‘Pedal down’ Cardinals contend the notion of camp competition is more than empty bluster this spring

Cardinals manager Oli Marmol meets with the media outside the home clubhouse at Roger Dean...
Cardinals manager Oli Marmol meets with the media outside the home clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium for the first time of the spring on February 13, 2023.(Brenden Schaeffer)
Published: Feb. 14, 2023 at 12:22 AM CST
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JUPITER, Fla. (KMOV) - As he rapped fungoes to infielders on the unofficial first day of spring camp, new Cardinals bench coach Joe McEwing voiced a bit of frustration.

It wasn’t the performance of his players getting under McEwing’s skin⁠—it was his own rhythm with the fungo bat. McEwing called out the occasional apology to his fielders for a few feeble grounders as Jose Oquendo delivered some good-natured ribbing.

It’s spring training for the coaches, too.

McEwing wasn’t the only professional on the field angling to get the details right during Monday’s team activities at the complex behind Roger Dean Stadium. Nolan Arenado took grounders and made throws from various angles at third. Paul Goldschmidt dove into discussing with a coach his preference for underhanding the ball to a pitcher covering first base whenever possible. From day one, the best players prioritize the little things.

Cardinals spring training camp unofficially opened Monday as the team’s World Baseball Classic participants arrived at the team facilities two days ahead of Wednesday’s official report date for pitchers and catchers. Broaching the buzzword that permeates camps across the country this time of year, Cardinals ⁠president of baseball operations John Mozeliak peeled back the curtain on the nature of competition at spring training.

“When you sit in front of a day-one scrum, right, we always talk about competition in camp,” Mozeliak said. “Candidly, I’ll admit, sometimes there really isn’t, right? Like, we talk about it, but we kind of know what our club is going to look like. Whereas this year, I think it’s pretty genuine.”

While the Cardinals manager didn’t entirely cop to the trade secret that the concept of competition in spring camps is overblown in most years, Oli Marmol agreed that this camp has a different feel to it.

“I think we say that every year because it’s true,” Marmol said. “There’s usually a spot where you’re eager to see how it unfolds, and there’s competition.

“More than any other year, I would say there’s going to be a lot of competition this year.”

It doesn’t fool anybody when the supposed competition is so obviously in name only. But this winter, only Lars Nootbaar was publicly declared as an everyday player in the outfield. Though Willson Contreras signed to fill the shoes of a departing franchise catcher, no such acquisition occurred to replace the slugging designated hitter who walked off into the sunset on the same day. Sorting through the crowded mass of names vying for relief roles is an overwhelming undertaking for mid-February.

Opportunities exist in this camp.

“Performance and how people do is going to matter,” Mozeliak said. “When you’re looking at when we break at the end of March, what does our 26-man roster look like? I could sit there and write a guess. But I would probably write down 32 names. And we know we’ve got to break with 26. So I do think it’s a pretty honest reflection of what this camp looks like when we use the word competitiveness.”

“We went through it this morning with a couple of staff members,” Marmol explained of how the team views these roster conversations. “Here’s what it could look like and here’s where there’s real⁠—I mean, there’s different levels of competition. Some are wide open like, who’s going to take it? And some are you better not take your foot off the pedal, because people are close.”

Without identifying precisely which areas of the roster to which the latter scenario applied, Marmol shared that he’s eager to see how certain players respond to the notion that their role isn’t promised just because they had it a year ago. Mozeliak, too, acknowledged that the number of players whose names are written in ink is unusually low.

This camp competition might have some teeth.

“I think everybody is going to have to embrace that phrase with the exception of a few people,” Mozeliak said. “But when I say the exception of a few people, they’re like, the most competitive guys on earth, right? They’re competing every day.”

Another example of the work ethic of the team’s leaders popped up in a back-field discussion between Goldschmidt and Arenado on Monday. When one of the fungo-wielding coaches mentioned that Tuesday would be an off-day for them, the corner infield anchors wondered aloud whether they might be able to find a local high-school field to take some grounders.

The conversation was in jest. Probably. But it was nevertheless a testament to the level of competitiveness that drives Goldschmidt and Arenado to greatness. The two are bona fide baseball junkies. This spring, the Cardinals seem to be challenging the rest of the roster to match that energy.

The Cardinals enter camp with six experienced starting pitchers with notable Major League experience. They have incumbents at several positions on the diamond who underperformed expectations last season. Those names blend with talented youngsters looking to make an impression and effectively snatch the jobs from the guys who have held them. Left-handed relief candidates need to display the discipline to channel quality ‘stuff’ into tangible results⁠—or risk getting left behind.

“There are a lot of spots that, if you take your foot off the pedal, you will get passed,” Marmol said.

He stopped short of referring to the idea that some players could see their roles swiped away by more eager competitors as the “fun part” of spring, but his demeanor told the tale. The manager wants results and he appears to relish the process through which he will learn which players are most likely to provide them.

“That’s the⁠—I don’t want to say fun part⁠—but that is the industry we’re in,” Marmol said. “That’s sport, right? The ability to show up. The reason Paul Goldschmidt is good is because he truly comes into camp every year not wanting to lose his spot, as crazy as that sounds.

“Like, he’s established. He was the best player in the big leagues last year. He will come in not wanting to lose his job. And that’s the reason that he’s good year after year after year. It will be interesting to see if anyone comes into camp with their foot not all the way down.”

The Cardinals contend that this time, it’s more than idle bluster. Authentic competition could be the key to the spring.