Five questions the Cardinals will face in spring training
FEB 11, 2014 2:30p ET
ST. LOUIS -- With a rotation that is the envy of baseball, a lineup stocked with .300 hitters and a bullpen full of power arms, the Cardinals have everything they need to return to the World Series.
But there is a downside to having a roster loaded and ready to roll on the eve of spring training. It can lead to a camp without much drama. The Cardinals arrive in Jupiter with seemingly no weaknesses but, just in case something arises, their backup plans look pretty strong, too.
Let's say rookie Kolten Wong shows he's not ready for everyday duty at second base. Enter the veteran, Mark Ellis. Jason Motte not 100 percent recovered for Opening Day? No problem. Carlos Martinez, Joe Kelly and Kevin Siegrist provide strong alternatives. If Matt Adams struggles against lefties? Simple. Move Allen Craig back to first and give Jon Jay, a regular since 2011, or top prospect Oscar Taveras a shot in right field.
You can get an idea of how stacked are the Cardinals from the few questions -- and the answers -- they'll face in spring training.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH OSCAR?
No Cardinals player will be more closely watched in Florida than the 21-year-old Taveras, as long as his surgically repaired right ankle does not slow him. If Taveras had not essentially lost 2013 to injury, he very well would be getting first crack at right -- or center -- field this spring. General manager John Mozeliak is that keen on the lefty slugger he called an "amazing talent" at the Winter Warm-Up.
But Taveras has plenty to prove after being limited to 46 games in Class AAA last year. He would seem to need an Albert Pujols-in-2001-type spring to make the majors out of spring training, but such a showing would not stun the Cardinals.
"When Pujols was coming (in 2001), I don't think anyone had him on major league radar," Mozeliak said. "He kind of came out of nowhere. A lot of us knew we had a talent, but clearly we didn't know he was going to have the career path he took. Taveras, most of us have felt like all along, he's been on that path, but injury delayed it."
With the club committed to giving Adams a chance to play every day, shifting Craig back to right field, Taveras' most likely scenarios are starting the season in the Memphis lineup or on the St. Louis bench. "Is it better to get 15 at-bats in the big leagues or 45 at Triple A?" Mozeliak asks rhetorically. "We still think at his age and where he's at, development is critical."
If that sounds like Taveras is ticketed for the minors, remember this is a club that does not shy away from giving youngsters a chance in the majors once they show they're ready.
WHO WILL HIT SECOND?
Craig will be taking over for the departed Carlos Beltran in right field, but Craig already has a home in the batting order. He figures to hit cleanup, like last year. All of the returning regulars are likely to hit in the same slots as last year, leaving newcomers Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos and rookie Kolten Wong to slot in the two, seven and eight holes.
Mozeliak has made it clear he prefers Bourjos in the eight-spot to take advantage of hitting in front of the pitcher. If Wong lives up to the Cardinals' expectations, he will make a good top-of-the-order hitter someday. But no need to rush him. Putting him seventh would allow him to adjust to the big leagues with less pressure.
That leaves Peralta, signed for his offense, as the leading candidate to hit in the two-hole. He has batted mostly in the fifth, sixth and seventh spots in his career, but his .303/.358/.457 line in 2013 compares favorably to the .296/.339/.491 put up by Beltran last year.
Ellis hit mostly in the two-hole for the Dodgers last year, so when he's in the lineup, he could push Peralta to the seventh spot. Jay also has plenty of experience in the No. 2 spot.
WHO PITCHES THE EIGHTH?
This could take until October to figure out partly because there are that many quality candidates. Jason Motte tops the list, but he enters camp several weeks behind the rest of the staff in his return from Tommy John surgery. If Joe Kelly again loses his bid to start, he could be given a chance to set up. He is too good to waste in a long role. Lefty Kevin Siegrist could get the ball, too, especially in situations such as when Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are coming up in the eighth.
Based on Carlos Martinez's performance in the playoffs, he would be the leading candidate to at least hold the eighth until Motte is ready. But Martinez could pitch his way into the rotation or the club could decide to put him in Memphis' rotation to prepare him for a late-season stretch a la Michael Wacha in 2013.
WHO TAKES THE FIFTH SPOTS?
In part to ensure a healthy level of competition in camp, the Cardinals are maintaining that only ace Adam Wainwright has secured a spot in the rotation. Don't be so sure.
Something quite surprising would have to happen in Jupiter for Wacha, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn to not open the season as starters. Because Jaime Garcia is the lone established lefty and draws the second-biggest salary, he also has a grip on a starting job as long as he is healthy. All signs say he is, too. He was pitching live batting practice last October and was able to spend his off-season training and not rehabbing.
Garcia's health and, to a lesser degree, Wacha's workload are keys to the rotation competition. Wacha figures to open the season in the rotation, but his innings will be more closely monitored than the other starters and he could be given a break at some point. Kelly, Martinez or Tyler Lyons would be first in line to step in. Of course, spring training performances could lead to a chance. Just don't count on it.
WHO GETS LEFT OFF THE ROSTER?
Not too many years ago, the Cardinals entered spring training like most teams. That is, with significant holes to fill. Not this year. You could fill out a 25-man roster today and, barring unforeseen injuries, have it hold up on March 31.
Rotation (5): Wainwright, Wacha, Miller, Lynn and Garcia.
Bullpen (7): Trevor Rosenthal, Martinez, Siegrist, Seth Maness, Randy Choate, Kelly and Motte. If Motte isn't ready by Opening Day, recently signed Pat Neshek, lefty Sam Freeman and Kevin Butler would be leading contenders for the last spot.
Bench (5): Catcher Tony Cruz, outfielders Jay and Shane Robinson and infielders Ellis and Daniel Descalso. That would leave last year's starting shortstop, Pete Kozma, without a spot. Also, if Taveras somehow hits his way onto the club, either Jay or Robinson could be out of luck.
Of course, spring training wouldn't be spring training without something unexpected happening, from an unfortunate injury to a breakout performance. The way the Cardinals are set up, the only real surprise would be is if they break camp in late March not primed for another run at the playoffs.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.