Top 10 questions surrounding the Cardinals for the 2013 season (in no particular order):
10) What will happen with co-ace Adam Wainwright's contract situation. The two-time finalist for the National League Cy Young Award could walk after the 2013 season if the Cardinals can't reach an extension agreement with him. I worry less about the huge contract the Dodgers gave to Zack Grienke pushing Wainwright out of the Redbirds' reach than i am concerned about the $80 the Tigers gave to Anibal Sanchez. Wainwright, when healthy, is one of the 10 best pitchers in the National League. Sanchez is a sub .500 hurler. The floor for a Wainwright extension is probably $100 for five years. But it could go up quickly from that point. If Wainwright leaves, who will lead the pitching staff in 2014.
9) Will Chris Carpenter be able to rebound from health issues that cost him nearly the entire 2012 season? The Cardinals will be without their insurance policy, Kyle Lohse, who filled in admirably for Carpenter last season and Wainwright in 2011. So if one of the top two guys goes down, there's really no one in line to take their place at the top of the rotation.
8) Was Lance Lynn's 18-win season a fluke? It's hard to sniff at 18 victories. But the Cardinals decided Lynn was the weak link in the rotation last season and sent him to the bullpen. That speaks a lot about their opinion of his abilities -- or at least their opinion about his health and durability. I really thought the Cardinals, who were miffed both publicly and privately by Lynn's grouchiness about being taken from the rotation, was a strong candidate to be traded this off-season. But, so far, he remains in the picture for 2013.
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7) How will Yadier Molina hold up? The Cardinals star catcher had his best season at the plate -- by a long shot -- in 2012. Was that a career year or was it a sign of things to come. Some players with the smarts of Molina learn enough about the game to mentally make up for physical erosion as they age. But it's an awful lot to expect a catcher entering his 30s not to wear down to some degree. And Molina isn't the sort of guy who is willing to take a lot of days off to try to stay fresh.
6) Will Rafael Furcal hold up? A partially torn elbow ligament is a huge concern for a shortstop. Albert Pujols has been able to protect his throwing arm by playing first base, a position where the need to make long throws is rare. But shortstops have to make the long throw across the diamond, often from a prone position, time and time again. Furcal could be a huge addition to the team if he can hit in 2013 like he did in the first half of 2012. If he can't the Birds are in big trouble with inexperienced back-up Pete Kozma as Plan B.
5) Will Oscar Tavares and Kolten Wong make an impact in 2013? Most expect the Cardinals top two position playing prospects to make the big leagues at some point in the upcoming season. And, for a lot of reasons, the sooner the batter. The Birds are likely to use Tavares in right field in 2014. So it would be nice to get his feet wet and see how he handles major league pitching before you count on him to play 150 games. Wong is supposedly one of the most polished players in the minors despite the fact that he hasn't played a game above Class AA. Fortunately for him, the Redbirds are extremely shallow at second base. So if he comes up and hits .250 while playing good defense, his year will be considered a success.
4) Speaking of right field, what does incumbent fly chaser Carlos Beltran have left in the tank. Over the first half of 2012, Beltran looked like the best free agent bargain of the year. He was at the top of several Senior Circuit hitting charts. But he slumped badly in the second half. And when a guy reaches his mid 30s, one starts to wonder if prolonged slumps are a sign that the end is near. It also doesn't help that Beltran has missed much of the last several seasons to injuries. If he hits like he did early last year, Beltran could make the Birds a force in the National League. Without him, the offense suddenly looks a lot less threatening.
3) What will become of the kid pitchers? The Cardinals haven't had a glut of young top pitching prospects in decades. But will their promise translate into success at the major league level? It seems that one in two or three "can't miss" prospects actually pan out to be as great as originally billed. Remember Anthony Reyes? Shelby Miller has been the top St. Louis pitching prospect for three years. But he was terrible for most of 2012 in Class AAA before rebounding nicely in a bullpen role for the big club. Trevor Rosenthal went from a mediocre prospect with a 94 MPH fastball in 2011 to a major league force who consistently hit 100 MPH on the radar gun late last year. Which is the real Rosenthal? Joe Kelly did a really nice job in his rookie campaign. But the toughest task for a young pitcher is to continue to succeed after the opposition has developed a book on your strengths and tendencies. So we'll have to wait and see how he is able to adapt.
2) Matt Holliday is 33 and he's struggled with injuries over the last couple of years. So i am interested to know if he is still capable of being a guy who can hit .320 with power. Holliday was signed to be a complimentary piece to Albert Pujols. But now he's the big gun. And I would like to see him have a healthy season in which he is able to carry the team for a period when other guys slump or need a break.
1) Can David Freese stay healthy and out of trouble? I was impressed with Freese's 2012 because he seemed like a guy who was set up to fail. He hit one of the most dramatic homers in Cardinals history to win game six of the 2011 World Series shortly after hitting an even more dramatic triple to save the Redbirds' bacon when the club was down two runs and down to its last strike. He was the World Series MVP thanks to his power display and there was a lot of pressure to meet completely unrealistic super hero type expectations. He hit .293 with 20 homers and 79 RBIs while playing a career high 144 games. It's the only time in his four-year career that he's played more than 97 contests due to his habit of getting hurt.