JUPITER, Fla. – New Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist doesn’t see a need to change the spring training plan that Dave Duncan employed with his pitchers the past 16 years.
As the old adage says, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“The recipe for his chocolate cake is pretty good,” Lilliquist said. “Maybe there’s some sprinkles here or there, but the recipe has been good and we’re just going to get after it and get ready for game one.”
Widely regarded as one of the best pitching coaches of all time, Duncan took a leave of absence in early January to be with his wife as she continues her recovery and treatment from surgery to remove a brain tumor.
Lilliquist, who enters his 11th season in the Cardinals organization, spent the majority of last season – his first in the big leagues as a coach – as the bullpen coach. He served as the interim pitching coach the final month of the year when Duncan first left to be with his wife.
Filling in for one month was one thing. Replacing arguably the most accomplished pitching coach in baseball history to start the season is another story. And that’s why the 46-year-old Lilliquist plans to keep the changes to a minimum.
“It’s very exciting, almost bittersweet, in terms of what’s transpired,” Lilliquist said. “In the same sense it’s very exciting that all of our guys are intact and ready to go and moving forward.
“Dave has been a tremendous mentor for me, not just last year but in the big league camps I was involved in before I took over the bullpen coach job. His philosophy and fundamentals are all tried, proven and tested for all the years he’s done it. It’s going to be business as usual for the birds.”
Lilliquist, 46, was named the College Pitcher of the Year by Baseball America in 1987 after leading Georgia to the SEC title and their first ever trip to the College World Series.
He was the No. 6 overall pick in the 1987 draft by the Atlanta Braves and later accumulated a 25-34 record and a 4.13 ERA in eight big league seasons with the Braves, Padres, Indians, Red Sox and Reds from 1989-96.
Hoping to someday land a big league pitching coach position, Lilliquist made sure to absorb as much information from Duncan as possible while working with him for much of last season. He just had no idea it would come as soon as it did.
“Anytime you get to have the experience of being in the dugout it’s preparation, being around Dave and seeing exactly how preparation works through video and other information,” Lilliquist said. “It’s exciting, I do feel prepared for what’s going to come by being around him and knowing how it works.”
The Cardinals starting rotation enters the season as arguably the best starting five in all of baseball, making the transition that much easier for any newcomer such as Lilliquist.
Workhorse Chris Carpenter anchors a group that gets 20-game winner Adam Wainwright back after missing all of last season with Tommy John surgery. Lefty Jaime Garcia appears poised for a breakout year and veterans Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook are as good as any No. 4 and No. 5 starters around.
“You’ve got to be excited about it, ” Lilliquist said. “You don’t win the Kentucky Derby with ponies.”
Unlike the rotation, the Cardinals bullpen has plenty of intrigue this spring. Nine relievers can make a case for a roster spot but likely only seven will make the team.
Lefty’s Marc Rzepczynski and J.C. Romero are assured spots while seven right-handers – Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Kyle McClellan, Lance Lynn, Fernando Salas, Eduardo Sanchez and newcomer Scott Linebrink – will fight for five spots.
With roughly six weeks to determine the two who won’t make the cut, Lilliquist sees nothing but positives with the situation.
“Strong competition is always good in major league camp because that brings out the best in your players,” Lilliquist said. “It keeps their radar up. It’s healthy. We go out there tee it up and see what it looks like and see who rises to the top.”
As for how the schedule will work this spring, Lilliquist joked, “You find your spot, find your name and get to where you need to be.”