JUPITER, Fla. — The new, red jersey he could call his own for the rest of his career has yet to see the field this spring, left behind during informal workouts at his new locker nearby Yadier Molina’s. Nolan Arenado’s No. 28 has slid off its hanger, however, at least once.
“I put it on just to try it on,” Arenado said. “See if it fit.”
He paused and nodded.
The all-around All-Star the Cardinals have chased for years and centerpiece acquisition of their offseason, Arenado arrived at Roger Dean Stadium almost a week earlier than the start of official, full-squad workouts Monday. He was motivated by excitement and time zones. For the first time in his career spring training isn’t in Arizona, isn’t with the Colorado Rockies, and is three times zones away from his California home.
Those 7 a.m. workouts last week have felt to him like 4 a.m. During a Zoom conversation with the Post-Dispatch on Friday evening, he leaned back and laughed how he’s “wearing” the time change.
The reality of the trade that took months to manifest started sinking in as Arenado boarded a plane. Instead of the 4½-hour drive to camp, he had a 5-hour flight. Instead of cactus — palm trees. Everything about the past week would be new: the route to the batting cage, the coaches, the first time he ever has taken groundballs fired out of a pitching machine. And, of course, the jersey — and a clubhouse he’ll call home.
“Everything’s red,” he said. “All my clothes are . . . red. I wasn’t sad putting it on, but it was crazy realizing I’m in a different uniform. (Trevor) Story’s locker is not to my right. Those little things stood out to me. I’ve got Yadi, which is not bad, right? Looking to the right and where I once saw Story, now I see Yadi. It’s different. I love it so far. I love every part of it.”
Arenado, 29, is one of the position players cleared through COVID-19 protocols to participate in early workouts. It’s given the third baseman a chance to familiarize himself with the complex, the routine, the rhythm of camp, and the names of coaches and trainers before formal workouts begin. He referred to himself as “the new kid on the block.”
'The Cardinal Way'
As he described these first few days under the wing of his new team, Arenado mentioned two words familiar to St. Louis that he’s heard about from “afar” and are talked about “throughout the league.”
“The Cardinal Way — you always wonder what it’s like,” he said.
Asked if he meant the style of play, he said not entirely.
“I don’t know what style of play I would really say it is — they’re solid on pitching, they’re solid on defense, and quality at-bats — but can’t you say that about other teams, right?” Arenado asked. “It’s the culture. You can tell there are certain things that they do every day or guys do every day that’s different. I didn’t know. I know people work hard where I’ve been before. But the way they go about it here is a little different. There are a lot of coaches around. There are a lot of trainers around. It’s a different vibe than what I’ve ever seen.”
And that was before Jose Oquendo told him to go a day without throwing.
After his playing career, Arenado said he wants to stay in baseball and the lifetime role he finds intriguing is roving infield instructor. It’s the position “Secret Weapon” Oquendo has for the Cardinals, and each of Arenado’s early days gives him a chance to see, personally, how Oquendo got his reputation for coaching infielders.
Last week, Oquendo pulled out a pitching machine to skip high-speed grounders at fielders, the same way he once helped outfielder Skip Schumaker shift to second base. For several days, Arenado put on a show for his peers with, as shortstop Paul DeJong said, “some insane web gems on the practice field.”
A few times, Arenado has gone to his left, gloved the grounder, pirouetted, and finished his 360-degree turn with a jump throw to first. The eight-time Gold Glove-winner makes “insane” plays because he practices them, just as he takes infield from the grass lip well behind third base to tune his arm. And then Oquendo told him Thursday to take a day off from throwing.
Rest the arm.
They’ve seen it.
They get it.
It’s a long season.
“It seems like the attention to detail is pretty intense,” Arenado said. “There is a lot of attention to detail. They say things I haven’t really heard before — about the game, about this, about how we’re going to do things. Or, Oquendo saying, ‘You’re not throwing because we’re going to save your arm.’ So, he’s got me doing this other (drill) instead. I took groundballs off a machine (Friday), a pitching machine. Never done that before.”
Around the horn, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, prospect Nolan Gorman, DeJong are in the group working out with Arenado. Coaches Oquendo, Stubby Clapp, and Ron “Pop” Warner direct the drills. They use the Ozzie Smith Field in the middle of campus — the one with just an infield.
Everything around him has changed. Arenado’s throws have not.
“He’s just a joke sometimes how accurate he is,” DeJong said. “And how much he moves around, and he’s off balance, and it doesn’t faze him at all. 'Goldy' is over there and he hits right in the chest, over and over. See if I can learn from him and grow. I feel like he’s jumped right into our mold. I know he’s hungry to prove himself as a winner. We’ve seen what he can do through a season, but playing with something on the line, playing for the division (title), playing for the playoffs, all of that is so real now I think he’s going to turn it on to the next level.”
The Cardinals have envisioned how Arenado would look at third and in the middle of their lineup for more than a year. It was not until this offseason that Colorado’s crumble out of contention, their financial erosion, and Arenado’s wishes compelled the Rockies to engage.
A complicated deal that included cash coming to the Cardinals and Arenado’s willingness to rework his contract and defer salary was completed on Feb. 1. The Cardinals sent Austin Gomber and four minor leaguers to the Rockies. Their preference was to negotiate the opt-out clause out of Arenado’s contract, but instead, to maintain the present-day value of the deal had a second opt-out included.
Arenado is signed through 2027 and owed $215 million, though he holds the right to become a free agent after the 2021 season or after 2022.
That gives Arenado’s arrival this spring a similar hue to Goldschmidt’s in 2019. The Cardinals saw that spring and season as a chance to recruit Goldschmidt, to sell him on the idea of signing an extension before he reached free agency, and before he played a game at Busch Stadium he did. Arenado already has the contract — and the choice. He said he intends to stay with the Cardinals “for a long time.” First impressions can make for a lasting relationship.
“I feel pretty confident Nolan is going to want to be here for a long time,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' president of baseball operations. “Obviously it’s a big commitment on both sides. My approach when you bring in a new player is let them take a deep breath, let them breathe. I’m not hovering over him. I’m not following him like a small puppy. I’m letting him adjust.”
From his place in Jupiter, Arenado said his family plans to join him once Grapefruit League games begin. He and manager Mike Shildt recently discussed the schedule he prefers each spring. He likes to play the first two games, back-to-back, to get “all that soreness out of the way,” but will not this year. He does want at least 50 at-bats because his “swing has a little bit of movement with my step I need to really hone the timing down.” With fewer spring games, that could send Arenado to the back fields for at-bats in simulated or B-games.
A benefit of those at-bats is the innings in the field that come with them, and that chance that will give Arenado to learn his new teammates, especially DeJong and second baseman Tommy Edman or whoever mans the pivot.
“It’s like basketball — when players come onto a new team they’ve got to get used to the scheme and how they run the offense,” Arenado said. “Same with us in baseball. We’ve got to get used to each other on defense and trust each other and communicate. I’m not afraid to make a play or try. As long as you’re there to help me out, I’m going for it. That should be smooth sailing.”
The tents popped up, coronavirus protocols in place, and distance kept will give this spring an unusual look for everyone. Arenado said he will have a real sense of the team and the camp’s verve when full-squad workouts begin Monday, when the pace picks up, when he’s in the batter’s box and the pitcher in the Cardinals jersey is now a teammate. When Shildt’s ball talk begins and Arenado will be one of the reasons five minutes about talking baseball becomes 30.
The last week has given him an early read on everything red. He’s tried it all on. When he wears that new jersey onto the field for the first time Monday, he’ll already have a feel for being a Cardinal.
“I want to be a part of a group like this,” Arenado said. “The expectations are high. The fans’ expectations are to get there, to the playoffs. It seems like here, ‘We’re the Cardinals. We should always be there.’ I like that. That’s a cool feeling to be a part of.”