Ready to fly? 10 questions the Cardinals must answer

News-DemocratFebruary 12, 2014 

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.

AP

It's hard to find fault with what the St. Louis Cardinals accomplished in the offseason.

The Cardinals improved their speed and defense (center fielder Peter Bourjos), found a shortstop (Jhonny Peralta) and landed a prospect (outfielder Randal Grichuk), all without subtracting from their bounty of pitching.

Trading third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas to the Los Angeles Angels for Bourjos and Grichuk also enabled the Cardinals to move Matt Carpenter, who played second base last season, to his more natural position of third base.

All of this leaves the Cardinals heavy favorites to repeat as National League Central champions.

But it is spring; division titles are not won when snow is on the ground and temperatures are south of 20 degrees. Unforeseen challenges lie ahead for even the best teams.

The Cardinals open spring training Thursday morning in Jupiter, Fla., where pitchers and catchers will participate in their first workout. They will be joined by the rest of the roster Tuesday, targeting the season opener March 31 in Cincinnati.

Here are 10 questions the Cardinals must answer:

1. Is Peralta worth a four-year, $53-million contract?

Peralta, despite his PED suspension last season in Detroit, had leverage on the Cardinals, who had no internal options at shortstop. They entrusted the job to Pete Kozma last year and it clearly didn't work out. Peralta has a reputation as a strong hitter and sure-handed fielder, despite limited range. He batted a career-high .303 last season, and the Cardinals would love to see that again. But Peralta had averages of .254 in 2009, .249 in 2010 and .239 in 2012. There is reason for concern that his offense could taper off.

Peralta's perspective: "I'm going to do the best I can do and try to help the Cardinals go to the World Series one more time and win."(*12*)

2. Can rookie Kolten Wong handle everyday duty at second base?

The Cardinals are convinced Wong will be an impact player, but it's clear they're uncertain whether he's ready to be the starter this season. If Wong can hit .280 and maintain a .350 on-base percentage, he could fit wonderfully into the lower third of a potent batting order. But the left-handed swinger has the skills to bat second and be a .300 hitter with a .370 or higher OBP. General Manager John Mozeliak is bullish on Wong, yet added insurance at second base by signing 36-year-old Mark Ellis to a one-year, $5.25-million deal.

Mozeliak's rundown: "All of us who have gotten to see Kolten play the last couple of years at the minor-league level believe in him and believe he's capable of being an everyday player at the big-league level."

3. Will Jaime Garcia hold up?

This seems to be an annual concern as the Cardinals head south. Garcia's history of health problems is beginning to rival Donovan Osborne's. It appears Garcia had a normal offseason of preparation, but when the games begin to count, it's time to hold your breath. Garcia went on the disabled list in early May with a strained left shoulder and underwent surgery a few weeks later. He was throwing again by the end of the postseason, encouraging news for a team that desperately wants a left-hander in its rotation for the entire season.

Mozeliak's assessment: "I'm not concerned at all, but certainly I have high expectations of him."

4. Will prized prospect Oscar Taveras make the team?

If Taveras performs well in spring training, he will be with the Cardinals in Cincinnati on Opening Day, playing center or right. There would be no sense in holding Taveras back, even though there is not a pressing need for him to be an everyday player this season. Taveras said at the Cardinals' Winter Warm-Up in January that his surgically repaired right ankle is 100 percent. If Taveras struggles in spring, it wouldn't be the worst thing for him to get re-established at Class AAA Memphis before earning a call to the big leagues.

Taveras' take: "Physically, I feel prepared. I feel good. I'm 100 percent ready for spring training."

5. Is Michael Wacha the real deal?

Wacha (4-1, 2.78 ERA) doesn't have to be unhittable as he was during September and most of the postseason. All the Cardinals expect out of the rookie sensation is to be himself, which should be enough to solidify a rotation led by Adam Wainwright (19-9, 2.94 ERA), Shelby Miller (15-9, 3.06 ERA) and Lance Lynn (15-10, 3.97 ERA). Wacha will no longer be a secret to hitters, so he must make necessary adjustments. But he is a bright young man, and he will enter the season armed with confidence that he can do the job.

Wacha's words: "I have some personal goals that I really don't want to share. I feel like if I'm able to accomplish those goals, it will be a pretty good season."

6. Is there room for improvement by Matt Carpenter?

Carpenter finished fourth in NL Most Valuable Player balloting, behind Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen, Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt and teammate Yadier Molina. Despite learning a new position, Carpenter batted .318 and led the NL in runs (126), hits (199) and doubles (55). Returning to third base will ease his mind even more, which could lead to even more dominant offensive numbers.

Carpenter's call: "I think there is something to say about being comfortable where you are. But you also have to find a way to separate your at-bats from your defense. ... The expectations have been set. I'm looking forward to meeting or exceeding them."

7. Will Jason Motte unseat Trevor Rosenthal as the closer?

Motte, who had 42 saves in 2012, missed all of last season recovering Tommy John surgery. He will be closely watched in the spring, but is expected to be ready for Opening Day. Rosenthal, who supplanted Edward Mujica as the closer late last season, has made it clear he wants to be a starter. But that isn't likely to happen this season. If there is an injury in the rotation, the Cardinals probably would turn to Joe Kelly. Motte might end up being the eighth-inning bridge to Rosenthal, who had 108 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings.

Manager Mike Matheny's breakdown: "Right now, what we need as a team is we need our bullpen solid, and Trevor Rosenthal is the guy to get us through that ninth inning at this point."

8. Will Bourjos and Jon Jay split time in center?

Bourjos will determine the answer to this question. If he hits, he plays, although Matheny doesn't seem inclined to keep Jay on the roster to merely be a pinch-hitter. The high-energy Bourjos, whose playing style makes his susceptible to injury, is perhaps the best defensive center fielder in the game. But he has batted just .251 with a .306 OBP in his career, which could keep the door open for Jay to start against right-handed pitchers. Jay's defense, formerly a plus, receded last season, so the Cardinals must see a return to form.

Bourjos' belief: "I think defense can change a game. A solid defense is going to safe a lot of runs. It's going to take pressure off your offense, and it's going to take pressure off your pitcher, too."

9. What is a realistic home-run total for Matt Adams?

Adams' playing time is linked to Taveras. If Taveras makes the team, he isn't going to ride the pine. He's going to play, most likely right field. That scenario would push Allen Craig to first base and put Adams on the bench. The left-handed slugger, nicknamed "Big City," walloped 17 homers in 296 at-bats last season. If he gets between 500 and 550 at-bats, expect Adams to hit at least 30 homers, especially if he improves against left-handed pitching.

Adams' evaluation: "I think it's a huge opportunity, but you never know what can happen. You just have to go with it, run with it, and hopefully things work out."

10. Will Freese, Chris Carpenter and Carlos Beltran be missed?

The recently retired Carpenter was a force on the mound and a leader in the clubhouse for years, but he didn't pitch at all last season and the Cardinals didn't skip a beat. Beltran's leadership and presence will be missed. His two seasons in St. Louis were an overwhelming success on the field as he batted .282 with 56 home runs and 181 RBIs in 296 games. Freese was a hometown favorite, but his defense was a weakness and he was a diminished offensive player in 2013. The Cardinals have moved on despite departures of key players in recent years, and they will do it again.

Wainwright on leadership: "I let that happen naturally. If it happens, it happens. I know I have a certain calling as a leader in that clubhouse. Anything that doesn't happen naturally will feel forced for me, but also for the guys that I'm in front of. That, I feel like, has been and will continue to be a natural process."

Contact reporter David Wilhelm at dwilhelm@bnd.com or 239-2665. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMWilhelm.

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