For the entirety of spring training, Greg Holland didn’t have a clubhouse to share, teammates to meet, a uniform to button, or a game to attend, so he did what he could to create competition against hitters who also didn’t have something he recognized.
“I was throwing bullpens. I was throwing live batting practices,” Holland said. “Obviously there’s that extra little tick you kind of have when you know the hitters who you’re facing. There’s that little extra adrenaline.”
There is a time every year, inevitably, when someone who calls a clubhouse home for most of March suggests that spring training is too long and the days too repetitive and it’s time for the hamster wheel to stop so that the season can start. This April offers the counterpoint. As the Cardinals open May with Windy City week at Busch Stadium — a two-day visit from the White Sox followed by the Cubs and their fans gusting into town — they have a handful of players who are getting their spring work when the games count.
The Cardinals have described Holland’s schedule as “spring-like,” even as he’s called in to close out a three-run lead Friday in Pittsburgh. Lefty Brett Cecil is recreating spring as he nears a rehab assignment, one that’s necessary because he wasn’t able to fully participate in camp. Two other Cardinals, infielder Matt Carpenter and reliever Luke Gregerson, have had inconsistent or outright disappointing starts after they also missed most of March.
“Spring training,” Carpenter said, “is a real thing.”
Said John Mozeliak, the team’s president of baseball operations, “I definitely feel like Cecil was affected by it. Holland was in a very unique situation. Gregerson, yeah, he had two innings, two appearances. I think what really this says is there is a reason for spring training. Trying to replicate baseball games is always the trick of running a baseball team. It’s about practicing baseball at game speed.
“What’s happening is hard and it does feel like there are more (players),” Mozeliak continued. “When you talk about people like Gregerson or Matt Carpenter and the few that we’ve discussed you can see there is a gap. That is something that we’re trying to get back.”
The Cardinals ended their first full month of play with a 15-12 record. It was buoyed by a 7-0 month against lowly Cincinnati and anchored by this past weekend’s 0-3 visit to Pittsburgh. The Cardinals boast a top-five pitching staff (by ERA) and a lower half offense (by OPS). Tommy Pham, the only fixture near the top of the order, leads the National League with a .341 batting average, and Carlos Martinez is third in the league with a 1.43 ERA. The lineup has been sluggish as Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna search for their swings. Carpenter has a .155 average and more walks (19) than hits (13). That offense has been a drag on the team, though a bullpen rich and deep in young talent has continued to be a riddle. That’s in part because Holland, as well as Gregerson, hasn’t found a groove.
He’s not alone.
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This past winter’s chilly free-agent market led to a March rush as some teams sought closeout prices on players. On one day in mid-March, All-Stars Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Carlos Gonzalez all finally found a home — four weeks after camp had opened, months after free agents usually signed. Holland agreed to a one-year, $14 million deal on opening day. Only Arrieta has bucked what appears to be a trend. Lynn, like many of the March signees, has struggled with a 7.71 ERA and an 0-2 record for the Minnesota Twins. He, uncharacteristically, has walked 18 batters in 18 2/3 innings.
Alex Cobb, who signed with Baltimore in late March, is 0-3 with a 13.11 ERA and has allowed 30 hits in 11 2/3 innings. Kansas City’s Justin Grimm, signed in mid-March, has a 21.86 ERA. The list goes on: Neil Walker, signed March 12, has hit .171 for the Yankees. Gonzalez is hitting .235 for the Rockies and just came off the disabled list from, get this, a hamstring injury. Arrieta defies these anecdotes at 3-0 with a 1.82 ERA and only eight walks in 24 2/3 innings for the Phillies.
“I think what happened this offseason, not just with me but how it worked in general, you have to assume it’s the outlier,” said Holland, who found a workout space and hitters at UC-Irvine to create a faux spring training. “There were times when you’re a little complacent and you try to give yourself a shot in the arm, just fake adrenaline. It’s not the same. It’s hard to trick yourself into that game scenario. There is something to this ‘getting into baseball shape’ that comes with games.”
Carpenter spent most of spring training building up strength in his lower back after injury and working on a new throwing mechanic to preserve his arm and address the achy shoulder that limited him in 2017.
He got only 23 at-bats in spring, but made a lot of them.
He hit .391 with a .533 on-base percentage, and while his slow start can be traced to a search for timing at the plate, he stressed, multiple times, a reluctance to tie it all back to having only half (or less) of spring training.
“It didn’t happen. I can’t change that,” Carpenter said. “If I sit around and say I’m off to a cold start because I didn’t have spring training, what good does that do? I refuse to go there. But I agree with the point that ultimately spring training for a pitcher and for a position player is the thing that gives you the needed head start on the season. If a player misses it there is going to be a growing period. You have to expect it.”
While Cecil had a shoulder injury that placed him on the DL so he could recreate spring training while on rehab, Carpenter, Holland and Gregerson are doing theirs in the regular season. Holland said he hasn’t been throwing bullpen sessions on the side because manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Mike Maddux “have done a good job of getting me in there on a regular basis.” That happened Friday with his first save opportunity, and it fizzled when he allowed three runs on three hits without getting an out.
On Sunday, he took the eighth – and allowed three hits and a run.
“There have been steps forward, and (the blown save) was not a step forward,” Matheny said. “We have to use him in spots where we can get him moving forward again.”
Likewise with Gregerson, who has allowed seven baserunners in 3 2/3 innings, and Carpenter, who has bounced around spots in the lineup. For all three players on the active roster it’s not as easy as recreating spring-like situations or even doing extra work to simulate spring. (“That becomes counterproductive,” one said.) It’s about trusting that eventually the regular season offers the same thing as spring: at-bats, innings, time. These are just the ones that show up in the standings and under those recognizable names on baseball cards.
Even though March games don’t count, spring does.
“For me, I think a month of playing time is a good amount of time (to find timing), and for me my month is coming during a stretch of the season,” Carpenter said. “It happens every year to somebody. You can’t dwell on that. You can’t find excuses for it. You have to go out and find the way to do it.”