ST. LOUIS — Allen Craig has big shoes to fill as the St. Louis Cardinals' starting first baseman.
Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman have moved along, leaving Craig as the heir to a position that has been a strength for years.
"It is special. I like the challenge of it," the 28-year-old Craig said Sunday at the Winter Warm-Up. "It's pretty cool that I'm going to have an opportunity to start and know I'm going to be in there every day.
"But with that said, I don't take that for granted. I'm still going to be working hard to prove to everyone what I can do. That never changes."
After returning May 1 from knee surgery, Craig battered pitchers last season, building on his breakthrough year of 2011.
Craig played first base, right field and left field, batting .307 with 35 doubles, 22 home runs and 92 RBIs in 119 games and 469 at-bats. Left-handed pitchers were at Craig's mercy; he pounded them at a .354 clip with eight homers in 127 at-bats.
Like last season, Craig could still see time in the outfield. Carlos Beltran figures to receive time off, which would give Matt Carpenter and newcomer Ty Wigginton an occasional start at first.
Craig is fine with bouncing around a bit.
"I don't really care. I've learned to stay flexible," he said. "I like playing first base; I like playing outfield. We've just got to see how the season plays out, who stays healthy. Things happen, so I could be moving around.
"I think Mike (Matheny) knows I'm comfortable at first and in the outfield, so whatever the team needs me to do, I'll do."
Craig is looking forward to working with new hitting coach John Mabry, but acknowledged disappointment with the departure of Mark McGwire to his new role as the Los Angeles Dodgers' hitting instructor. McGwire was with the Cardinals for three years.
"It was disappointing to hear that he was leaving," Craig said. "We all developed pretty close bonds with him. We won the World Series (in 2011) and he's a great guy to be around. He knows a lot. The Dodgers definitely have a good guy to be running their hitting."
Craig doesn't expect a dropoff by the Cardinals.
"Obviously, we had a pretty good season last year, but fell one game short of the World Series," he said. "We look back at the season as a positive, but it's also disappointing that we couldn't win that last game and get to the World Series. We've got a talented group, so there's a lot to look forward to."
Craig isn't one for setting individual goals.
"The No. 1 goal is just getting back to the World Series," he said. "If I play well, then that gives our team that much better a chance to get there. So I just focus on playing great every day."
Wacha on rise
Right-hander Michael Wacha is one of many young Cardinals pitchers making a rapid ascension to the big leagues.
It's already happened for Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly. Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness are in the next wave and could arrive as early as 2014.
Wacha, 21, a Texas A&M product, worked in 11 games and 21 innings at three levels, advancing to Class AA Springfield. He allowed just eight hits, walked four and struck out 40.
Wacha then pitched in two games in Springfield's run to the Texas League championship, allowing two hits, walking none and striking out five in three innings.
"The experience was unbelievable," Wacha said. "The plan was to just go down to the GCL (Gulf Coast League) for a little bit. I got three appearances there and they moved me up to high-A (Florida State League), where I figured I would just stop.
"But Double-A was in the playoff race and I was pitching well at high-A, and they ended up calling me up to Double-A. It was fun to be a part of, and being able to win that championship was good --seeing everybody be so happy."
The Cardinals limited Wacha's workload last season, using him primarily in the bullpen after he threw 113 1/3 innings for the Aggies. This year, he'll be used as a starter.
"I'm going to go to spring training as a starter," Wacha said. "Hopefully, I can keep up the same stats. I know that will be a little hard, but I guess I'll see."
Wacha, 21, lives in Houston in the offseason and has been trying to add strength to his 6-foot-6, 195-pound frame.
"I'm just trying to work on getting stronger," Wacha said. "I'm starting to throw bullpens now and getting back into throwing strikes --just getting ready for spring training. Hopefully, that pays off in the long run during the season."
Wacha has perhaps the best changeup in the system.
"It's always been a pretty good pitch, but when I went to Texas A&M, Coach (Rob) Childress helped me refine it to where it's got a sharp, downward break on it," Wacha said. "It's been a good pitch for me, and hopefully hitters keep on having trouble hitting it."
Boggs on WBC
Reliever Mitchell Boggs couldn't say no to Joe Torre when Torre called him to gauge his interest in playing for the United States in the World Baseball Classic on March 2-19.
"I would love to be in camp all of camp and to work with our guys and be there working every day getting ready for the season," Boggs said. "But when you have an opportunity like the one that was presented to me by Joe Torre to play for his team and play for our country, that's something I could not pass up. That's something I'll be proud of for the rest of my life."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.