Homegrown talent marks Cards' camp
St. Louis' farm system on display as pitchers, catchers report
JUPITER, Fla. -- Eschewing the red and pink hearts of Valentine's Day for green grass and white baseballs, the Cardinals took to the fields at the Roger Dean Stadium complex on Saturday. It was one of baseball's most hallowed days, reporting day for pitchers and catchers, as well as the first official workout for battery members.
As chilly as it may have been in the Bi-State, for baseball fans the day felt a good bit warmer. Nowhere else in American sports -- or, one might argue, in American life -- is the beginning of work so heralded. But in baseball, the first time pitchers and catchers check in is a sacred day. And after four months of cold weather and empty ballfields, that day is here.
"To be involved in Major League Baseball, you get sentimental about it," manager Tony La Russa said. "To have the birds on the bat adds more to it. First day, everybody's tied for first, the sun's out, it can't get better than this."
And the schedule at Roger Dean Stadium complex was busier than usual. Typically, report day just sees pitchers and catchers come in, say hello, drop off their bags and head out. This time around, though, the Cardinals fit three mileposts of spring into one day. Along with reporting and working out, pitchers and catchers also underwent their physicals.
Baseball activities have started -- as has the annual ritual of getting to know new teammates.
"A lot of new faces," said reliever Royce Ring, who signed as a free agent in the offseason. "But I've been traded three times. I've done that a lot. So mostly you come in, do what you're supposed to do and try to fit in if you can. But the feeling I've gotten in this clubhouse is that everybody is great people."
It's a different-looking group of players this year from earlier in the decade. Rather than a camp filled with Minor League veterans from other organizations, the Cardinals have a manifest filled largely of homegrown products. A farm system that has climbed the rankings has also stocked Spring Training with the vast majority of the non-roster invitees to camp.
"It adds a different excitement to camp, and I also think at times, you see a different energy level that way," general manager John Mozeliak said. "Because you have a lot of guys who are making their first impressions on the Major League staff or they've been here a second and third time."
Kyle McClellan, entering his second Major League season, was one of those youngsters last year. He sat on the far side of the clubhouse with the other kids wearing numbers in the 60s and 70s. But he impressed in his first Major League camp, made the big club and stuck around all year.
Now, with a big leaguer's number (46) and a year of confidence, he's looking forward to doing it all again.
"It's exciting trying to figure out where you fit in, seeing all the guys come in, getting to see everybody again," McClellan said. "It's been [4 1/2] months. It's always, you can't wait to get here, get to your locker, get to talk to the guys. It's definitely a lot different, but a lot of the same emotions."
The full squad begins workouts Tuesday, getting right to work at the start of an unusually long Spring Training. Plenty of infielders and outfielders have already arrived, however. The majority of competitors for the open spots at second and third base, as well as for the unresolved outfield situation, have already arrived.
That includes Rick Ankiel, who reported to camp earlier in the week, flew to Arizona for an arbitration hearing, agreed on a contract to avoid the hearing, and flew back to Florida.
Ankiel led a squadron of Cardinals sporting significant facial hair, quipping that "we might have some Bearded Birds this season. We could."
Games get under way on Feb. 25, with the Grapefruit League opener at Roger Dean Stadium against the Marlins, as St. Louis eschews the traditional exhibition against a collegiate foe.
The 35-game Grapefruit League schedule runs through April 2, wrapping up with another game against the Marlins, who are the Cards' co-tenants at Roger Dean. The Redbirds then jet to Memphis, Tenn., for two games against their Triple-A affiliate on Friday and Saturday, April 3-4. The regular season gets rolling on Monday, April 6, with a 3:15 p.m. CT game against the Pirates at Busch Stadium.
To consider Opening Day, however, is really to look much too far ahead. The Cardinals face one of their more intriguing springs in recent memory, with a great deal to sort out.
Khalil Greene is the biggest-name new arrival, acquired in a trade with the Padres early in the winter. Yet even with a fairly short list of new faces, camp will be extremely busy and will determine many jobs.
Tops in many fans' minds is the closer competition. Youngsters Chris Perez and Jason Motte will battle veteran Ryan Franklin and injury-returnee Josh Kinney for the first shot at save opportunities. Pitching coach Dave Duncan recently indicated on the radio that he was leaning toward a committee approach to the ninth inning, but that's certainly not set in stone in February.
Also on tap is a wide-open outfield derby. All three starters -- All-Star Ryan Ludwick, newly re-signed Ankiel and Skip Schumaker -- return from 2008, but they'll be challenged by several contenders. Chris Duncan will try to show that he's healthy and able to hit at the same level he did in late '06 and early '07. Joe Mather will be trying to establish himself as a full-time big leaguer.
And, of course, the most hyped St. Louis prospect in ages, Colby Rasmus, will be trying to crack not only the roster, but the regular lineup. Rasmus had an excellent spring in 2008 and was still sent down; an equally solid camp would likely get him on the big club this time around.
Speaking of prospects, there's a slew of them who will vie for playing time at third base while Troy Glaus recuperates from shoulder surgery. David Freese, Brett Wallace and maybe even Allen Craig will compete with Brendan Ryan, Brian Barden and Joe Thurston for opportunities.
Finally, it's not really a competition, but the starting rotation features plenty of intrigue. No question weighs heavier on the 2009 Cardinals season than the health of Chris Carpenter. If the 2005 National League Cy Young Award winner shows he's healthy and able to go, the club's prospects brighten significantly.
After a winter of pondering all of these issues and wondering how they will finally turn out, it's finally time to start settling them on the field. Spring Training arrives this week. And not a day too soon.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.