ST. LOUIS — After the big-name Cardinals have headed for the golf course and fans at Roger Dean Stadium have had their fill of sunshine for one afternoon, a few innings usually remain in that afternoon’s exhibition.
For up-and-coming youngsters and hanging-on veterans, there is no more important time of the season than these late-afternoon finishes. This could be the only time all year when they play in front of so many big league eyes. The fans might not be paying attention, but Mike Matheny and his coaches will be. So will John Mozeliak and his staff.
If you want to make it to Busch Stadium, a strong showing in such situations can be the best way to start. Ask Michael Wacha, Kevin Siegrist and the other six rookie pitchers who would make their big league debuts in May or June last year.
Such a showing would seem unlikely two years in a row, but don’t tell that to the pitchers in big league camp hoping for a chance to show their stuff. Here are six to watch, including four who are hoping this will be the year they reach the show for the first time.
Pat Neshek. It will be easy to spot this veteran right-hander on the mound. He’ll be the one throwing side-armed. Neshek, 33, appeared in 45 games with a 3.35 ERA for the A’s last year but was deemed expendable after the season. Neshek’s chances of making the club rest in part on Jason Motte’s return. If Motte is not ready by Opening Day, Neshek — a late-off-season signing by the Cardinals — would be a leading contender to break camp with the club. Of course, he needs a good showing in camp.
Marco Gonzales. When the Cardinals made the lefty out of Gonzaga the 19th pick in last year’s draft, they likened him to the pitcher they selected 19th in 2012, Michael Wacha. Two reasons: They said he could be on a fast track to the majors, and they were enamored with his changeup. Gonzales, who turns 22 on Sunday, did nothing to hurt his chances last summer even though he saw only limited work after signing. He is unlikely to rise to the majors as quickly as Wacha, but if he meets the club’s expectations, you could see him in Busch Stadium by the end of the season.
Tim Cooney. If you see Cooney pitching in a spring-training game, something you probably won’t see is a walk. This is a lefty with excellent control. In 118 1/3 innings at Springfield last year, he walked only 18 and struck out 125. A third-round pick out of Wake Forest in 2012, Cooney seems to be in a race of sorts with Gonzales to see who reaches the majors first. Cooney enters spring training with a slight edge mainly because he has worked 210 innings in the minors, compared with only 23 1/3 for Gonzales.
Sam Freeman. A lefty with a 95-plus-mph fastball would have an excellent chance of sticking with many big league clubs. It’s not so easy with the Cardinals. After being passed by Siegrist last year, Freeman likely is facing another season in Memphis. If he gains another 1-2 mph on his heater, though, as he did between 2012 and 2013, the 26-year-old Texan could command a longer look in Jupiter.
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Jordan Swagerty. A second-round pick in 2010, Swagerty reached Class AA in 2011 but lost 2012 to Tommy John surgery. He did not pitch much last season but finished the year with Palm Beach and has declared himself 100 percent healthy heading into camp. Swagerty, 24, will use the spring trying to land a closing job somewhere in the organization. The right-hander throws a fastball up to 95 mph, but his slider is considered his best pitch. Wherever he lands, he is the type to become a fan favorite because of his personable ways on social media.
Angel Castro. The Cardinals liked enough of what they saw from the 31-year-old right-hander in the Dominican League last year to sign him to a minor league deal. "Added depth for Memphis," GM John Mozeliak said after the Winter Meetings pickup. Castro, 31, pitched for the Dodgers’ Class AAA team last year, in Japan in 2012 and in Mexico in 2010-11. Drafted by the Tigers in 2006, he has yet to appear in a big league game.
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