Cardinals hope Nolan Arenado fills out playoff-caliber team
The St. Louis Cardinals have gotten in the habit the past couple years of plugging their biggest holes by trading for big-name bats that just happen to have had a whole lot of success against them.
Two years ago, they swung a blockbuster trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks for first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. This past offseason, it was a three-team trade for Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolen Arenado.
Now, those two sluggers are set to anchor a much more dangerous lineup and support a strong cast of starters and one of the best bullpens in baseball as the Cardinals seek take aim at the Chicago Cubs and the rest of the NL Central.
“I told him, ‘Great to see you on our side,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said of Arenado, who hit .310 with 11 homers and 33 RBIs in 40 games against St. Louis. “To see him take the field as a Cardinal is something hopefully he doesn’t forget.”
Arenado, with his eight consecutive Gold Gloves, joins one of the best defensive lineups in the game. The big question heading into spring was whether inflammation in the AC joint of his shoulder has abated after Arenado played through pain most of last season, resulting in a career-worst .253 average with eight homers and 26 RBIs in 48 games.
“Feels great. Letting it rip,” Arenado said midway through spring training. “I feel nothing. Thank God, so far it’s been great. Obviously the trainers are still taking care of it, but no complaints."
No complaints from Goldschmidt, either.
He bounced back from a pedestrian debut with St. Louis in 2019 with a solid COVID-19-shorted season a year ago, and could be poised for even better returns this season. Arenado should provide him some protection in the lineup.
“Nolan is one of the best in the game. He’s definitely going to help us make great plays,” Goldschmidt said. "We all expect a lot out of ourselves, and Nolan is no different.”
Already without Dakota Hudson as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, the rotation took another hit when Miles Mikolas developed soreness in his right shoulder that has ruled him out for at least one turn on the mound.
Then, let-hander Kwang Hyun Kim developed back stiffness that kept him from throwing for about five days this spring.
Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez are locks for the starting rotation, but the Cardinals could need two fill-ins should Kim and Mikolas have additional setbacks once the season begins.
SPEAKING OF PITCHING
John Gant arrived in Florida trying to show the Cardinals that he could be a starting pitcher again, even though the right-hander has been indispensable out of the bullpen. He won an astounding 11 games in relief two years ago, and while he was 0-3 last season, Gant had a sterling 2.40 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning.
“It definitely allows me to establish things at your own pace instead of, 'Hey, you need to have it established this instant coming in as a reliever,’” Gant said of his desire to start. ”You can can make a whole lot happen in that timespan.”
REST OF THE BULLPEN
The Cardinals relief corps, which returns largely intact, will get a big boost from the return of Jordan Hicks from Tommy John surgery. He joins a group led by Andrew Miller and Giovanny Gallegos with flame-throwing Alex Reyes on the back end.
“I have no issue with Alex throwing the ninth,” Shildt. “Here’s a guy that clearly has the stuff and the fortitude to do it.”
Yadier Molina toyed with retirement after last season but ultimately decided to return to St. Louis for his 18th season behind the plate. And why not? The 38-year-old Molina still hit .262 with four homers and 16 RBIs in 42 games last season.
The nine-time All-Star could get a few more days off than usual, though. Elite prospect Andrew Knizner has proven this spring that he's ready for the big leagues, and Tyler Heineman has been a pleasant surprise if they start him in the minors.
PATROLLING THE OUTFIELD
The Cardinals cleared the way for top prospect Dylan Carlson to play every day when they traded veteran Dexter Fowler to the Angels. The 22-year-old Carlson will join 25-year-olds Tyler O'Neill and Lane Thomas and 26-year-old Harrison Bader in a young group of outfielders that should be top-shelf defensively but leaves question marks at the plate.
“It will be a similar message with a lot of guys, including most of the outfielders – just go play, go be you, trust your ability and enjoy yourself," Shildt said. "Just go play the game with passion and a competitive spirit.