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Cardinals minors camp ‘sensation’ Graceffo raised his fastball velocity to 100 mph, doesn’t want to stop there

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Cardinals minor league pitcher Gordon Graceffo (copy)

Cardinals minor-league pitcher Gordon Graceffo has a 100-mph fastball to go with a curveball, slider, and a changeup that still is developing. Photo by Daniel Guerrero, dguerrero@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. — When the Cardinals on Saturday looked to schedule a simulated game on the Roger Dean Stadium back fields, they searched within their minor-league spring training roster for reliable and available arms to throw against some of the club’s superstars.

What they wanted was a pitcher to throw strikes.

Who they got was Gordon Graceffo, the “sensation” of minor-league camp and a right-hander with a 100-mph fastball thrown with precision.

“Interesting combo,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said with a laugh. “(We’re) just now seeing him? Commands at 100? Awesome.”

Graceffo’s task: Throw strikes to a lineup of Cardinals stars that included the likes of power-hitting left fielder Tyler O’Neill, perennial All-star third baseman Nolan Arenado and Cooperstown-bound first baseman Albert Pujols.

Graceffo’s audience: An array of Cardinals brass. General manager Michael Girsch, farm director Gary LaRocque, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, pitching coach Mike Maddux and Marmol were on hand.

In his three innings, Graceffo gave up hits to Pujols and O’Neill. He gave up a homer to Arenado. He also struck out right fielder Dylan Carlson twice — once with a fastball — before he was swapped for a lefty who could give hitters a different look in preparation for their first start of the regular season.

It wasn’t Graceffo’s pitching line that caught some attention, but rather his ability to throw strikes and command a fastball that reached triple digits on the radar gun.

“Three pitches. Good heater. Lots of break on that slider,” O’Neill said on Sunday. “Good stuff — but it’s being able to spot up. Strike thrower, who is going to be over the plate with power. Ready to make that next step with command.”

“I enjoyed it,” Marmol said after his first time seeing the righty throw.

The ability to top out at 100 mph with his fastball wasn’t something Graceffo could do a season ago. It was something he worked on over the winter and has brought with him into his first full season of professional baseball.

“Last year, I was kind of sitting around like 94 to 96, topping 97, 98,” Graceffo said. “(I had) kind of a lot of those same numbers during the offseason and I knew that I could kind of get up to 100, and that was one of my big goals.”

Before Saturday’s intrasquad game, Graceffo used his improved fastball paired with a curveball, slider, and a changeup that still is developing, to strike out eight batters in three innings during a back-field game on March 23.

Getting his fastball to where it is today began not too far from his hometown of Wayne, N.J.

The 22-year-old spent his offseason training at the Annex Sports Performance center in Chatham, N.J. The facility, which promotes “Elite Baseball Development” in its Instagram bio, has had other minor-league prospects walk through its doors including Texas Rangers top pitching prospect and former 2021 No. 2 overall draft pick Jack Leiter.

It was a winter that consisted of agility work, throwing and lifting with a focus on adding muscle while retaining flexibility for Graceffo.

“They helped me a ton there,” Graceffo said. “I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done. I worked a lot on just increasing my strength, gaining good weight, putting on a lot of muscle, a lot of good weight, getting a lot faster, a lot more explosive and just kind of working on all those kind of facets improving everything.”

With his offseason goal met, he doesn’t want to stop there. Like a bodybuilder who steadily adds more weight to uplift their personal records, Graceffo still looks to improve his arsenal and his already overpowering fastball.

“It’s kind of weird, like once you hit it, it’s like what’s next? I’m looking forward to that next step,” he said. “You always have got to strive for something better.”

Graceffo comes off a season in which he had a 1.73 ERA across 26 innings. He collected 37 strikeouts and was used as a reliever in 10 of his 11 appearances with Low-A Palm Beach. His longest outing of 2021 was a 4 1/3 inning scoreless outing.

He will begin the minor-league season as a starter with High-A Peoria, he said. It’s where the Cardinals will look for him to get as many innings in as possible as a part of his development.

A role in a starting rotation is one that he found success in during his last year at Villanova, for which he posted a 1.54 ERA across 11 starts and 82 innings.

It’s also a role he hopes he holds on to throughout his playing career.

“Hopefully it stays that way throughout my time in the affiliates and up to the big leagues,” Graceffo said. “But I mean, whatever they want to do with me, I’m ready for.”

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