1. Will the defense and baserunning be better?
Both areas showed improvement in spring training, particularly the baserunning. The Cardinals were all over the place, capitalizing on every opportunity that was provided. The hope is it will carry over into the regular season and provide an offensive spark while also putting additional pressure on the opposition. The Cardinals depended heavily on home runs last year. This season, they plan to manufacture much of their offense by taking the extra base whenever possible. Defensively, the Cardinals are still average to below-average in terms of range in the infield. They must make all the routine plays to prevent extra pitches from the starters and relievers. The outfield defense should be much improved with Randal Grichuk replacing Matt Holliday in left and free agent Dexter Fowler taking over in center.
2. Is there enough depth in the starting rotation?
Pitchers get hurt. No one knows that better than the Cardinals, who already have lost prized prospect Alex Reyes for the season after Tommy John surgery. Lance Lynn returns after missing last year as he recovered from the same procedure. Will he be durable and strong? The same could be asked of Michael Wacha, who threw the ball well in spring training but has had issues with a stress reaction in his right scapula in two of the last three seasons. Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez complete the rotation. But if another one of the starters goes down, who will be his replacement? Trevor Rosenthal, who auditioned for a starting role, is on the disabled list to open the season. So is John Gant. Marco Gonzales was injured much of last season and Luke Weaver clearly needs more time in the minor leagues.
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3. Will Fowler be that big of a difference-maker?
Absolutely. Fowler, 31, has a career on-base percentage of .366 and turned in a career-best .393 OBP last season as he helped the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years. He has scored 186 runs in the last two seasons, including 102 in 2015. Fowler is a charismatic personality who plays the game hard, but always with a smile on his face. He’s not a prototypical base-stealer, although few players put as much pressure on the defense as Fowler. He’s adept at going from first to third on hits to all fields, which fits perfectly with the Cardinals’ mission to be more aggressive on the bases. Defensively, Fowler has made improvements the last few years and should be able to handle the huge Busch Stadium outfield. He will be worth the Cardinals’ five-year, $82.5 million investment.
4. Can Yadier Molina keep it going?
Molina, the face of the Cardinals and one of the most popular players in the history of the franchise, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, batting .307 with 38 doubles in a career-high 147 games. Despite being 34, Molina offers no visible evidence that his level of performance is slipping. Molina was fit and engaged during the World Baseball Classic, and the Cardinals expect that to continue as he enters his 14th season. Molina could be hungrier than ever after losing out to San Francisco’s Buster Posey in the National League Gold Glove Award balloting. It snapped Molina’s eight-year string of winning the award. Molina is in the final year of his contract, although the Cardinals on Thursday reportedly were close to a three-year extension that will keep Molina in St. Louis through the 2020 season.
5. Will this be the year for Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk?
The Cardinals have been waiting patiently for two of their key players to put everything together. Wong is back as the second baseman after a turbulent 2016 season in which he was sent to Class AAA Memphis for a short time and returned as a center fielder, a strategy that didn’t last long. Wong desperately wants to succeed, and the Cardinals will need to stay the course if he experiences more growing pains. Grichuk, who also spent time in Memphis, socked a career-best 24 home runs in 446 at-bats last season despite playing with loose cartilage in his left knee. He had arthroscopic surgery on the knee and believes he is ready to take off after batting .275 with 12 homers in 178 at-bats in 48 games from Aug. 11 to Oct. 2. Moving from center field to left should be a benefit for Grichuk and the Cardinals.