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Are the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals for real? Nearing the end of spring training, I still can’t tell

With two weeks to go until the start of the regular season, I can’t decide if the St. Louis Cardinals are the legitimate contender they seemed to be in 2015 – or the team in transition they seemed to be last season.

There are a lot of reasons to believe this team can be special. They might have the best set of five starting pitchers in the National League – if Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Mike Leake and Michael Wacha stay healthy.

Wainwright is a guy who has won 20 games in a season on two occasions and 19 on two others. Lance Lynn is a former 18 game winner who won 15 on two other occasions. Wacha, penciled in for the fifth slot in the rotation, won 17 games two years ago. Martinez won 16 last year and Mike Leake is capable of winning, he’s proved in the past.

But what are the odds all five will be healthy? The Redbirds already lost top prospect Alex Reyes for the year to an elbow injury. Wainwright and Wacha haven’t looked right in more than a year and Lynn is coming off Tommy John surgery.

Lynn is a free agent at the end of the season. Assuming that Reyes will be penciled into the rotation in 2018 – and with Martinez, Wainwright, Leake and Wacha already under contract, might it be a good idea to trade Lynn while the Cardinals could get something for him as opposed to letting him walk away when his contract is up?

On the infield, the Birds have Jhonny Peralta back from a thumb injury that hurt the St. Louis offense last season. Rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz is back for a second season with high expectations. Matt Carpenter has moved across the diamond to first base, a position that should be a better fit for his skill set, and Kolten Wong has a chance to finally win the starting job at second base.

They could combine to be much better both offensive and defensively than the infield crew from 2016. Or… Peralta could fail to get back to where he was two years ago because of advancing age. Diaz could have a sophomore slump and Wong is a mystery. One never knows when he is on the verge of a pity party after an ill-timed strikeout or fielding error. If Peralta can’t nail down the job at third, Carpenter might be forced to go back to from whence he came and Matt Adams would be back in the mix at first.

If just one domino falls, the Cardinals would find themselves back where they were last year with an infield defense that underperformed, letting the pitching down terribly.

Wong is off to a terrible start in spring training and this could be the fourth year in a row that he whiffs on the opportunity to take over the job for the next decade. Should the Cardinals consider trading him someplace where he’d get a change of scenery before all of Wong’s trade value disappears into the either? Or is it already too late?

The outfield looks promising.

Although I was a great admirer of Matt Holliday’s leadership and his bat, his lack of wheels in the outfield was becoming too much of an issue to ignore. So, the Cardinals splurged on free agent Dexter Fowler, signing him away from the rival Chicago Cubs. That signing shifted fleet-footed flychaser Randal Grichuk over to left field and leaves Stephen Piscotty in right.

The Birds probably have the best outfield defense they had since Jim Edmonds left town. But are we supposed to believe the Cardinals now are confident that Grichuk is ready to play 150 games and bat in the middle of the order when last season the team repeatedly pulled the rug out from under him every time he struck out a couple of times in a game?

Grichuk seems to be befuddled by the way the team handles him, Fowler has found it difficult to remain healthy for an entire season and Piscotty was disturbingly bad in the second half of the season last year – a situation that has carried over into spring training.

The problem here is that, once you get past the starting three outfielders, things start to get pretty thin on the depth chart.

Jose Martinez did a nice job in a September audition and has torn the cover off the ball in spring training. But he’s 28 years old and last season was his first taste of the big leagues. Is he capable of sticking in the majors? Tommy Pham seems to have fallen off the front office’s radar, while Harrison Bader needs to play every day at Class AAA Memphis instead of sitting on the bench in the big leagues. Unless… the Cardinals commit to getting Bader regular playing time and focus on development as much or more as winning.

In the bullpen, the Cardinals added Brett Cecil and have a healthy Trevor Rosenthal back in the mix. Although he missed a couple of weeks of spring training with a muscle strain, Rosenthal has been back in a big way over the last week, piling up strikeouts while putting zeroes on the scoreboard.

But Rosey wants to be a starter and that just doesn’t seem likely to happen in St. Louis. As he moved closer to free agency, can the Cardinals afford the luxury of a middle reliever who throws 100 mph – or should they trade Rosenthal so he can go somewhere and get the shot he’s dreaming of before he leaves as a free agent?

I really see this team as a club that could go either way. There is a lot more team speed than there used to be – but there’s also a lot less power. The pitching is healthier than last year – but for how long?

While these questions haven’t been answered in spring training, they might be over the first two months of the season. If St. Louis gets off to a lousy start, I don’t think the Birds have any choice but to start working on the future. If they are hot out of the gate, the Cardinals might have to gamble on winning it all and hang on to their free agents for a pennant drive, knowing they’ll lose them for little or nothing in the end.

Only time will tell.

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