Wacha rebound among questions for Cardinals

ST. LOUIS (AP) The Cardinals hope Michael Wacha is ready to stand alongside ace Adam Wainwright at the top of their rotation.

Wacha was the NL Championship Series MVP as a rookie but just 5-6 with a 3.20 ERA in 19 starts last year. He was sidelined for most of the season’s second half by a stress reaction in his shoulder, and was rusty in October before giving up Travis Ishikawa’s series-winning homer in Game 5 of the NLCS.

Now he feels healthy.

”It’s very encouraging, the long term of what this kid could be and the short term of how he feels, somebody every fifth day that can bring the kind of stuff he does,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. ”He feels good about himself and we feel good about what we’re seeing.”

The 23-year-old Wacha has long insisted the injury is behind him.

”Ever since I came back last year, I haven’t thought about it when I was on the mound,” Wacha said. ”As far as I know, it was a rare injury. I’m not sure where it came from.”

If it stays away, the Cardinals figure to again have one of the deeper starting staffs despite trading 15-game winner Shelby Miller for outfielder Jason Heyward. Wainwright was a 20-game winner for the second time, and Lance Lynn has averaged 16 wins during three years in the rotation.

John Lackey is a proven late-season talent. Jaime Garcia’s resurgent spring following surgery to relieve nerve compression may cause promising Carlos Martinez to be related to the bullpen again.

Lackey expects to be more comfortable in his first full NL season, saying ”It’s different for a lot of reasons.”

Things to watch for with the Cardinals, who open April 5 at Chicago:

LEFT-HANDED HEAVY

There are five lefty bats in the lineup, a potential downside. But there also figures to be more power on the bench. Mark Reynolds, who has hit 20 or more homers each of the last seven seasons, was signed as a free agent. He could factor in as a semi-regular, especially at first base, where Matt Adams has struggled against lefties.

HEYWARD TIME

Only 25, Heyward is a potential future core member of the franchise. His is eligible for free agency after the World Series, and the wooing began not long after the trade with Atlanta – which also brought set-up man Jordan Walden.

”He fits in very well with how our guys work, how seriously they take the game,” Matheny said. ”He’s mixed in very well to this point.”

IMPROVED POP

St. Louis hit just 105 homers last season, second-fewest in the majors. They Cardianls are anticipating more out of right field from Heyward, who had a career-low 11 last year while forced into the leadoff spot with Atlanta. Jhonny Peralta followed his drug suspension with a 21 homers, a franchise record among shortstops, and the smooth-swinging Adams is capable of hitting a lot more than 15.

HEALTHY CHOICES

A full return by Garcia would be an unexpected bonus after two injury-filled seasons. Wainwright and Lynn are recovering from health setbacks early in spring training. Center fielder Jon Jay made a delayed exhibition debut following wrist surgery. ”I said the whole goal was to be ready April 5,” Jay said.

MORE SPEED

Along with increasing the power profile, there will be an emphasis on manufacturing runs. The Cardinals stole 57 bases last year, third-fewest in the major leagues, but are primed for at least a little more thievery with both Wong and Heyward capable of swiping 20-plus.

”I want to see bigger leads. I want to see more aggressive chances with balls in the dirt,” Matheny said. ”I want to see us take a first-and-second double steal because we have the kind of players to do that.”