St. Louis Cardinals lefty Corey Littrell, a starter three rungs below the big leagues in Boston’s organization, was driving to the ballpark on July 31, 2014, unaware of how the major happenings above him would soon intersect his life and redirect his career.
Then his phone rang.
He recognized the number, thought about the date, and started doing the math. … Boston’s farm director calling … at the trade deadline …
“Well, there’s kind of only one reason, I would think,” Littrell said. “Then he started telling me, ‘You’ve been traded to …’ It felt like he paused for 30 minutes.”
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Littrell mimicked the expression on his face as he waited.
Eyebrows raising. Mouth lowering.
“I was like, ‘Say it. Say it.’”
The former Louisville Trinity and University of Kentucky star didn’t have to wait long for the reaction to the news that he had been dealt to the Cardinals as the only minor-leaguer in a deal that included three big-league players, including two former All-Stars. The trade split his friends into thirds, just like the city in which they grew up: A third were thrilled (Cardinals fans), a third were appalled (Cubs fans), and a third had their own team to worry about (Reds fans).
Entering his second full season with the Cardinals, Littrell now holds another distinction from that trade: He’s the only player left.
In need of pitching for the final push in 2014 and interested in clearing the way for Oscar Taveras to play right field, the Cardinals dealt RISP-master Allen Craig and pitcher Joe Kelly to the Red Sox for John Lackey and Littrell, a High-A lefty. Nineteen months after that deal, Lackey had a career year with the Cardinals and then moved on to the Cubs. Craig spiraled out of the Red Sox lineup and spent most of the past season struggling at Class AAA, his career curiously atrophied. Kelly remains with the Red Sox, pitching to keep a spot in the rotation.
Littrell, 23, has nestled into a spot on the Cardinals organization’s depth chart.
The lefty went 9-9 with a 2.69 ERA at High-A Palm Beach. Baseball America rated him the fifth-best lefty starter in the Cardinals’ organization behind Tim Cooney, Marco Gonzales, peer Austin Gomber, and rising Ian Oxnevard. Littrell struck out 93 in 130 1/3 innings pitched last season, and his strong finish to the season after a moment to reset earned him a place in this year’s major-league spring training.
“It was probably my toughest year,” Littrell said of one of his statistically best years. “I started out at Double-A at spring training and then got moved down to Palm Beach. I took that the wrong way. I didn’t do well. I had this talk with the pitching coach (Randy Niemann) and Jason Isringhausen. They put a little spark in me. Control what I can control.
“I got out of my own head and got back to pitching.”
Niemann, a former big-league pitching coach who players call “Nemo,” helped Littrell reboot by taking him to the video room and planting him in the bullpen. In the video room, the two Cardinals reviewed Littrell’s games in college and spotted some differences in his delivery. He was letting loose with his lead (right) arm too quickly, throwing off his timing and thus his command. In the bullpen — he made 10 relief appearances — Littrell got a chance to rewire a few of his pitches and his approach.
Littrell worked his way through innings as a starter with five different pitches: two- and four-seam fastballs, a curve, a changeup, and a cutter. As so often happens on a college campus, Littrell “kind of fell in love” … with his cutter. The pitch and him had grown distant when he turned pro, lost their feelings for one another. Being in the bullpen, Littrell loosened up the cutter and turned it into a slider. He tried it out at a fitting time.
In his first ever relief appearance, his first pitch was the first time he’d thrown a slider in a game.
He got a swing and miss.
“There you go,” he said. “Once I got in my head that I was throwing a slider instead of a cutter that helped me out tremendously vs. lefties. I had a hard time getting lefties out and being a lefty that is not supposed to happen at all. That gave me the confidence I needed.”
Littrell also experienced a slight dip in his velocity during the season, but that came with the benefit of additional control. In the second half of the 2015 season with the Palm Beach Cardinals, Littrell had a 1.55 ERA in 12 games (11 starts) and struck out 58 in 75 2/3 innings. He walked only 10 batters and dropped his WHIP from 1.35 to 0.95. That cut in half his walk rate from the previous season, his first full summer with the Cardinals.
The Cardinals intend to prep Littrell, the grandson of big-league shortstop Jack Littrell, as a starter this spring, and he could win a spot in the Class AA rotation. The team also sees him as part of the depth chart for lefty relief. If they repurpose him as a lefty for the bullpen, there is a belief internally that he could see increased velocity, sharper off-speed stuff, and be the kind of lefty the Cardinals now want to have in the bullpen. He’s not a specialist, rather a lefty who can face two lefties in an inning and get the righthanded bat sandwiched in between out.
Lackey has come and gone.
The Cardinals expect Littrell to arrive.
A year ago, during spring training, Lackey started a minor-league game on the backfields here at Roger Dean Stadium and Littrell happened to be on the same team. The lefty went up to the veteran to introduce himself. Lackey knew the name: “You were in the trade with me,” he said. Until the Cardinals use the draft pick they got as compensation for Lackey leaving for the Cubs, Littrell is all that’s left of the big deal.
“It was an important trade,” Littrell said. “You’re kind of removed from it now with a chance to see it and what it meant for me. … Being more consistent — that’s the name of pitching. That’s what my goal is here, to be as consistent as possible. That’s what I worked on this offseason. I’m excited to take off.”