The focus at the start of St. Louis Cardinals spring training was trained on the team’s ability to compete in 2017.
What does Jhonny Peralta have left in the tank? Which version of Randal Grichuk can we expect, the one who twice was demoted to the minor leagues in 2016 as he struggled to keep his batting average over .200 or the one who hit .275 with power over the last two months of the season? Are Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha healthy enough to contribute?
But since the Grapefruit League games have started, the focus has shifted toward the future. And it appears to be a pretty sight.
Prospects Patrick Wisdom, Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra, Carson Kelly and Anthony Garcia have been tearing the cover off the ball.
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St. Louis fans have heard a lot about Bader over the offseason. He’s the guy who is closest to the big leagues at this point with a shot to make the Opening Day roster. He was 3-for-4 with four RBIs on Sunday. He’s batting .313 for the spring with a 1.041 on OBP.
Wisdom, the first-round draft choice of the Redbirds in 2012, hit .233 with five homers in 78 games last season with Class AAA Memphis and only .237 with 14 homers in 2015 with Class AA Springfield. But he’s looked like a man among boys at the plate this spring with a pair of homers, a .300 batting average and a 1.364 OBP. He crushed a ball Sunday that may still be in the air.
The star of the show has been Sierra who, at only 20, seemed light years away from the big leagues a month ago. But since the games have started, he’s seemed much more polished than his resume might indicate.
Sierra has played stellar defense in center field and has shown great speed on the bases. It was expected his bat would be the tool that was the farthest behind. But he’s hitting .412 through 17 at-bats and seems to have hands as quick as his feet.
Manager Mike Matheny told the media he’s been asked by opposing coaches if Sierra was going to make the big-league roster based on his spectacular play in the early going. Apparently, they didn’t realize that the kid was toiling in low Class A baseball with the Peoria Chiefs last season.
Sierra hit .307 in 2016 and stole 31 bases. But his 22 walks compared to 97 strikeouts show he’s got to work on his plate discipline and his 17 times being caught stealing show he’s in need of some fine-tuning on the bases, too. But he sure looks like he knows how to play the game, patrolling the outfield with confidence and handling the pressure of playing against more experienced players with grace.
Kelly is probably going to end up in Memphis to start the season as the Cardinals would like to see him get some more experience against quality pitching before he tries to make an eventual bid to replace Yadier Molina as the primary backstop in St. Louis.
He’s an excellent defensive player. But his .375 spring mark is a good start – even if it has come in a handful of at bats.
The Redbirds are a team in transition, bidding good-bye to Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia this year and potentially Molina and Wainwright in the next year or two. So it’s encouraging to see a new wave of talent knocking on the door.
Hopefully, with Peralta sliding over from short to third in the last year of his Cardinals contract, Wisdom will be ready to take over at the hot corner in 2018. Meanwhile, the Birds have had an uncomfortable fit with Matt Carpenter in the leadoff spot although the front office has wanted to see him slide down the order to a run-producing position.
Sierra looks like he might be the prototypical table-setter with speed the team has coveted for years. And he could be a Gold Glove contender in center field for years to come. Bader could give a threadbare outfield some much-needed depth, potentially starting this season in Memphis but ready to move up when a need presents itself.
It was just a year ago that former St. Louis outfielder Jason Heyward dismissed the Cardinals as too old as he defected to the division rival Chicago Cubs. But the Birds will replace 2016 Opening Day starters in left field and at shortstop who are both in their late-30s with players who are in their mid-20s. They also have a right fielder, second baseman and ace starting pitcher in their mid-20s.
Add a surgically repaired top pitching prospect in Alex Reyes and the Cardinals ought to have a whole new – and fresh – face in 2018.