JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- The gang is back in the Gateway City. After finishing up their last exhibition match in Springfield Friday, the Cardinals returned to St. Louis for a final off day before the Cubs come to town for the season opener.
Sunday, ESPN will broadcast the first of 19 matchups with Chicago for Sunday Night Baseball, and the Cardinals will take on the world champs in front of a national audience. Saturday, they rest.
As the team enjoys the calm before the storm, it’s a perfect time to to look at what we learned from 2017 camp.
Fowler is as advertised
From the moment Dexter Fowler was introduced to St. Louis in front of the green backdrop in Busch Stadium’s press room, Cardinal Nation started dreaming. Not only did snagging such a talent from the World Series-winning Chicago Cubs roster feel like a coup, Fowler’s ability to top a lineup while manning center field seemed to solve a lot of problems that kept the Cardinals from playing October baseball.
Since his first at bat of spring, the 31-year-old outfielder has looked every bit the player the Redbirds need him to be. He works deep counts atop the order, steals bases, and manufactures runs. Multiple times this March he’s reached base and scored without the Cardinals ever recording a hit, walking his way on and using steals and sacrifice flies to move through the stations. It’s a skill set the team hasn’t had in a long time, one that makes run creation much less laborious.
His play in center field has helped both Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, and his personality has made the transition as smooth as possible. Fowler makes the team better in every area of play, and has hit the ground running for the Cardinals. As I write this, he’s currently standing on third base after his third triple this spring. St. Louis fans will enjoy watching him harry opposing pitchers, especially during the opening series at home.
He just tagged and scored on a sac fly to right. Easy.
Definitely different on defense
This is somewhat of an easy bar to clear, as the Cardinals had defensive troubles from the beginning of spring camp a year ago. After watching the team fumble their way to the sixth-worst fielding percentage in baseball during the season, the front office promised to shore up the glove work.
Through 32 spring games, it appears to have worked. Fowler’s addition to the outfield moved Randal Grichuk to left, immediately improving the range and athleticism the 7 corner. Fowler’s ability to quarterback outfield positioning helps both Grichuk and Piscotty, and as the trio gains familiarity with one another, it will become increasingly difficult for baseballs to find a landing spot in the outfield.
Aledmys Diaz is a year stronger and smarter, and his throws across the infield already look more confident than a season ago. He’ll likely never be a Gold Glover, but given how fast he rose to MLB deployment, judging 2016 as a finished product is unfair. He still has work to do on the double play exchanges, but he’s certainly a much sharper infielder than the one that left Jupiter in 2016.
Kolten Wong remains a ballistic missile with a glove attached. His usage at second, however regular it may or may not be, is a huge advantage for the Cardinals. All through March he reminded observers of his capabilities, stealing hits away up the middle and down the right field line. Elite defensive range is a contact pitcher’s best friend, and the rotation has a friend in Kolten Wong.
Jhonny Peralta took to third quickly, and looking more natural with each opportunity he got, something Mike Leake helped generously with. Peralta got six grounders in the first eight outs in one of Leake’s outings, and turned three double plays in three straight innings in another. He doesn’t have the range of the position’s best, but he still has the fluidity of movement and quick release that made him an All-Star shortstop.
Matt Carpenter is capable at first base, just as he has been capable at his previous two positions. He’s not Albert Pujols, but he’ll be no worse than previous installments at first.
From everything the Cardinals showed this spring, they took their commitment to better defense seriously. They look smooth and sure-handed, and mistakes come on challenging plays, not routine ones. They will be better this season in the field.
Wacha can still sling, Adams can still swing
With Alex Reyes down for the season, Michael Wacha became a crucial keystone in the Cardinal rotation. Strong spring starts aren’t uncommon for the 25-year-old, whose biggest challenge in recent seasons has come in the second half when his shoulder flares up. But this spring he looks like a different animal. He’s noticeably stronger, and his offseason regimen has given him the confidence to throw every pitch he has with conviction. He’s back to controlling the low edges of the strike zone, making his high-90s velocity a brutal counter to his changeup once again. Yadier Molina, who missed most of Wacha’s spring while playing in the WBC, confirmed a difference when he returned to camp. The veteran catcher said Wacha’s velocity, combined with the downward plane of his pitches, has him looking like the top-of-rotation talent he was projected to be.
Perhaps the best visual representation of Wacha’s improvement came in his sixth start, when he blew a two-strike fastball past Bryce Harper at 97 miles per hour. Harper was so unsure about what was coming he check-swung hard enough to knock his own helmet off. Wacha hasn’t managed to force such indecision from hitters since the first half of 2015. Longevity is always the question, but after a very tumultuous start of camp for the rotation, Wacha has calmed the waters.
Yes, Matt Adams is much slimmer. More importantly, he’s stronger through his trunk. After struggling early to find a swing he felt comfortable with, Adams went back to a previous approach after a handful of fruitless at bats. His old confidence combined with his new body yielded tremendous results. He led the team with five homers in 47 at bats, driving in 11 runs. More important, he used the opposite field with authority, hitting 40 percent of his homers to left. He’ll start the season as a bench bat, but his success with both contact (.340 batting average) and power (.681 slugging percentage) give the Cardinals a compelling weapon for whom they’ll endeavor to find at bats if the lineup struggles out of the gate.