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Former Cardinals Arozarena, Mayers sizzled this spring with new teams, while others made chilly first impressions

Former Cardinals Arozarena, Mayers sizzled this spring with new teams, while others made chilly first impressions

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Tampa Bay Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena makes a sliding catch during a spring training game against the Atlanta Braves on March 3. (AP Photo)

ST. LOUIS — The coverage and box scores spilling out of the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training provided confirmation for the most consistent thing I heard year after year about a young, speedy, Cuban outfielder scaling his way toward the Cardinals.

“He just hits at every level,” a scout told me.

The Grapefruit League is a level.

Randy Arozarena made quite a first impression with his new team. Acquired from the Cardinals along with Jose Martinez in a deal that brought the Cardinals lefty prospect Matthew Liberatore and a young catcher, Arozarena raged through the 12 games he got to play for the Rays. The 25-year-old outfielder hit .400/.586/.550 for a 1.136 OPS. He was eight-for-20 at the plate, and he sweetened that success with a team-best nine walks against only two strikeouts. Through a crowded field of players at his position, he was forcing his way into the conversation even as he appeared ticketed for Class AAA.

Sounds familiar.

The Rays’ depth chart already included gifted fielders Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot in center. Prospect Lucious Fox was also getting looks in center field. And the Rays reportedly intended to carry five outfielders on the opening day roster. That would not include Arozarena — who would return to Triple A. It’s a level. Therefore, he hits there. At Memphis in 2019, Arozarena arrived from Class AA and promptly hit .358/.435/.593 with a 1.028 OPS in 64 games at that level. That got him a brief cameo in the majors (and a .391 on-base percentage in 23 plate appearances), but mostly set the stage for the Cardinals to see him as part of a righthanded-hitting redundancy of outfielders they had to thin. And did.

The abrupt end to spring training as a global pandemic reached North America and shut down sports — delaying opening day by at least eight weeks, at the latest estimate — left players around the majors scrambling for places to work out and, in some cases, wondering where they’ll start when baseball does again.

Will Arozarena’s performance in Grapefruit League games still echo months after the Rays have seen it? He was one of the most impressive of the former Cardinals trying to win a larger role with a new team, but there was one even better — and perhaps more unknown for how he’ll fit when the games resume.

On the first official day of the spring season, here’s a rundown of how members of the 2019 Cardinals — traded, lost via waivers, let loose, or left unsigned — did with their new teams during this abbreviated spring of 2020. Presented in alphabetical order, from Arozarena to Wacha:

TONY CINGRANI, LHP, free agent: A Cardinal in transaction only. The lefty was part of the Cardinals’ deal with the Dodgers for Jedd Gyorko, and he was included only to give LA some cash relief. He was injured and wasn’t going to throw a rehab pitch for the Cardinals, and when winter arrived he became a free agent. He remains a free agent. A month ago, a report surfaced that Cingrani was “drawing a ton of interest.” Nothing happened. It will be worth watching how players like Cingrani get attention after this stoppage. Too often, baseball is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind business. And off-the-roster is definitely out-of-sight.

ADOLIS GARCIA, OF, Rangers: Designated for assignment by the Cardinals to clear a spot on the 40-man roster, Garcia was picked up by a team that had once had interest in trading for him: The Texas Rangers. The karmic opposite of the Cardinals, who were shedding righthanded-hitting batters, the Rangers wanted to add some this past winter. In spring, Garcia has been impressive. He hit .318/.333/.727 for a 1.061 OPS in the Cactus League. He hit three home runs. A recent three-run shot had thrust him clearly into the mix for an opening day spot. The key for Garcia will be reducing the flaw in his swing that made him expendable to the Cardinals and kept him from a more significant role on a team hungry for any sort of offense. At Class AAA Memphis, Garcia hit a whopping 32 homers and led the Redbirds with 96 RBIs. He also struck out 159 times in 491 at-bats over 132 games. The Cardinals felt that strikeout rate would spike in the majors — and it already had, sort of. In 2018, Garcia made his debut and struck out seven times in 17 at-bats. A steady dose of breaking balls he’d chase awaited him in the majors.

“The Rangers,” Levi Weaver wrote in an article for The Athletic, “have a plan to fix that.”

The story details how the Rangers put together a series of hitting drills for Garcia to improve his swing without sapping the thunderous power and to help him get better at recognizing pitches. One of the drills Weaver describes uses colored balls pitched at Garcia so that he can practice hitting only one color. See green? Hit. See red? Take.

At 27, Garcia has speed and power that has obvious appeal. If Texas can create some consistency and contact for the Cuban outfielder, they could see green, too. A hit.

JOE HUDSON, C, Mariners: A non-roster invitee to Seattle’s camp. Veteran catcher, who was a stabilizing presence at the position for the Cardinals in the minors, did not appear in any spring games in Arizona.

DOMINIC LEONE, RHP, Cleveland: Originally acquired from Toronto in the Randal Grichuk trade, Leone actually started the 2018 Cardinals season as their closer. The decision was overshadowed some by the team signing established closer Greg Holland on opening day and promoting hotshot prospect Jordan Hicks to the major-league roster. But there Leone was. A successful spring had put him in the ninth until Holland arrived, or so the Cardinals thought. Fast-forward two years and inconsistency that became injury led to Leone being let go this past winter and signed to a minor-league contract with Cleveland. A classic veteran non-roster-invite reliever for Cleveland, Leone had a chance to throw his way into the bullpen there. In five games, Leone had a 12.60 ERA and he allowed 11 hits and eight runs (seven earned) in five innings. He did not walk a batter however and struck out six. The stoppage could be the ideal reset for him — a chance to get stronger, because every day is another day away from the nerve troubles that limited him in previous seasons and the numbers that suggest he’s still trying to get a feel for the edges of the plate.

JOSE MARTINEZ, DH/OF, Rays: Earmarked to be a prominent part of the Rays’ lineup any time they face a lefty, Martinez has also been working on his defense so that he can find another way to play every day for Tampa Bay. The elite center fielders the Rays could use will also help sway the decision to put him in the lineup. As gregarious as ever and beloved already in the clubhouse, Martinez was off to a slow start for spring, given he’s there to hit, hit, hit. In 31 plate appearances during the Grapefruit League play, he did not have an extra-base hit. He batted .179/.226/.179 with a .404 OPS and nine strikeouts against two walks. His spring performance isn’t going to alter the Rays initial plan for him. He’ll just have to hit his way into a larger role — which he did rather routinely with the Cardinals.

MIKE MAYERS, RHP, Angels: Arguably, the most impressive of the former Cardinals so far this spring — and he seemed to be speeding toward a late-inning role with the other Los Angeles-area team. In six games, Mayers had struck out 11 of the 25 batters he faced. He had a 4.76 ERA with three runs (all earned) allowed in 5 2/3 innings. But it’s the strikeout rate that gets attention, and how he was going about riddling hitters. Mayers plunged into the analytics this winter (again) to find how and why he didn’t have success with the Cardinals last year, and decode his flighty results. He was throwing fewer strikes. He was veering outside the zone, taking a little off his pitches, not attacking — like he should with the horsepower he has.

“I think a lot of my change this spring and even from the first two outings to later on, is just being more aggressive,” Mayers told The Los Angeles Times toward the end of spring training’s games. “It’s just all kind of about my mentality. (Pitching coach Mickey Calloway) and even the analytics guys and Joe (Maddon, the manager) have really kind of just reinforced that (notion) of, ‘Your stuff plays. Just get it in the zone.’”

Mayer has a fastball that sits around 96 mph and can rev even higher when necessary, and to it this spring he’s added a cut fastball by shifting the grip and getting results.

MARCELL OZUNA, LF, Braves: Pop Quiz. Two outfielders, both of whom play a corner spot for teams that fancy themselves pennant contenders and train in the Grapefruit League, produced the following batting lines so far this year:

• OF1: .097/.176/.097, .274 OPS, 3-for-36, 12 Ks.

• OF2: .083/.120/.083, .203 OPS, 2-for-24, 12 Ks.

If healthy, both outfielders are going to start the season in the opening day lineup regardless of how they recover from these sagging averages when spring resumes. One has prompted consternation throughout TwitterLand that — gasp! — the contract might be the reason he plays. The other, so missed by some corners of a fan base, is likely going to bat cleanup for his new team, possibly because of his track record, the team’s view of his peripherals, and, yep, his contract. It’s what he was signed to do. By now you’ve figured it out.

OF1 is Dexter Fowler.

OF2 is Marcell Ozuna.

One of Fowler’s three hits in spring was a slow-roller that didn’t get too far past the pitcher’s mound. One of Ozuna’s two hits was a wind-blown popup. Tough starts for both, but only one has caught the attention of many Cardinals fans, some of whom wonder why the Cardinals chose a casting call over the Big Bear. There is some angst however in Atlanta.

“Further intensifying concerns about this outfield, who signed a one-year $18-million contract in January, were his unimpressive plate appearances,” Braves beat writer Mark Bowman wrote for MLB.com toward the close of camp. “He went 2-for-24 and struck out in 12 of his 25 plate appearances. Like (Cole) Hamels, Ozuna might benefit from an extended opportunity to get ready for the regular season. But what he showed thus far this year certainly didn’t quiet those who believe the offensive decline he realized in St. Louis the previous two seasons might have been a sign of things to come.”

MICHAEL WACHA, RHP, Mets: Drama brewing in Queens? Say it ain’t so, Captain Obvious. The Mets stockpiled their camp with a few highly decorated free-agent starters to compete for spots in the rotation. Rick Porcello, the could-have-been Cardinal who never was, signed a one-year, $10-million contract. He was the American League Cy Young Award winner four years ago. Wacha landed a one-year, $3-million deal seven years after he was the National League Championship Series MVP as a high-flying rookie. Wacha’s deal is heavily laced with performance bonuses whether he’s a starter ($500,000 for 10 starts, another $500,000 for 14 starts and so on based on a points system) or a reliever ($250,000 for 40 relief appearances another $250,000 for 45 and points for appearances of three or more innings). Like Porcello’s, it’s a classic pillow deal. They each get one year to remake their market and then launch into free agency for that next (or first) long-term whopper. One catch. It sure helps if they start.

In three outings for the Mets this spring — all of them starts — Wacha was strong. He had a 1.17 ERA in 7 2/3 innings. He allowed one run (earned) on eight hits and four walks. He struck out five. He also looked strong and recovered well and had some of the issues that led to such inconsistency with the Cardinals adjusted, even corrected. Lost in the glare of the late-season performance by Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Adam Wainwright was the fact that Wacha helped the Cardinals be the second-best pitching staff in the National League by regularly making starts. That had value. He made 24 of them, shouldered 126 2/3 innings.

In conversations this spring he has not hid from what the Mets offered him.

“They told me I’m a starter,” he told reporters. “So that’s what I’m here for.”

Wacha, a righthander, has been competing for the spot mostly with lefty Steven Matz, and that has given rise to a creative solution that might not please either pitcher. The New York Post reported the Mets are considering “internally” a platoon spot in the rotation. Here’s Joel Sherman’s explanation: “Using that fifth spot to match up best against each specific opponent. The determination would be whether the lefty Matz or the righty Wacha matches up best to start. Or the Mets would use (reliever) Robert Gsellman or maybe even Seth Lugo as a one- or two-inning opener should the Mets conclude that is the best course. In that situation the opener would be followed by Matz or Wacha for bulk innings.”

Imagine what they’ll do now that they have time to think about it.

Catching up with some former Cardinals from previous years:

Tommy Pham, the outfielder the Rays traded to San Diego to make room for new additions like the former Cardinals, was four for 21 with his new team and had a .190/.320/.286 slash line helped by four walks. He'll be a prominent part of the Padres' lineup and the young San Diego team's push to contend for a wild-card berth. ... 

Matt Adams had a health scare in the middle of spring training that meant flying to New York for tests on his heart. He returned shortly before the stoppage to continue to make his case for a spot on the Mets’ bench. An NRI this spring, he hit .143/.188/.143 in 14 at-bats. He struck out once. …

In Atlanta’s clubhouse, former Cardinals cult favorites “Sugar” Shane Robinson and Pete Kozma flew back from spending their winters playing ball in Australia to try to make the Braves’ team as NRIs. Robinson hit .250/.294/.250 with a .544 OPS in 16 at-bats. Kozma had hit .167/.286/.167 in 18 at-bats with four strikeouts. … Meanwhile, over in Korea, where the KBO shuttered its play due to the spread of the coronavirus, Seung Hwan Oh had just made his return to the league after pitching in the majors the previous three seasons. Oh had elbow surgery late last season and after being released by the Rockies signed with the Samsung Lions of the KBO. Oh is the all-time leader in saves for the KBO with 277. When he signed with the Cardinals, Oh was about to be suspended for visiting a gambling site – a violation of KBO rules, whether he gambled or not, according to reports – and that awaits him this season. He has 30 games remaining on the 72-game suspension, but that gives him time to get health. He pitched well before spring ended.

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