ST. LOUIS — The long-awaited start of spring training means more than photographs of Cardinals having fun in the Florida sunshine.
It means questions, lots of them, about the upcoming season.
But there’s no need to wait until April to learn the answers. We’ve got answers to five key questions about the pitching staff right here, and camp hasn’t even officially opened. Who knows? We could even be right with a couple of them.
We’ll do the same for the position players later.
1. Answer: Workload and pitch efficiency.
Question: What will Mike Matheny talk about most regarding his pitching staff during camp?
Explanation: Don’t look for the Cardinals to publicly specify any innings limits for their pitchers, but several can count on their workloads being scrutinized even closer than usual. Among them: Adam Wainwright, who is coming off an offseason elbow "clean-up" and has worked more innings than any pitcher in the majors over the past three seasons; Michael Wacha, who is coming back from a stress reaction in his right shoulder that cost him nearly half of 2014; and Carlos Martinez, who is looking at his first full season in the rotation.
As for pitch efficiency, the club already has talked plenty with — and about — Martinez and the importance of working deeper into games. Martinez isn’t the only one who could benefit from throwing more strikes. Trevor Rosenthal, who won’t have the excuse of being in his first full season as a closer in 2015, averaged 5.4 walks per nine innings last year. Marco Gonzales, Sam Freeman and Kevin Siegrist were other Cardinals pitchers to average at least 4.5 walks per nine innings.
Explanation: The Cardinals’ brain trust has talked a lot about the 23-year-old lefty beginning this season where he finished last: in the Cardinals’ bullpen. But having him start in Class AAA makes more sense. Three reasons:
— As long as Siegrist is healthy — so far, so good (I know, it’s early) — Gonzales’ services in the bullpen are not as needed. Randy Choate, Freeman and Siegrist give the Cardinals a solid trio of lefty relievers.
— Keeping Gonzales stretched out would allow him to step into the rotation when needed, and a sixth starter will be needed. Even if the rotation can avoid injuries, the club figures to give Martinez and Wacha a break at some point. Gonzales could step in and gain experience, and the club would not have to pursue a starter from outside the organization. Lefty Tyler Lyons is another sixth-starter candidate, but Gonzales so far has been the better pitcher of the two.
— Freeman is out of options, so if he doesn’t make the 25-man roster, he could be pitching for another club very soon. The Cardinals could trade him or another of their lefties, but they should hold off making a move until they need to. Hanging onto your assets is a sound strategy, especially when all it costs is a young starter such as Gonzales having to spend more time in the minors before he reaches the majors for good.
3. Answer: Jaime Garcia.
Question: Which Cardinals pitcher is least likely to be ready for Opening Day?
Explanation: Yes, I know the offseason reports have been positive following 2014’s season-ending thoracic outlet surgery. And yes, Garcia should be more motivated than ever because his contract expires after the season. (There’s little chance the Cardinals will pick up his 2016 option for $12 million.)
But after three straight injury-filled seasons, it’s difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the health of his left arm. Besides, if he’s ready on April 5, my answer to question No. 2 would have to change. One place where Garcia doesn’t figure to land: the bullpen. The Cardinals don’t believe he can warm up quickly enough or bounce back strong enough from steady use.
4. Answer: Jordan Walden.
Question: Who is the Cardinals’ pitcher you’re most likely to hear the least from during spring training (and regular season)?
Explanation: Walden has a reputation for not saying a whole lot, and he has done nothing to dispel that since he was traded to the Cardinals. He avoided a conference call with reporters after the trade and he didn’t do any sort of presser before or after he signed autographs on the last day of the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up.
An admittedly quiet guy, maybe Walden has tired of answering questions about his odd-looking delivery, during which he hops in mid-motion and releases the ball well in front of the rubber.
5. Answer: Carlos Villanueva.
Question: Who has the best chance of shaking up these plans to the pitching staff?
Explanation: Villanueva is an established major leaguer who signed with the Cardinals on a minor league deal. While the 31-year-old right-hander has started and relieved in the majors, he has done his best work out of the bullpen. If he pitches well in spring training, he could be their first choice to open the season in the majors if Siegrist isn’t quite ready and Gonzales is starting in the minors.
Even if Siegrist is ready, the Cardinals could go with two lefties and keep Villanueva. In addition to serving as a long reliever, he could make a valuable mentor for Martinez, a fellow Dominican. Martinez would benefit from having another pitcher on staff who can speak Spanish, especially one who has handled both relieving and starting roles.