As a letter signed by civic leaders in Arizona urging Major League Baseball to postpone spring training because of an unrelenting pandemic became public Monday, the Cardinals and Miami Marlins illustrated the sport’s forward progress into the unknown by announcing limited ticket sales to games at their shared spring training ballpark in Florida.
In a letter dated Friday to commissioner Rob Manfred, the Cactus League’s executive director writes how she and nine officials, including six mayors, “believe it is wise to delay the start of spring training to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here.” Major League Baseball and Major League Baseball Players’ Association issued statements in response and affirmed their commitment to local health policies as well as, in the union’s words, being “prepared for an on time start to spring training and the regular season.”
Even with so many uncertainties related to the virus’ spread, the vaccine’s distribution, and the unspoken potential of a delay, all teams, like the Cardinals, must prepare for an on-time start. In case it becomes a certainty.
“We are planning and we’ll be ready for starting on time,” club president Bill DeWitt III said. “Like it is here (in St. Louis), we’re planning for changes as they come along. We’re trying to be ready and also be flexible.”
The Cardinals have authored a plan that will allow for a reduced crowd to attend the home opener at Busch Stadium on April 8, and they continue to revise it based on local regulations and Major League Baseball’s guidance. Any plan must yet be approved by local authorities and the league, and that isn’t expected to come until much closer to the regular season’s scheduled start. Spring training is more pressing, with less than a month before all 30 teams are expected to open camps — 15 in Florida and 15 in Arizona.
The Cardinals pitchers and catchers are scheduled to open spring training Feb. 17 in Jupiter, Florida, and the full squad is set to follow five days later. The Cardinals are currently slated to begin Grapefruit League play Feb. 27 against host Miami at Roger Dean Stadium, and the first of 15 home games will be Feb. 28.
The Cardinals and Marlins revealed their plan Monday to sell tickets in groupings of two, four and six for the exhibition games. The number of total tickets sold will depend on the mix of those small-group “pods,” as each will be scattered throughout the ballpark with at least 6 feet between them to meet CDC guidelines. The Cardinals expect capacity to be less than 2,000 for each game to assure physical distance. Season ticket holders for spring training will have first access to individual games on Feb. 1 via the stadium’s website. The Cardinals’ 2020 season ticket holders will gain access on Feb. 8, and the general public can purchase tickets on Feb. 18, if any remain available.
The two clubs, like others around Major League Baseball, want fans to prepare for the possibility of attending games and the safe practices that will greet them through the turnstiles.
The Cardinals and Marlins are requiring fans to purchase tickets in a way that is easily refunded because it is not yet certain fans will be permitted in the ballpark by the end of next month, and it could be some time in March before even a small crowd attends as the teams and Major League Baseball survey local practices.
Florida has adopted less stringent limits on crowd size for sporting events than other states, and neither NFL team took full advantage of the state’s stance. The teams individually reduced the number of fans permitted to attend. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers capped crowds at 25% capacity this past season. The Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida, will have a reported attendance of 22,000, a number that includes 7,500 vaccinated health care workers, the NFL announced.
Palm Beach County had a 5% increase in COVID-19 infections over the past week, according to the county’s update Monday, and now has 102,968 reported cases. As of Monday afternoon, a total of 122,550 people had received their first dose of the vaccination in Palm Beach County, according to the same report. A facial covering policy in the county has been extended through Feb. 19, two days after the Cardinals’ scheduled start.
The virus’ pace in Arizona prompted the request to postpone camps.
The letter, sent by the Cactus League’s executive director Bridget Binsbacher and first revealed by a Phoenix television station (Channel 12/KPNX), mentions how Maricopa County has “one of the nation’s highest infection rates.” The letter is signed by six mayors, two city managers, and a leader of a tribal community — all of whom have spring training facilities in their area. Citing information from the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, the letter suggests “a sharp decline in infections in Arizona by mid-March.”
Tourism is a driving factor as the Cactus League brought an estimated $644 million in during 2018, according to the Arizona Republic and a study by Arizona State. The newspaper added that six out of every 10 fans at a Cactus League event come from out of state.
The Cactus League does not have any authority to delay the start of spring training or exhibition games in Arizona, and Major League Baseball cannot act unilaterally to do so. That must be collectively bargained with the union, and MLBPA said as much in its statement.
“While we, of course, share the goals of a safe spring training and regular season, MLB has repeatedly assured us” of an on-time start, the union’s statement read. “We continue to devote all our efforts to making sure that that takes place as safely as possible.”
Without the amenities and space of major-league ballparks that were used for social distancing and testing and other protocols during the 2020 season, the Cardinals and other clubs are working to repurpose their smaller spring training facilities to fit regulations.
The owners have discussed a delay to the start of spring training — to allow for greater accessibility of the vaccine and time for the infections to possible subside, according to multiple sources and national reports. That has not been palatable for the players’ union, which also reportedly rejected the universal DH and expanded playoffs Monday. Those two items will continue to be negotiated as owners and players seek to maintain leverage with items both sides find appealing. The union has insisted on an on-time start in large part because players want to assure a complete 162-game schedule. While not paid during spring, their salaries are based on games played. The players received a prorated salary for last year’s shortened 60-game slate.
Owners, meanwhile, want to avoid holding games in empty ballparks as they did last year without the ability to bring in ticket revenue.
The Cardinals remain in contact with St. Louis and state officials, and they have worked with Dr. Fredrick Echols, the director of the city’s department of health, to outline how many fans can attend games as early as April. Their plan is for 28% capacity with between 8,000 and 12,000 fans. They are studying the best mix of two-, four- and six-person “pods” to sell, and will use information from spring training sales to inform the ballpark’s layout. Major League Baseball continually updates suggestions for teams, and it even sent a memo recently about front row seating that led the Cardinals to tweak their proposed plan.
That plan, which will be presented to the city closer to the home opener, “will continue to change and evolve until the latest possible moment,” DeWitt said. “You have to be ready.”
No Molina, no Wainwright, no identity: Ben Fred lays out a grim scenario for the 2021 Cardinals
Q: Didn't Yadier Molina already get his legacy contract from the Cardinals? He was once among the highest-paid catchers. Does he want the Cardinals to overpay now?
A: There's a difference between a legacy contract and a legacy player, right? Molina did already get his big deal. That was the one that just expired, the one that paid him a handsome $20 million per year. Remember, there was a time not that long ago where he was suggesting he would retire at the end of that contract. So the assumption, if there was one, that the Cardinals were going to keep paying him that kind of money moving forward, well, forget about it. And Molina knows he isn't going to get that kind of money here, or anywhere. He's realistic, to an extent. I would guess -- Molina has not said to my knowledge -- that Molina wants to make more per year than the new deal signed by James McCann, which paid that catcher a little over $10 million per season. Molina has said he wants two years over one with an option. But Bengie Molina has suggested that his brother might be flexible on if there is a second contract year or an option. Negotiations will continue. But here's the thing. Molina's, Yadi's not Bengies', latest comments make it sound like he would consider retiring if he does not get what he's looking for. That would indicate none of the teams, not just the Cardinals, are seeing eye to eye with him on what his next deal looks like. That could change. Or Molina's opinion on what it will take to make him play could change. If the Cardinals wind up not getting Molina back and he retires because he feels undervalued, that's his call. If the Cardinals wind up losing Molina to another team because another team was willing to give him a little bit more, like $500,000 or less, well, that's a rough look for the Cardinals, if you ask me. If Molina walks away from one-year offers because he demands two, I think it's fair to question how bad he wanted to play in 2021 in the first place.
Q: If the Cardinals want to bring back Adam Wainwright to give him a proper sendoff, fine. But if the team is really interested in seeing what it has in its young talent, wouldn't it be better off letting Wainwright walk?
A: If the Cardinals think the sendoff is the top benefit to bringing him back, they shouldn't bring him back. Simple as that. I don't think that's the top reason, or even close. Potential is great, but the Cardinals rotation, while deep with potential, is short on been-there-done-that and Wainwright (and Molina for that matter) has a lot of it. If the Cardinals are going to thrust young arms into the spotlight, there isn't a better veteran to have around to help shepherd the flock than Wainwright (and Molina). Bring him back because of his stuff and his intangibles, and because of his relatively affordable price all things considered. The emotional stuff is just extra. If the Cardinals feel like they are a better team without Wainwright, so be it. But I would disagree with that opinion, strongly.
Q: How impressive has Jordan Kyrou been for the Blues to start this season?
A: It would be impossible to not be pumped about Kyrou's play Monday night, and just his start to the season in general. The goals are great -- no duh -- but he's also doing the little things, like full buy-in on backchecking, that Blues coach Craig Berube, a tough critic, loves to see. By now we know enough about Chief to know he does not heap too much praise on any player, especially young ones. But he was practically doing backflips about Kyrou's play Monday. Here's what he said.
"His speed and his skill, he gets opportunities because of that. I was glad to see him get one (goal). He had a lot of opportunities. He hit a post. Had a couple other good shots. You know, he did a good job. The one area, he has to manage the puck a little better at times, but that will come. Coming out of junior hockey, you are always used to making plays. In the NHL, you have to manage it a little bit. He did a good job. He made a lot of nice plays. He could have had more than one goal. Excellent backcheck. He could do that all the time, because of he's speed. He's really starting to get it and figure that out."
Kyrou is averaging 12:13 minutes per game, up from 10:54 last season. His shifts per game is up, from 14.2 last season to 15.7 this season. Berube is giving him a chance, and more of a chance, and more as he continues to earn it. Kyrou's having a great start to the season. Berube is singing his praises.
Q: How many years without a championship would the Cardinals have to go to adjust their spending strategy from the current model?
A: I think it would depend on how the fans react, honestly. Team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said something pretty telling in his Winter Warm-Up interview about knowing Cardinals fans were going to be at the ballpark no matter what. He meant it as a compliment to the fans, but it was also a reminder that the team knows its attendance is going to be strong, for the most part, no matter what, whether the team wins or loses. We've heard an awful lot about how what the Cardinals spend is tied to how many people can attend games, but we have not heard much about how the product on the field needs to attract fans to games. If that dynamic changes, there could be changes.
It's important to note this part, too. The Cardinals' spending has not been a problem. They're consistently in the upper tier of payrolls. If they do cut back this year, and they have suggested they will, then remember a bunch of other teams -- most, really -- are doing similar versions of scaling back during the pandemic. I mean, look at the National League Central. Teams are rushing to offload good players left and right. You don't have to love the Cardinals scaling back, and I get that completely, but don't pretend it's not happening as well for all but like five or so teams.
Personally, I think what the Cardinals have to change is this notion that they cannot afford a mega contract for an in-his-prime player and still run a successful team around that contract. They have convinced themselves it's mega contract with a superstar player OR sustained success. I don't think it has to be one or the other.
What the Cardinals need to avoid doing in the future is spending good chunks of money on relief pitching -- they can produce better options internally -- and B-level position playing additions who are going to be at or near the same level as younger cost controlled talent from the moment the B-level addition signs, or soon after. Stop spending on those two things and take bigger swings on surer things that are not coming from within.
Q: Is Harrison Bader Billy Hamilton 2.0? Why do some suggest his offensive shortcomings would not be a problem if the team hit better? Does he not count toward the team?
A: Bader is not Billy Hamilton. Bader already has two of four seasons in the majors in which he was an above-average hitter. His adjusted OPS in 2018 was 106, six points above league average. His adjusted OPS in 2020 was 111, 11 points above league average. In seven full seasons in the majors Hamilton never had a single season in which he was an above-average hitter in terms of adjusted OPS. His career adjusted OPS is 67. Bader's is 93. That's a pretty big difference, especially when you remember Bader is 26 years old plenty of room to improve. I would argue that if the rest of the lineup was hitting better, we would not spend nearly as much time talking about Bader's offense. He would be a defense-first No. 8/9 hitter who could run into some home runs and use his speed to mix things up on the bases while robbing runs in center. If he was bringing that element to the tail end of a league-average or better lineup, he would be celebrated. But because the offense has holes, and Bader's offense has struggled at times, he is often a topic -- especially because he was perhaps unfairly, and to some degree on his own doing as well, thrust forward as an emerging face of the team. The fact is, he was one of the few players on last season's team who took steps forward as a hitter. This is not me saying he has to be a guaranteed starter or that he must play every day. Not at all. He has not locked the door behind him when it comes to locking down center field, but part of that is because the offense has not hit well enough as a whole to completely prove a defense-first center fielder can be the right fit for this offense-challenged team.
Q: Could the Cardinals pull off a trade for Clint Frazier? What about Andrew Benintendi? Anything like that likely?
A: I don't think the Cardinals are going to move on from any of their significant outfield options before the season starts. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has made it pretty clear, increasingly so during Winter Warm Up, that this season is going to be about sorting out the internal outfield options once and for all. So, I would say not very likely based on what we have heard.
That's why I think the Cardinals really hope to add a DH this year, if that rule comes on line again, because it will let them improve their lineup while buying time for the extended outfield tryouts.
Don't overlook this recent quote from Mozeliak during his Winter Warm-Up.
"Go back a year, and think about (Randy) Arozarena," Mozeliak said. "Here's a player that we could not find at-bats for. We put him in a deal, and then of course he becomes legendary in October. That is sort of my greatest fear. Making sure we give these guys some true chance. I have a hard time accepting last year as a great sample size, because it was such an unusual year for our team. Not making excuses, but when you have that quarantine, then another 10-day dead period, then you are told to go play. I just don't think from a player standpoint, or even pitching standpoint, that we ever really caught our stride. Now, as we sit here today, how do we create that opportunity moving forward? ... You have these guys that really want a chance to play, that want at-bats. That is probably going to be the most important thing we get right, or we can't make another mistake on. That is going to be critical on trying to make sure we get these guys at-bats. And the most important part is, what do they do with them? Because we have to see an uptick in our offense, or it's going to be a long year."
Q: What's up with Mizzou's Mark Smith? He has played under expectations for some time now. Usually, in the past, it's been injuries holding him back. What's going on now?
A: He's played really well for spurts, including at the start of this season. But he tends to go in funks, and right now he's in a bad one. You're correct that usually it has been injury related, but that is not the case now. I asked around to see if Mark had been one of the Tigers who had COVID, because his strange play as of late kind of reminded me of the strange things we saw from Lane Thomas, who later explained he was in part messed up because of a tough recovery from the virus. Smith, I was told, is not one of the players who had the virus. So that's out as a potential reason. He is, I think, putting a ton of pressure on himself, and it's all compounding. Cuonzo has a tough thing to decide. Bench him and play either Pickett or Watson more, hoping to take some pressure of Mark, or stick with him and hope this is rock bottom and he will have more confidence -- and help the Tigers become the best version of themselves come March -- by playing through this. It's not an easy call. I'd have a hard time starting him after what happened last time out.
Q: Why do you think the Cardinals' stolen bases attempt per game dropped in 2020 compared to 2019? That was a strength that seemed to fade.
A: A couple things come to mind right away.
One is personnel. Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman had disappointing offensive seasons, so they were not on base as often as they hoped, and therefore they were somewhat neutralized as base-stealing threats. Also Marcell Ozuna, a surprisingly adept base stealer, was not on the team.
Two is pandemic. The Cardinals' season was weird. Stops and starts. Long layoff. Time the team could spend together keeping certain aspects of the game sharp were cut into by social distancing rules and fear of getting too many guys together at once. As a result I think we saw some of the team's strengths get dented, and this is one good example of it.
Q: You keep pointing out how Marcell Ozuna led the National League in home runs last season. He would not have done that if he was playing for the Cardinals. Not mentioning Busch Stadium's stifling of power hitters is an oversight in the conversation about the Cardinals power, or lack thereof.
A: I don't recall saying Ozuna would have led the NL in home runs if he played for the Cardinals last season, but if you don't think he would have helped the Cardinals offense last season, I'm not sure which Cardinals lineup you were watching last season. As for Busch being the place where power goes to die, let's look at some numbers. Since the start of the 2019 season, the Twins (.600), Athletics (.514), Astros (.500), Tigers (.473), Padres (.461) and Cleveland (.450) have all slugged .450 or better at Busch. Of course they have not played nearly as many games there as the Cardinals, who have slugged .401 at home, but this idea that power can't play at Busch is getting a little overplayed, I think.
Q: What would it say about the Cardinals if they don't bring back Molina and Wainwright, and don't counter their departures with other moves?
A: They would be a team, at least for 2021, without an identity.
A team floating through a season without one for the first time in a long time.
They could not say they were serious about competing/contending and would be forced to admit they were taking an emphasis off a current season to prepare for a future one or ones.
It would be anti-Cardinal under this edition of Cardinals leadership.