Spring training begins in earnest Tuesday morning with the St. Louis Cardinals’ first full-squad workout in Jupiter, Fla.
It wasn’t a busy offseason of transactions for the defending National League Central champions, but the Cardinals like what they have despite the free-agent losses of right-hander John Lackey and right fielder Jason Heyward.
Lackey and Heyward each signed with the Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals signed right-hander Mike Leake, formerly of Cincinnati and San Francisco, to a five-year, $80 million contract to replace Lackey. The Cardinals wanted to retain Heyward, but they’re confident the promising Stephen Piscotty, beginning his second full season, can offset Heyward’s absence.
The Cardinals also tweaked their roster with the signings of backup catcher and switch-hitter Brayan Pena and Korean reliever Seung Hwan Oh. They traded center fielder Jon Jay to San Diego, acquiring infielder Jedd Gyorko to provide depth and occasional power. The team also re-signed reliever Jonathan Broxton and first baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss.
So, where do the Cardinals stand as spring training begins? For the first time in years, they aren’t considered to be the favorites to win the National League Central, as most foresee the Cubs as the team to beat based on their rapid, and somewhat surprising, rise in 2015 that culminated with a victory over the Cardinals in the NL Division Series.
But fifth-year Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is ready to go to battle with the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates in what was the best division in baseball last season. All three contenders will face challenges, some that are anticipated, others that are not.
What are the obstacles for the Cardinals? Will they be prepared to meet the challenges of a season that begins in Pittsburgh at 12:05 p.m. on April 3?
Here are a few questions the Cardinals must answer:
1. Can they stay on track if catcher Yadier Molina is not ready on Opening Day?
Molina underwent two offseason surgeries on his left thumb that was injured in September and prevented him from being effective in the playoffs. If Molina is ready for the season opener, it will be a bonus for the Cardinals. But he could be sidelined until mid-April or perhaps early May. The Cardinals signed Pena in anticipation that Molina might not be ready. Pena is a polished defender and respected hitter who could offset Molina’s absence indefinitely. At the very least, his presence will allow the Cardinals to be patient with Molina as his thumb recovers.
2. Where will third baseman Matt Carpenter bat in the order?
Carpenter led the Cardinals in home runs by a wide margin last season with 28. On a team that has a scarcity of power, Carpenter would seem to be a nice fit in an RBI position in the order. However, batting first agrees with him. Carpenter’s slash line in 80 games as a leadoff hitter was .312/.389/.634, far better than the .225/.342/.357 he registered in 69 games as a No. 2 hitter. Carpenter has said he can hit in any spot in the order, but expect him to be back in his familiar leadoff position. Kolten Wong made headlines during the Winter Warm-Up when he announced he coveted the job as the leadoff hitter, but Wong will need to show he can work counts and be productive against left-handed pitchers to receive consideration for the role.
3. How much does Matt Holliday have left in the tank?
The Cardinals are banking on a bounce-back season from their 36-year-old left fielder, who could also see time at first base. Holliday opened last season with a bang, setting an NL record by reaching base in his first 43 games of the season. But two significant injuries to his right quadriceps limited Holliday to a career-low 73 games. He batted .279 and had a .394 on-base percentage, but Holliday managed just four home runs, none of them coming at Busch Stadium. To be able to play the spacious outfield at Busch Stadium, Holliday must regain the strength in his legs. More debilitating leg problems would remove Holliday’s bat from a lineup that figures to need all the help it can get.
4. Is Adam Wainwright ready to lead the rotation?
All systems are go for the 34-year-old Wainwright (2-1, 1.61 ERA in 2015), the ace of the Cardinals’ talented group of starters that also includes Leake (11-10, 3.70), Michael Wacha (17-7, 3.38), Jaime Garcia (10-6, 2.43) and Carlos Martinez (14-7, 3.01). Wainwright ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon in April, but returned Sept. 30 and pitched in six games in relief, including three in the postseason. But his real value to the Cardinals comes as a starter, and he can be expected to approach 20 wins assuming he gets a reasonable amount of offensive support. Wainwright’s return to health and the addition of Leake effectively offsets the losses of Lackey and Lance Lynn, who will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
5. Who’s on first base?
The Cardinals have two left-handed-hitting first basemen in Moss and Matt Adams, who missed all but 60 games last season with a right quadriceps injury that required surgery in late May. Moss was re-signed to a one-year, $8.25 million deal, so it’s clear he will be an everyday player. He also will provide insurance in left field in the event Holliday’s quad injury resurfaces. For now, it appears Adams, who batted .240 with four homers and 24 RBIs, will be Moss’ backup and a threat off the bench. The Cardinals remain intrigued by the power potential of Moss, who hit just four homers in 151 plate appearances with St. Louis last year, but has 74 in his last three seasons with Oakland, Cleveland and the Cardinals.
6. Can Randal Grichuk stay healthy and fulfill his promise?
Grichuk, who will take over for Jay in center, was a solid candidate for NL Rookie of the Year last season until elbow and back injuries interrupted his progress. Grichuk, who belted 17 homers in 350 plate appearances in 2015, is the Cardinals’ best power hitter. But to make an impact on the Cardinals offense, he must be physically well enough to play every day. Strikeouts have been a part of Grichuk’s game; he had 110 last season. But the Cardinals are more than willing to live with that if Grichuk can approach his .276 average of last season. A full season of Grichuk would go a long way to solving the Cardinals’ offensive ills.
7. Is Wong ready for liftoff?
Wong has frustrated Cardinals fans with his up-and-down play. One day, he can collect a critical hit that leads to a win. The next day, he might bobble a routine grounder that contributes to a loss. Wong is just 25, and after playing in 295 games and racking up more than 1,100 plate appearances, he could be ready to turn the corner. Wong needs to sharpen his focus on defense and avoid the temptation to swing for the fences if his career is going to take off. Certainly, he has the tools to become one of the top second basemen in the NL.
8. Can closer Trevor Rosenthal keep it going?
Rosenthal set a Cardinals single-season record with 48 saves last season, striking out 83 in 68 2/3 innings while reducing his walks total to 25. The Cardinals believe the 25-year-old Rosenthal is entering his prime, and there’s no reason to dispute the notion. But the Cardinals will at least have an option on days Rosenthal is unavailable to pitch. Oh, 33, represents a quality replacement in such instances after recording 41 saves last season for the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League. Oh, nicknamed “The Final Boss,” has 357 career saves and has an array of pitches, including a slider and split-finger fastball.