The young man calling in the shots in the St. Louis Cardinals’ dugout is new this season.
Everything else is pretty much the same.
In fact, the return of erstwhile slugger Albert Pujols to a clubhouse that still includes longtime St. Louis stalwarts Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina gives the club a decidedly old-school, nostalgic feel heading into the new season.
“Oh, he’s got something left,” said Oliver Marmol, the youngest skipper in the big leagues at 35 years old, when asked about the return of the 42-year-old Pujols following more than a decade playing for the Dodgers and Angels in Los Angeles.
“He’s got more than something left,” Marmol insisted upon his arrival at spring training in Jupiter, Florida. “Albert wants to play this year because he can help a team win. He wants to finish well, and I believe he will do that.”
Pujols will likely share at-bats with Corey Dickerson, the former All-Star outfielder brought in to provide some depth at several positions. But otherwise, the roster remains largely unchanged from the group that won 90 games under former manager Mike Shildt before losing to the Dodgers in the NL wild-card game last season.
Shildt was fired shortly afterward over what Cardinals president John Mozeliak called “philosophical differences.”
Marmol was promoted to take his place after serving the previous five years in a variety of roles, even though he has no previous big league managerial experience. In fact, the 40-year-old Wainwright and the 39-year-old Molina are also older than their new manager, who brings a decidedly exuberant and optimistic approach to the clubhouse.
“I really felt like Oli was going to be a major league manager at some point. I did not think it was necessarily going to be 2022,” Mozeliak said. “He’s going to be able to put his own fingerprints on this. Ultimately you hope and expect that he learned to do things in his own way, and one that he has a lot of confidence in.”
Marmol will have plenty of veterans to lean on in his projected lineup: Paul Goldschmidt is back to man first base, Tommy Edman is at second and Nolen Arenado is at third, along with Paul DeJong at shortstop and outfield options that include young power hitter Dylan Carlson and Harrison Bader.
And of course, Molina behind the plate to make sure everything is running smoothly. The Cardinals open the season at home April 7 against Pittsburgh.
Molina took a slow approach to spring training but is expected to be in the lineup in the opener with Wainwright on the mound. They have been a battery for 304 regular-season games, the fourth-most in history, and could pass Detroit’s Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan for the record with 21 more games together.
CALL THE DOC
The Cardinals do not have a particularly deep rotation, and it doesn’t help that Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes will start the season on the shelf. Flaherty recently had an injection to help with a torn labrum in his right shoulder while Reyes, who desires to start but was solid as closer last season, also has been dealing with shoulder pain.
“My goal is to get healthy and be ready to pitch, wherever it is,” said Reyes, who is targeting a May return to the club.
WHAT A RELIEF
Until the Cardinals get Reyes back in the mix, Giovanny Gallegos is expected to get the first shot at closing out games. He was 6-5 with a 3.02 ERA and 14 saves last season. Ryan Helsley, Genesis Cabrera and Jordan Hicks are the expected setup men and could pitch the ninth in a pinch.
Hicks in particular is an intriguing late-inning candidate. He had Tommy John surgery, opted out due to COVID-19, then had a minor injury setback. But the 25-year-old Hicks had 20 saves during the 2018 and ’19 seasons and, when healthy, flashes an overpowering fastball that once matched Aroldis Chapman for the fastest pitch in baseball history (105.1 mph).
To help with rotational depth, the Cardinals aggressively acquired pitchers that could be used in a variety of roles, whether that means a spot start or long relief. The list includes Nick Wittgren and Blake Parker, who pitched together in Cleveland.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Cardinals’ top prospect, Jordan Walker, isn’t going to dislodge Arenado at third base any time soon. But keep an eye out for Nolan Gorman, another third baseman who moved to second with the hopes of cracking the big league lineup this summer.
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