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Glimpses of normalcy returns as Cardinals open minor-league camp

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JUPITER, Fla. — After an entire season deleted, another season delayed and a year of their development detoured, Cardinals minor leaguers opening their spring training Monday will find on the back fields of Roger Dean Stadium what still has not made its way to the main clubhouse.

It will be there when they throw a bullpen session or field their 24th grounder of the day, it will be there in baserunning drills or cutoff throws, it will be there reflected in the sunglasses of the fans seeing these workouts in person for the first time since 2019.

In those glimpses, there will be glimmers of normalcy.

“In terms of individual development right now and growth it’s a nice opportunity for them to just be out playing,” said John Mozeliak, Cardinals president of baseball operations. “From the standpoint of opportunity, it’s ... a good place for them. We don’t have a huge camp. We have one that we feel is well balanced.”

A total of 153 players are on the Cardinals’ camp roster as a month of workouts and exhibition games begin at the team’s spring training complex. The owners’ lockout and ongoing work stoppage extends only to players on the 40-man roster, meaning leading prospects Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore and Jordan Walker will be participating.

The Cardinals’ first-year major-league manager Oliver Marmol and newly hired bench coach Skip Schumaker will be at the camp, but not participating in its direction. Marmol, once a player and manager in the Cardinals’ minor-league system, has spent recent years in the majors, and the camp is a chance for him to familiarize himself with the talent rising in his direction. Schumaker, a World Series champ with the Cardinals, was last with the organization in 2012 and will use the time to reacquaint himself and meet new colleagues and future players.

“Just observe,” Mozeliak said of the major-league staff’s role. “See what we have out there.”

In in a return to a pre-pandemic practice, fans will be permitted on the grounds at the Cardinals’ George Kissell Quad, where four fields meet on the east end of their campus. Fans will have access to bleacher areas and pathways, but with some COVID-19 protocols in place there won’t be the mingling of minor leaguers and fans as in the past.

But there will be baseball activities — and games start March 17.

Jose Oquendo, the Cardinals’ former third-base coach, oversees the general run of camp with Russ Steinhorn, the minor-league hitting coordinator, orchestrating drills for the hitters and Tim Leveque, the longtime minor-league pitching coordinator, running the mounds.

Rookie-ball manager Roberto Espinoza will guide engineering the camp’s schedule.

Tough times

The drills, rotation, and movement of players will be similar to minor-league camps before 2020, the year the minor-league camp and minor-league season were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. And the Cardinals hope that the development of players can, likewise, resume a familiar pacing.

The 2020 pothole in the schedule for prospects led the Cardinals to accelerate promotion for most players in 2021.

The individual results varied.

The overall team results stunk.

All five of the Cardinals’ U.S.-based affiliates had losing records, and not one of the four full-season clubs finished within 20 games of first place. The Class A Palm Beach team scored 223 fewer runs than its opponents. The five affiliates’ overall record was 208-322, and that winning percentage (.397) was the lowest of any organization in pro baseball. It is the fifth-worst organization winning percentage since 1963, according to research by Baseball America.

“From an outcome standpoint, we struggled in the wins and loss column,” Mozeliak conceded. “From a development standpoint, we feel there were individual gains.”

The Cardinals did the calculus after a shortened minor-league camp in 2021 and decided to assign players as if there had been a 2020 season. That meant a player slated for Class AA in 2020 was likely to start 2021 in Class AAA. Lefties Liberatore and Zack Thompson, two of the Cardinals’ top starting pitching prospects, vaulted to the rotation in Triple-A Memphis despite never having pitched above Class A. That widespread, advanced promotion gave the Cardinals one the youngest rosters at each level — and contributed to some of the poor pitching performances, especially early in the season.

Five pitchers made at least 10 starts for the Class AAA Redbirds, four of them were four years younger than the average age of the Pacific Coast League.

Liberatore, now 22, was six years younger than the average.

Third base prospect Jordan Walker, 19, was 3½ years younger than the league average at High-A Peoria.

“We decided to give some of these players (assignments) where we thought we were pushing them a little bit and to challenge them,” Mozeliak said. “We were trying to almost look at it as if we had not lost 2020. But we did. I think there were some negative effects on that in terms of performance, especially with team performance. I would hope that this group — it’s a little bit more of a normalization.”

The youngest and newest members of the organization will get that benefit as a six-pack of 18-year-olds start camp. That group includes shortstop Adari Grant, of the Bahamas; catcher Leonardo Bernal of Panama; and outfielder Joshua Baez, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and Boston. All three are in their first camp.

There will be COVID-19 practices at the facility and around the fields. The Cardinals did not have any positive cases in the first two days of testing. Players who are vaccinated and boosted against the virus will have less restrictions around the complex, Mozeliak said.

Cloudy conditions

The minor-league camp opens under the cloud of a big-league absence — the big-leaguers. More than a dozen Cardinals from the major-league roster are in the Jupiter area working out, readying for a season that already has been delayed by the second-longest work stoppage in baseball history. Team officials, such as front office executives, are not permitted by Major League Baseball to discuss players on the 40-man roster, and Cardinals policies related to that rule will limit public comments from coaches.

A meeting Sunday in New York between representatives of the players’ union and owners did not advance negotiations. A spokesman for the owners said a proposal Sunday actually sent the process “backwards.” A union official pushed back hard on that description.

The exchange captures the chasm between agreement.

Major League Baseball is expected to cancel more regular-season games early this week, and the next group of them will include the Cardinals’ scheduled home opener, on April 7 .

That is the week the minor-league schedule is set to open.

The Triple-A season has been expanded and Memphis will open April 5. The Cardinals’ other three full-season affiliates — Class AA Springfield (Mo.), High-A Peoria, and Low-A Palm Beach — open their seasons on April 8.

The season in “2020 was a lost year,” Mozeliak said. “I think we — all of baseball, all of the country — did the best they could with what they had in 2021. And I think since that time it’s slowly gotten to where you feel it’s almost pre-pandemic. … There can be a lot of growth in (individuals’) development with their time in Jupiter.”

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