With a week to go before the start of regular season baseball, here's a snapshot of where the St. Louis Cardinals stand:
After a few injury-related bumps in the road with ace Adam Wainwright and horse Lance Lynn going down to early injuries and questions about youngster Michael Wacha's recovery from a shoulder injury that ruined his 2014 campain, the rotation seems to be getting healthy just in time for the opening bell.
Wainwright and Lynn say they're on the mend and Wacha has reported no signs of trouble from the stress reaction in his pitching shoulder. Veteran John Lackey has looked solid during Grapefruit League play.
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The only setback was one that should surprise nobody. Jaime Garcia, who has fought arm injuries since 2011, had a problem with his surgically repaired shoulder and missed his most recent spring start. The Cardinals, as is their usual course of action, are downplaying the injury, chalking it up to fatigue as opposed to a structural problem.
Fortunately, the Redbirds have the rotation depth to survive a back of the rotation problem with Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzalez on the cusp of seizing an MLB rotation job. But the Cardinals can't afford to have issues with their top four starting hurlers or things could go south quickly.
If Wainwright, Lackey, Lynn and Wacha stay healthy the rotations should be the Cardinals' best weapon. They don't have the flashy front end of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But, besides the Washington Nationals, few teams have such depth. St. Louis has seven pitchers who are ready to start in the major leagues right now -- if Garcia is healthy.
The Cardinals need closer Trevor Rosenthal to have a bounce back season. And, if he does, everything else should fall into place.
Rosenthal got in all sorts of trouble last year by not trusting his near 100 mph fastball and his devastating change-up. He nibbled around the plate and got himself behind in counts, making his pitch selection more predictable. Walks caused him to allow nearly 1.5 baserunners per inning, a dangerous statistic for a closer -- especially one on a team that struggled to score a lot of runs.
So far this spring, Rosenthal has been more aggressive and he's demonstrating good control with seven strikeouts and only one walk in seven innings of work. He's allowed .857 runners per inning this spring.
Jordan Walden, an accomplished pitcher with the Atlanta Braves before being picked up but St. Louis in trade, will attempt to replicate the stellar work of Pat Neshek as a set-up man with Neshek's departure as a free agent.
There is a lot of depth from both sides of the pitching rubber for the bullpen, especially if Garcia rebounds and Martinez and/or Gonzales spend some time in the pen. Kevin Siegrist, stellar in 2013 but injured and ineffective last year, appears to be healthy and ready to contribute as a lefty reliever. But his control needs some fine tuning.
The bullpen ought to be the most reliable part of the St. Louis roster.
After slow starts at the plate, Jhonny Peralta and newcomer Jayson Heyward have come alive with the bats lately, hitting well better than .300 for the spring. But the Cardinals offense has still struggled to score runs.
St. Louis needs a rebound from third baseman Matt Carpenter, first baseman Matt Adams and catcher Yadier Molina to reach its offensive potential.
Adams has struggled this spring to a .233 average and a .277 on base percentage. He doesn't seem to have made any progress batting against lefty hurlers and he's only hit one homer. I get the sense that Adams can't figure out if he wants to hit for power or go for contact. The result is that he lets pitches he could drive get past him, weakly hitting too many balls. He's capable of getting locked in and having hot streaks. Hopefully, he's just saving them until the games start to count.
Yadier Molina reported to camp about 20 pounds lighter than he was last year at this time. I wonder how he'll hold up over a long season with his lighter build. Molina also seems to be hitting the ball with less authority than in the recent past. He's got a .297 slugging percentage for the spring with only one extra base hit and one RBI in Grapefruit League play.
Kolten Wong, who was brilliant in the post season after struggling so much earlier in the year that he was demoted to Class AAA Memphis. The Cardinals need to keep the pressure off Wong and let him grow at his own pace. There is plenty of talent to carry him when he's slumping. But, if he gets in a groove, he has the potential to be a big boost to the line-up.
The Cardinals are still way too left-handed in the starting lineup. They'll rely heavily on the bench when they face southpaws. That could be an issue late in games because the club doesn't have a lot of power to score runs quickly. They'll need to hope for timely hitting and a lot of doubles to score runs.
The defense, with Heyward and Wong in the line-up on a daily basis, should be better this year than it was last.
This is the Cardinals' biggest wildcard. Mark Reynolds and Randal Grichuk are players who could give the teams some relief against lefty pitchers. But, while they both offer power potential, they both also strike out a lot.
Will Peter Bourjos, batting .128 for the spring with 10 strikeouts in 39 at-bats, ever be able to hit well enough to justify a roster spot. Will he pout because he's settled in as a bench player when he thinks he's good enough to be a starter. Does it matter how well an outfielder plays defense if he can't hit a lick? And how does a guy as fast as Bourjos make it to the major leagues and stay there for half a decade without learning how to slap the ball the other way consistently or at least execute a successful drag bunt.
Pete Kozma has been the Cardinals' best hitter this spring and could be hugely valuable as a utility man. But he's always been held back by his bat. Will he be able to keep up the hot hitting?
The Cardinals NEED the bench to be productive this season. They're going to get a steady dose of every lefty pitcher the opposition can muster. So if the bench doesn't contribute significantly, the Birds are going to have a tough time scoring runs and winning games.
This is far from a perfect team. It's not great in any one area, but it is above average in all areas. Barring an unusual amount of injuries, the Cardinals ought to have the talent to win the National League Central Division again. And they'll likely have to if they want to make the playoffs. With improved New York Mets, San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins, the wildcard will be hotly contested.