Every spring training it seems like something completely unexpected happens, and 2018 is no exception for the St. Louis Cardinals.
When the Redbirds reported to Jupiter, Fla., for spring training a little bit more than a month ago, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Carson Kelly was going to start the path to eventually replacing Yadier Molina behind home plate for St. Louis by serving as the perennial All-Star and Gold Glove catcher's understudy this year. Kelly worked his way through the minors in 2017 and eventually forced out former backup Eric Fryer with solid play.
But this spring Kelly's bat fell silent and it became apparent that it might not be the best thing for a kid who is still working on his game to spend six days a week sitting on the bench and spitting the shells of sunflower seeds on the ground. Meanwhile, Francisco Pena, the son of former star Cardinals catcher Tony Pena, was expected to serve as Plan C in the minor leagues. Pena has had a cup of coffee in the majors but never stuck. The chances of that happening this year — when Pena is 28 years old — seemed slim to none. But here we are with Kelly being optioned to the minor-league camp and Pena making all the plays in Grapefruit League play. The Carson Kelly Era might still be a year or two from its dawn.
In the meantime, the Cardinals seemed set on using Harrison Bader and Tyler O'Neill as backup outfielder this season. But O'Neill had some injury issues that derailed his spring after a strong start to his Redbirds career last season in Class AAA Memphis and ended up heading over to the minor-league camp early. Enter Randy Arozarena, who spent last year in Class AA Springfield. Arozarena is smacking the ball all over Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium with a .314 average before he slapped a triple in the right-center field alley Sunday and he's burning up the basepaths with his speed to gain the attention of the front-office folks.
On the other side of the ball, Mike Mayers has pitched nine scoreless innings and seems to have forced himself into the St. Louis bullpen picture.
The Cardinals didn't seem to have a lot of wiggle room in the relief corps. Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil, Matt Bowman, Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons and Bud Norris seemed as if they were guaranteed spots because of their contract status and Sam Tuivailala seemed a pretty safe bet because he is out of options and could be lost to waivers if the team chose not to bring him north with the club for opening day. But the team will have to search for a spot to use Mayers. And that could prevent one of the franchise's young players — like Dakota Hudson — from gaining valuable experience in the bullpen this year.
Also opening eyes this spring are:
▪ 23-year-old infielder Yaira Munoz, who is batting .366 with a pair of home runs in 41 Grapefruit League at-bats. A .289 hitter in Class AAA last season, Munoz is pushing veteran utility infielder Greg Garcia who provides backup coverage all over the infield and a solid left-handed pinch hitting option.
▪ John Gant, who struggled through injury problems last year has been fantastic through 13 1/3 innings of work this spring, pitching to a 1.35 ERA with 14 strikeouts.
▪ Josh Lucas, 27, hasn't allowed a run in 9 1/3 innings of work. He's struck out 12 and walked one.