Paul Goldschmidt

All position players invited to Cardinals spring training had reported to camp in time for Monday’s first mandatory full squad workout of the season, but if you’ve been around the team complex in Jupiter in the days and weeks prior, you’ve witnessed firsthand the voluntarily work that was already being done.

A year ago, through an intentional emphasis on fundamentally sound defense from beginning of spring training, the Cardinals cleaned up their act in the field. St. Louis went from committing the most errors in MLB in 2018 to leading baseball with the fewest fielding infractions in 2019. The ‘worst to first’ turnaround earned Cardinals fielders six Gold Glove finalists and one winner (Kolten Wong), further highlighting the impact of the club’s distinctive resolution.

On the heels of last year’s success, it can be tempting to look at the Cardinals’ collective strength as a defense and presume it evergreen: the Cardinals were good defensively in 2019, they have the same players returning for this season, so they’ll be good defensively in 2020.

The actions of core Cardinals players over the past week have made it clear they won’t fall victim to such assumptions.

For example, Friday morning’s scheduled workouts were proceeded by Jose Oquendo running some extra infield drills with Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong and Tommy Edman on the Jupiter back field notable for the sign designating it “The Land of Oz.”

The sign, of course, is a reference to the slick-fielding Cardinals shortstop, Ozzie Smith. Friday, it marked the location for where the next generation worked to build the foundation for a new year.

Paul Goldschmidt described that extra labor as necessary in the Cardinals’ pursuit of sustained quality in the field.

“We know you’ve got to start over,” Goldschmidt said. “Last year was good, what we did as a defense, but you have to earn every play out there. You have to go make every play. So I think that’s what you see, guys not resting on last year, knowing there’s a lot of hard work that went in. We have to put it in every single day, every single year and that’s kind of where the focus has been.

“It hasn’t been like, ‘Oh, well we did good last year so it’s just going to happen again.’ We have to start from square one and that’s where the focus is. For defense, it’s just a priority. We want to play good as a group. We know that—as you saw last year and really throughout the whole game of baseball, forever—defense can win games. It just can sometimes get overlooked, and we don’t want that to happen.”

As the Cardinals remain vigilant against complacency in the field this spring, they recognize another area of their game which currently requires a similar focus to that which was given to the fielding renaissance a year ago: the offense.

The Cardinals ranked 21st in team OPS (.737) across MLB last season. They scored 764 runs, which ranked 19th in baseball in 2019. The lack of production didn’t prevent St. Louis from a successful season—the Cardinals won the NL Central for the first time since 2015—but a sweep at the hands of the Nationals in the NLCS put the warts of the offense on full display.

As 2020 camp opens, the Cardinals know it wasn’t good enough. For Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, the key is improving upon last year without becoming a slave to its memory.

“You’re going to repeat the past if you don’t learn from the past so to take a blind eye to it wouldn’t be prudent,” Shildt said. “We’ve looked at the past, we’ve figured it out, but also, we don’t want to dwell on it. I think it’s most important that we have a mindset that ‘this is how we do, this is what we do, and this is what we’re anchored to.’ That’s a little bit of the message (from Monday morning’s team meeting, during which Ozzie Smith addressed the club). The word ‘anchor’ wasn’t used, but it’s a strong word. What are we doing when we’re doing it well? When things don’t go well… What are we anchored back to? Individual and us as a team, knowing what those are. And we do.”

The anchor for which Paul Goldschmidt strives? Consistency.

“That word is just something that I’ve tried to always do my whole career,” Goldschmidt said Monday. “I was trying to do it last year and it just didn’t work out. That was probably my inconsistent year as an individual offensively. Even though my focus was on trying to be consistent. It really hasn’t changed, it’s just making sure and staying with that. I know it works. If you’re in a bad spot physically, that’s going to lead to inconsistencies. If you’re in a bad spot mentally, that’s going to lead to inconsistencies, so I think it’s just trying to put yourself in the best possible spot with both of those. If you do that, you can go out and perform and be consistent.”

Goldschmidt’s quest for consistency is shared by his teammates. Between Winter Warm-Up and early conversations with players already this spring, the word has been a focus described by many Cardinals, including Harrison Bader.

“I just want myself to become a consistent bat, and just a very hard out on a night to night basis,” Bader said at Winter Warm-Up in one of his many answers that included consistency as the theme.

Another Cardinal seeking to ameliorate a disappointing season is perhaps the most prominent face of the team’s desire for internal improvement: Matt Carpenter. Asked for his thoughts on Carpenter as he chases that goal in 2020, Goldschmidt reverted back to his emphasis on that same elusive concept.

“It was tough to see him struggle at times last year,” Goldschmidt said. “For every teammate, we all, we were just really inconsistent as individuals and as an offense… I think everyone wants to just be more consistent. For Carp, just to play well, we’ve seen him do it for a long time and we know he’s capable of it. I’m sure last year he learned a lot, as each of us do. Sometimes when you fail and struggle, you actually learn a lot more. So hopefully that will be a blessing in disguise for him and our team and organization.

“All of us as a group—I learned a lot last year and I think everyone did. We did it as a group and individuals. So I think that’s the way we’re looking at it; rather than having to do something different, just learning from it.”

Learn from the past to improve in the present. The Cardinals’ plan of attack for 2020 seems simple enough.

Monday, at least in an official capacity, was ‘Day One’ for putting in the work required to execute it.

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