Cardinals leaving Florida with just a few more things to figure out

When to rest Yadier Molina and his knees during the regular season will be as tough a task as any manager Mike Matheny deals with this season.

Jeff Roberson/AP

ST. LOUIS — Much can be learned about a team in 42 days of spring training. The Cardinals found out that Kolten Wong is ready for his shot, Jhonny Peralta will fit in fine and Peter Bourjos can dazzle at a ping-pong table as well as in center field.

Valuable lessons, all. Still, the club left Florida without gathering all the information about the upcoming season. Most of what they didn’t learn was either out of their control or not yet ready to be discerned. A look at five intriguing unsolved mysteries as Opening Day approaches.

OSCAR TAVERAS

The club’s top prospect did not enjoy the breakout camp he needed — and that was anticipated by many — to have a chance to make the majors. Not even close. In fact, lingering ailments seemed to have spawned new ailments as well as shaken his confidence and dented his status.

But when you think about how players coming off major injuries typically need a "recovery" season (think Adam Wainwright in 2012) before fully regaining their stride, Taveras’ spring shortcomings should not be that much of a mystery.

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His ankle injury, in fact, was significant enough that it might take him until next year to find his top form. Disappointing, for sure, to lose that much time. But let’s not forget — he’s only 21.

THE BULLPEN

First, let’s face it. Filling the last spot in the bullpen is only so important. That finding the right man for the seventh reliever’s job was perhaps the biggest question facing the Cardinals when they left Florida speaks more to the strength of the club than to any weaknesses. Some teams, after all, still haven’t identified their fifth starter.

But there were some real issues with the relief corps. Namely, Seth Maness. The double-play guy had an up-and-down spring, literally and figuratively. More outings than not, Maness had trouble sinking his pitches. When he left them up, hitters were not hitting grounders to the infield.

It looked like Maness just needed some time to find a groove because he enjoyed some clean outings midway through March. But he was hit hard Tuesday, his last time out, leaving him with an ugly spring stat line: 21 hits and 11 runs allowed in 11 1/3 innings.

When Carlos Martinez struggled in his first relief outing, you could not help but wonder if his psyche was bruised after being left out of the rotation despite enjoying the most consistent spring of any starter on the team. But two points: It was just one outing and — remember Milwaukee — Yadier Molina was not catching.

MARK ELLIS’ ROLE

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Well, he won’t be the starter at second base, which he was beginning to look like when Kolten Wong struggled in the first week of exhibition games. But Wong broke out and Ellis came up with a sore knee that cost him more a week of at-bats.

We’re not sure how much Ellis will play elsewhere, either. He put in only three innings at third base during spring training and did not play any shortstop, which wasn’t a surprise.

If Wong keeps hitting when the games count like he has the past three weeks, Ellis figures to be limited to pinch-hitting and double-switching duties, along with occasional starts against left-handers.

The Cardinals are scheduled to face two lefties in opening week, Tony Cigrani in the second game in Cincinnati and Francisco Liriano in the second game in Pittsburgh. My guess: Ellis gets the start against Liriano.

YADIER MOLINA’S REST

Wanting to save his knees as much as possible for the regular season, Mike Matheny did not put Molina behind the plate until the fifth day of the exhibition season. He also did not make Molina take but one long bus trip.

But when Molina was catching, he was behind the plate a lot. He finished the spring with 79 innings caught, 30 1/3 fewer than the spring-training leader, the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy, but still 20 more than Cardinals backup Tony Cruz.


Molina still should be much more equipped for the long grind of the season because he did not lead Puerto Rico to the finals of the WBC as he did last year. When to rest him during the regular season will be as tough a task as any Matheny deals with this season. Molina is the team’s most indispensable player and will plead to play and Matheny wants to win. But with such a drop off between Molina and Cruz — which hardly is a shot at the backup — keeping Molina strong for the entire season is crucial to the Cardinals’ success.

THE REGULAR-SEASON SCHEDULE

Matheny typically wouldn’t say who was starting the exhibition game two days away so you know he had little time to think about the first six weeks of the regular season. He is unlikely to even when the season begins, either.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.