With light blue latex gloves pulled tight on his hands and a spot reserved for him against the wall near the on-deck circle, prospect Johan Oviedo’s assignment was hardly glamorous Friday night. But he couldn’t beat the view of watching two veterans work through hitters.
Oviedo manned the rosin bags and baseballs during live batting practices by Adam Wainwright and Kwang Hyun Kim at Busch Stadium. As part of baseball’s COVID-19 protocols, the young righthander had to swap out the rosin bags so that Kim didn’t use Wainwright’s and Wainwright didn’t use Kim’s. Oviedo also had to retrieve baseballs that needed to be discarded, all while keeping those gloves on and rosin bags sorted. It was his responsibility to pay close attention to his duties.
It was his opportunity to pay close attention to the pitchers.
Nothing is a coincidence in these workouts.
“He’s right there in the mix,” manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s looking. He’s learning. He’s growing. Every day you get a chance to have mental repetitions. It helps you slow the game down when you do put yourself in the situation that’s being played without you playing it.”
One of the few players the Cardinals brought to Busch Stadium who has yet to play any higher than Class AA, Oviedo put on his usual glove, the leather one, to retrieve baseballs Saturday night and start the intrasquad game opposite Carlos Martinez. The 6-foot-6 righthander with the giddy-up fastball matched Martinez’s two scoreless innings and struck out three. He got ahead on the first pitch against six of the seven batters he faced, and he struck out veteran Matt Wieters on off-speed pitches the catcher said a few months ago weren’t as sharp. Another example, the manager said, of how Oviedo absorbs what he sees.
The stands were empty as Martinez’s Blue team edged Oviedo’s Red, 1-0, in a three-inning instrasquad that featured a run scored on a wild pitch. It wasn’t the situation or the atmosphere Oviedo expected for his Busch debut, but it might have been the right month.
“I knew this was going to be a big year for me,” Oviedo said. “Really being honest — I was getting ready for this opportunity. I’m not saying I was going to go this far. But in my mind, I was expecting more. In my mind, it was always: Make my debut this year. I don’t know if it will happen. I just want to be ready if they give me the chance.”
Oviedo, 22, wowed early in spring training with how he slimmed down his physique, chiseled the small-forward frame that he brought to the mound, and gained increased control of his mechanics. A power prospect when the Cardinals signed him out of Cuba, Oviedo had a delivery that was like a bullwhip still learning to crack. This spring it did. He positioned himself to be on the shortlist for a promotion — and then baseball stopped.
Unsure of how long quarantine would last, Oviedo returned home to La Habana, Cuba, so that at least he could be with his parents and younger sister.
Earlier in his career, he went more than two years without seeing them, living mostly with an aunt and uncle in Jacksonville, Florida. A Cuban citizen with permanent residence in the United States, Oviedo was able to return to his home — but due to the virus it wasn’t a guarantee he could return if baseball did.
“Something can go wrong,” he said. “I prefer to stay with my family. I didn’t know how long it was going to take until it was (time) to get back with the team.”
‘A special fastball’
Oviedo said he had training equipment on the roof of his boyhood home, and his father, Lazaro, helped him hang a blanket to use as a strike zone. The size of the roof allowed him to stand roughly 60 feet, 6 inches away from the blanket. And his father used a wooden beam to keep the blanket taut and keep Oviedo’s pitches from damaging the wall behind it. Oviedo took the staircase up to the roof and got to work, keeping his arm ready and tuning that slider to lefties that Wieters said the righthander didn’t have during a spring game he caught in Fort Myers, Florida.
With Oviedo’s extension toward the plate he releases closer to the hitter and that 98-mph zips up a bit — making the offspeed pitch all the more difficult if a hitter is timing the fastball.
“You can tell he’s got a special fastball,” Wieters said. “It gets on you, and you kind of know that from the get-go.”
Asked how much harder it feels, Wieters said: “That’s what you have to figure out. That’s the hard part to quantify. OK, how much do I need to turn it up, and that’s where he was able to combat it. Even if guys were turned up, he had two offspeed pitches he could throw for a strike, and that’s why you saw the success he had.”
Oviedo has a changeup and a curveball to go with the slider-fastball combo. He could move fast a reliever, but the Cardinals see him advancing as a starter. He was 12-8 with a 4.85 ERA in 29 games last season at two levels, and he struck out 163 to go with 76 walks in 146 2/3 innings. The expanded roster has the Cardinals auditioning young talents like him who can throw multiple innings — and also scorch opponents in the late innings.
Oviedo drew praise this spring with his improved control — and his innate consciousness. He sought Wainwright out to play catch and quiz about his workouts. At one point, Oviedo went out to the field to toss balls to Jose Oquendo as he worked with infielders. Shildt said the players didn’t volunteer to slip on the gloves and run rosin bags around, but given Oviedo’s actions in spring it wouldn’t have surprised if he did.
“He does move around and bounce around,” Shildt said. “The thing that I think is impressive about Ovi is he’s taking advantage out of both experiences. The first one is his own. You can see him take in what he’s doing and the next day you could tell he’s thought about something and he’s looking to grow it, and put it as part of his game. The second one, is other people’s experience. It’s really a sign of wisdom.”
That’s what he got to do Friday running rosin to the veterans.
On Saturday, he got the Busch Stadium mound to himself and a chance to show what he worked toward all winter and through the past three months in Cuba.
That he belongs on it.
“I’m glad his head is around that,” Shildt said. “He should have that expectation of knowing where he’s at and the trajectory of his career and get a little bit of a gauge relative to the guys who perform up here. The more you’re around it, the more you understand where you fit. It’s good to see he’s thinking he fits and he belongs, and he is ready and wanting to.”
Derrick Goold @dgoold on Twitter email@example.com