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BenFred: Race for Cards' utility spot will go down to wire, but Munoz is one tough out

BenFred: Race for Cards' utility spot will go down to wire, but Munoz is one tough out

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. • A pitcher had a glitch. The rookie wanted a word.

Before Yairo Munoz’s dense bones saved his spring, he impressed a new manager with his sharp mind.

This was during last season’s second half, after Mike Shildt started bringing his players together daily to talk ball.

Questions were asked. Tips were swapped. One of Munoz’s contributions sticks with Shildt, still. During one session, the utilityman who wears a running back’s number (34) told the room he had faced an upcoming opposing pitcher in the minors. He remembered the pitcher rarely checked on baserunners before starting his motion toward the plate. Video confirmed the trend. Sure enough, the Cardinals swiped a bag against the guy.

“One of the good things about this team is, it doesn’t matter if you are a veteran or a rookie, you get an opportunity to speak up,” Munoz said this week, as translated by team interpreter Carlos Villoria-Benitze.

“One of the things Yadi (Molina) told me,” Munoz said, “is that there are things veteran players might not see that a rookie sees, and vice versa. It doesn’t matter if you are a rookie, or a veteran. The opportunity for me to speak up is good, because the goal here is to help the team win, for me and my teammates to become better players. If I see something, I have the confidence now to talk, to speak up and talk to my teammates and manager about it.”

Since Munoz became a Cardinal in the Stephen Piscotty trade, the stocky, smiling Swiss Army knife has impressed teammates and officials with his approach. He forced the Cardinals to take him with them due to his tremendous spring one year ago. He made 26 starts and played nearly 700 innings while appearing at six different positions during his first season in the majors. His .763 on-base plus slugging percentage ranked eighth among the 20 MLB rookies who appeared in more than 100 games.

His upside needs no translation. It’s his immediate future that remains foggy.

The 24-year-old Munoz’s competition against 26-year-old Drew Robinson continued Sunday, when Munoz started in right field before switching to shortstop in a 9-1 Grapefruit League loss to the New York Tebows.

If veteran Jedd Gyorko and his sore calf can dodge the disabled list, and the sense Sunday was that they would, the Cardinals’ claimed bench spots could read as follows: Gyorko, Jose Martinez, Tyler O’Neill, Matt Wieters and either Munoz or Robinson.

“It’s a good competition, right?” Shildt said about those last two names. “Both guys are playing well, going about it. We are doing what we can to prep them for that role. We moved Munoz from right, to short (on Sunday). We moved Drew (on Saturday) from third, to second. Have them play different positions. That’s the reality of what they would be looking at. They have both done a nice job. We still have some spring left to figure it out.”

Munoz prioritized defense this offseason and feels he is ready to scale back the errors that at times snowballed on him. On Sunday, a double dropped in right field that might have become a sensational catch if a true outfielder had been in Munoz’s spot instead. But he made the routine plays, then started a double play after he switched to shortstop.

This should come as no surprise, but Munoz’s offense is once again making his case. Robinson is a lefthanded hitter, which would seem to give him an edge. The catcher Wieters, though, is a switch-hitter, and perhaps his presence decreases the lefty advantage for Robinson. Asked Sunday if he has a set number of southpaws he wants for his bullpen, Shildt said what mattered most is getting outs. If he takes the same approach for his final bench spot — prioritizing players who don’t make outs — Munoz becomes hard to pass over.

Robinson is seven-for-26 in camp with two doubles, no walks and 10 strikeouts. Munoz is seven-for-20 with one double, one walk and two strikeouts. He puts balls in play.

Robinson’s on-base plus slugging percentage in 216 MLB at-bats since 2017 reads .667. Munoz’s OPS in 293 MLB at-bats since 2018 reads .763.

And then come some really fascinating numbers.

Munoz’s batting line against National League Central opponents last season read .319/.397/.486. He slashed .353/.436/.513 with runners on base, and .324/.435/.500 with runners in scoring position.

“What surprised me was his advanced approach,” Shildt said. “He ended up being one of our better two-strike hitters, you know?”

I didn’t, until Shildt pointed it out. Munoz led the Cardinals in average (.247), on-base percentage (.302) and slugging percentage (.348) in two-strike counts.

“He showed a knack to be able to drive in a run, move over a runner, take a tough at-bat,” Shildt said. “And I also appreciate the fact he loves facing guys with better stuff. He loves that. We recognize when we are facing a Cy Young guy. He wants in that lineup. He wants that at-bat. You can’t have enough of those guys.”

Munoz is tough, too. Or maybe he’s just lucky. Probably both.

His start Sunday came a week after a pitch smacked into his hand. Everyone figured the wrist was broken, Munoz included. He flashed a smile as he pointed to the spot this week. There was not even a bruise.

“Before he got hit (in the wrist), he was leading our team in hits (this spring),” Shildt pointed out. “He’s playing well. Playing different positions. Playing good defense.”

This was when Shildt told the story of Munoz helping orchestrate a steal.

“He provided value to what we were trying to do to compete that day,” the manager recalled.

Munoz declined to reveal the pitcher’s name or team. The Cardinals might face the same guy this season. He intends to be there if they do.


BENFRED: SPRING TRAINING QUESTIONS

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