready to follow some box scores and hope you stay along for the ride!