JUPITER, Fla. — When the Cardinals sought to schedule a mock game on the backcourts of Roger Dean Stadium on Saturday, they searched their minor league spring training roster for reliable and available weapons to throw at some of the club’s superstars. .
What they wanted was a pitcher to throw strikes.
They had Gordon Graceffo, the “sensation” of the minor league camp and a right-hander with an accurately thrown 100 mph fastball.
“Interesting combination,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said with a laugh. “(We are) seeing it? Orders at 100? Impressive.”
Graceffo’s task: Throwing strikes to a Cardinals star lineup that included the likes of powerhouse outfielder Tyler O’Neill, perennial All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado and Cooperstown-bound first baseman Albert Pujols .
Audience of Graceffo: A fan of cardinal brass. General manager Michael Girsch, farm manager Gary LaRocque, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, pitching coach Mike Maddux and Marmol were on hand.
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In his three innings, Graceffo allowed hits to Pujols and O’Neill. He gave up a home run to Arenado. He also hit right fielder Dylan Carlson twice — once with a fastball — before being traded to a southpaw who could give hitters a different look heading into their first regular season start.
It wasn’t Graceffo’s throwing line that caught the eye, but rather his ability to throw strikes and command a fastball that hit triple digits on the radar gun.
“Three fields. Good heating. Lots of pausing on that slider,” O’Neill said Sunday. “Good thing – but it’s able to spot itself. Strike thrower, who’s going to be above the plate with power. Ready to take the next step with command.”
“I enjoyed it,” Marmol said after seeing the right throw for the first time.
The ability to pass at 100 mph with his fastball was not something Graceffo could do a season ago. It’s something he worked on over the winter and brought with him into his first full season of professional baseball.
“Last year I was sitting a bit between 94 and 96, going over 97, 98,” Graceffo said. “(I) kind of had those same numbers in the offseason and I knew I could kind of get to 100, and that was one of my big goals.”
Ahead of Saturday’s intrasquad game, Graceffo used his improved fastball paired with a curveball, a slider and a change that’s still in development, to strike out eight batters in three innings in a field game on the 23rd. March.
Bringing his fastball to where it is today started not far from his hometown of Wayne, NJ
The 22-year-old spent his off-season training at the Annex Sports Performance Center in Chatham, NJ. The facility, which promotes “elite baseball development” in its Instagram bio, has seen other minor league prospects pass through its doors, including the top Texas Rangers. pitching prospect and former 2021 No. 2 draft pick Jack Leiter.
It was a winter that consisted of agility, throwing and lifting work with an emphasis on adding muscle while maintaining flexibility for Graceffo.
“They helped me a lot there,” Graceffo said. “I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done. I worked a lot to increase my strength, gain weight, gain a lot of muscle, a lot of weight, become a lot faster, a lot more explosive and just work on all these facets to improve everything. ”
With his offseason goal achieved, he doesn’t want to stop there. Like a bodybuilder who regularly adds more weight to elevate his personal bests, Graceffo is always looking to improve his arsenal and his already overwhelming fastball.
“It’s kind of weird, like once you hit it, what’s it like next? I’m looking forward to that next step,” he said. get something better.”
Graceffo is coming off a season in which he had a 1.73 ERA in 26 innings. He had 37 strikeouts and was used as a reliever in 10 of his 11 appearances with Low-A Palm Beach. His longest outing of 2021 was a scoreless 4 1/3 inning outing.
He will start the minor league season as a starter with High-A Peoria, he said. This is where the Cardinals will look for him to get as many innings as possible as part of his development.
One role in a starting rotation is one he was successful in during his senior year at Villanova, for which he posted a 1.54 ERA over 11 starts and 82 innings.
It’s also a role he hopes to keep throughout his playing career.
“Hopefully it stays that way throughout my time in the affiliates and into the big leagues,” Graceffo said. “But I mean, whatever they want to do with me, I’m ready for it.”