Cardinals' bounce-back candidates? Here are 4 players to watch in 2023 (2023)

The Cardinals will head into the season confident in a starting nine that features many of the same names as the 2022 Opening Day lineup. While president of baseball operations John Mozeliak hoped to bring in more changes this offseason, the organization is excited about a core headlined by Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and the arrival of Willson Contreras.

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There’s no denying the Cardinals are banking on their internal talent to live up to expectations. Lars Nootbaar figures to be an impactful everyday player, Tommy Edman will once again be counted on heavily and Brendan Donovan likely will be a roaming puzzle piece.

But there is a handful of players in need of bounce-back seasons if the Cardinals are going to meet their goal of a World Series championship this season. Mozeliak touched on some of these players over the weekend during the Cardinal’s annual Winter Warm-Up charity fundraiser in St. Louis.

62 players, including the following 22 non-roster invitees, will be in big league camp for Spring Training.

Pitchers and catchers will hold their first practice on February 15. pic.twitter.com/zXAulZjRhs

— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) January 17, 2023

Who are the Cardinals counting on to prove themselves in spring? Which players are facing heavy scrutiny? Let’s take a look at four bounce-back candidates and what they’ve focused on during the offseason.

Tyler O’Neill: Revamped offseason training

Perhaps no position player on the Cardinals roster has higher expectations — both internally and externally — than O’Neill. After a season undermined by injury and underperformance, O’Neill spent most of the offseason training in St. Louis under the watchful eyes of the Cardinals’ training staff.

For O’Neill, who played just 96 games last season, tweaking his training was his top priority of the winter. It was important for O’Neill not to lose focus on the heavy lifting and strength training he prefers, but he also wanted to find ways to make workouts more dynamic. Over the offseason, he focused on plyometrics and a detailed warmup routine, putting an emphasis on better understanding his body composition.

“It’s good to have eyes on me the entire season, just to get some suggestions on what I could involve specifically for warmup activities,” O’Neill said. “If I was going to do some heavy legs, I would do more hip mobility, hip-opening stuff. I’ve been doing shoulder maintenance nearly every day. I won’t be doing as much during the season, but I can kind of wear it out a little bit now and get myself into a good spot physically. We’ve incorporated a lot of plyometrics this year, so my legs feel ready. Running program started a lot earlier, throwing program, hitting program, same. I’ve never been this accelerated in the offseason so far, and I’m feeling really good where I’m at.”

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While addressing his health, O’Neill moved up the start of his hitting program and routinely hit with former Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds in the suburbs of St. Louis. O’Neill will represent Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic this spring, which led to him starting his routines much earlier than usual. Because of that, he feels he’s been able to get a headstart on nailing down a comfortable and consistent approach — a key factor to his success during the second half of 2021.

“Last year it felt like I was getting my feet underneath me, and then something happened, and happened again. I’ve of course been working on the physical aspect first and foremost to be able to stay in the field and get my legs ready for 162 games. But in terms of my swing, I’ve been working on staying inside the baseball, being in a balanced position, staying back and being in a good position with my lower half. I don’t like to get too mechanical and too technical in that regard. I’m more of a feel player.”

Both Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol reiterated their confidence in O’Neill, but they made it clear that his improved performance will be crucial. The addition of Contreras boosted the lineup protection around Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado at the heart of the order, but O’Neill’s power bat will be just as important. That’s a duty the 27-year-old does not take lightly.

“I want to be on the field with these guys, I want to help them win ballgames. I can’t do that from (the) bench,” O’Neill said. “I’ve been proactive as much as I could in my training this offseason. … We’ve really taken it to a whole new level. I have more dynamic workouts, my warmups are much more intensive. I started my hitting and throwing programs much earlier this year in preparation for the (World Baseball Classic). You know, I really believe in what I’m doing.”

Paul DeJong: New swing and new mindset

Cardinals' bounce-back candidates? Here are 4 players to watch in 2023 (1)

Paul DeJong had a career-low .530 OPS in 77 games last season. (Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

This season represents a final chance for DeJong, who is entering the last season of his contract (though he has club options remaining for 2024 and 2025). DeJong’s offensive woes over the past two seasons have been well-documented. The former All-Star has not hit over .200 since the 2020 season and was unable to regain any offensive stability last season, even after being demoted to Triple A.

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Still, the front office is willing to give DeJong another shot. Tommy Edman will be the starting shortstop when the Cardinals open camp in mid-February, but Edman will be playing in the World Baseball Classic for Team Korea, which gives DeJong an open window for as much playing time as possible. The club is optimistic that consistency in spring will help DeJong, who is also expected to play different positions in spring. Still, the emphasis remains on offensive production, and DeJong feels he’s finally made significant changes.

DeJong spent the offseason in Florida, working heavily with hitting coach Daniel Nicolaisen, who was added to the major-league staff as a third hitting coach (joining Turner Ward and Brandon Allen) in early January. The two identified many changes, both physically and mentally, that led to DeJong feeling more optimistic than ever.

“I’ve been eliminating my leg kick, kind of going with a no-stride,” DeJong said. “I’ve been trying to keep my head as still as possible. Watching how (Paul) Goldschmidt hits, there’s so many good things about his swing and I’m trying to emulate a little bit of that. Having a consistent body position is something that I’ve really been struggling with before I made these changes, but I’m pretty confident about where I’m at.

“Overall, I think the biggest thing was eliminating (the leg kick). My weight was flying forward, my head was flying forward and changing heights, and it’s just really hard to consistently hit the ball like that. Not stepping and sitting there, using the power of the ball and the rotation of my swing to produce, I think I’ll have a lot more bat-to-ball skills with that.”

DeJong also credited Nicolaisen for the consistent work put in since November. Aside from eliminating the leg kick, Nicolaisen identified how pitchers were exposing DeJong and helped orchestrate the pace of progress.

“Dan’s been really helpful with me,” DeJong said. “He dove into what was going on zone-wise, where I was getting pitched and my weaknesses. If I can work on those weaknesses and be strong on pitches that I was getting exposed on last year, I think that’s super important. He’s also talked me down, because I can get a little hasty sometimes.”

He added: “It’s more of what I was doing wrong and having the courage to change, whereas I thought I was changing (before) but I really wasn’t and it never felt right. It’s about finding that comfortability within myself and that confidence, not just talking about it but actually doing it.”

Dakota Hudson: Embracing modern data

Hudson’s first year back from Tommy John surgery came with its own setbacks, but Hudson isn’t one to use the recovery as an excuse. Instead, he approached the offseason with a newfound mentality, one he attributes to new pitching coach Dusty Blake.

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“I started with a long-toss program I did with Dusty,” Hudson said. “I learned a ton about the edgertronic manipulation of the baseball, the spin rates as far as TrackMan goes, and trying to build consistency in what I needed for my stuff in order to build back.

“I’ve always been very old-school with my approach to baseball, especially since I’ve been with the Cardinals. A lot of it’s been based on feel as far as developing pitches, and I think that’s why last year you saw me move a little bit slower. I was searching for feel … That analytical stuff, I think it cleared up a lot of things, especially as I’ve had more knowledge and been taught more about it. That’s what this offseason has been about, just clearing up a lot of those things that Dusty was telling me or (former pitching coach) Mike Maddux was working with me last year. Now I can apply it and know what I’m doing.”

Hudson credited Blake with “changing my view of the game.” Under Blake’s guidance, he was able to better understand the analytics and data presented to him, which he then applied to his mechanics. Hudson identified two tools as being the most helpful this winter as he looks to earn a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation. One was the edgertronic camera — a slow-motion camera that shows grip, pitch release and how different fingers can create different motions on the ball. The other was a force plate, which helped stabilize his landing foot while building power in his back leg.

“Last year, I was being told where to go by Dusty, he was pointing me in the right direction, but I didn’t have the knowledge to apply it quicker,” Hudson explained. “I think that’s where me learning more about TrackMan, how I’m releasing the ball, what fingers throw what pitch and the consistency of creating movement, that’s where I don’t have to worry about my body, I just worry about getting the ball out front. And that finger pressure is where I create my movement. So it’s clearing up things, and I think that everyone will be happier about that, myself included.

“I’m excited to go out there, to say the least.”

Drew VerHagen: New pitch emphasis

When Mozeliak signed VerHagen to a two-year deal before the 2022 season, the hope was he would be able to add depth both as a starter and a long reliever. But a faulty hip —one that eventually required season-ending surgery — led to VerHagen struggling in terms of health and performance.

VerHagen said his hip is fully healed and that his offseason hasn’t been impeded by it. But he did make a change to his pitch arsenal. The 32-year-old has always been a sinkerball pitcher. This winter, he transitioned to a four-seam fastball instead.

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“I’ve been working on getting more of a true four-seamer,” VerHagen said. “I’ve always been predominantly a two-seam sinker kind of guy. And I feel like with my hip, that pitch flattened out. When I was expecting more of a sink to it, it was more flat, and I was getting hit. So I’ve worked on more of a four-seam that I can play off of my breaking balls because I have two good breaking balls and if I can set those up better with a four-seam, I think it’ll be really, really beneficial for me.”

This was an issue Blake and the Cardinals’ pitching staff identified midway through the 2022 season. The goal was to begin working on a four-seam fastball at the time, but VerHagen’s season-ending stint on the injured list prohibited that.

“I’d mess with it in bullpens and they’d see the numbers,” VerHagen explained. “They’d see where it was vertically versus horizontal break, and (the Cardinals) came to me and said ‘We think you need to make that (four-seamer) a main part of your repertoire.’ You work on that and it only helps your slider and curveball.”

VerHagen still believes in his ability to start but acknowledged that his top priorities will be staying healthy and listening to his body. With multiple pitchers slated to miss time in spring training while playing in the World Baseball Classic, he should have plenty of opportunity to show off his regained health and continue establishing his new fastball.

“It was tough because I felt like I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself to push through an injury and get out there, because these guys invested money in me and it’s a new team,” VerHagen acknowledged. “I wanted to show what I was all about. I think a lot of it was self-inflicted … but now (the hip) is repaired and I’m excited to be back full go.”

(Top photo of Dakota Hudson: Jeff Curry / USA Today)

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