Who bats second? What happens to Kozma? Cardinals still face several decisions
JUPITER, Fla. — If you’re not happy with the outcome of the Cardinals’ most intriguing decision of the spring, remember this: It’s a long, long season.
You can count on Carlos Martinez getting a chance to start at some point in it. But with the 22-year-old right-hander expected to be limited to 170 innings or so in his first full big-league season, the Cardinals are wise to break him in as the eighth-inning guy. Save his starts for the end of the season, a la Michael Wacha in 2013.
In the meantime, Martinez still can impact games and manager Mike Matheny can define bullpen roles from the very beginning of the season. As the scouts often tell me, the team that lines up its bullpen first usually becomes the team to beat.
When Jason Motte returns, the Cardinals then can adjust from a position of strength. And when — OK, if — Jaime Garcia makes it back, the Cardinals will face yet another decision about how to use all of their pitching depth. You can ask any team in the majors: These are no-wrong-answer-type questions they would love to deal with.
Five other key questions Matheny and Co. need to answer before the March 31 regular-season opener at Cincinnati are not exactly season-make-or-breakers, either. But again, that shows how well this club is set up for the 2014 season.
HOW DOES THE ROTATION LINE UP?
Adam Wainwright was anointed Opening Day starter soon after pitchers and catchers reported to Florida, but Matheny has just gotten around to naming who will follow.
The manager told reporters Monday morning that Wacha will start the Cardinals’ second game — which puts him on turn for the April 7 home opener — and the rest of the rotation has fallen into place. Lance Lynn will go the third game, Shelby Miller the fourth and just-named starter Joe Kelly assumes No. 5.
With Matheny planning to use two off days in the first two weeks to give all of his starters an extra day between turns, the opening homestand that begins April 7 shapes up like this: Wacha, Lynn and Miller against the Reds on April 7, 8 and 9, and Kelly, Wainwright and Wacha against the Cubs on April 11, 12 and 13.
WHO HITS SECOND?
Kolten Wong’s strong spring has made the answer to this question a little less obvious. With his speed and plate discipline, Wong projects as a top-of-the-order guy. Someday, that is.
But despite hitting .372 in spring training following an 0-for-10 start, the Cardinals still are likely to ease Wong into the season by batting him seventh. That would leave Jhonny Peralta as the most likely candidate for the two-hole. Peralta hasn’t hit in that spot much in his big-league career, but he is more proven than Wong and coming off a better season than Peter Bourjos. Matheny says his top prerequisite for the two-hole job is on-base percentage, but he likes the power Peralta can provide.
WHERE DOES BOURJOS HIT?
From the day general manager John Mozeliak announced the trade for the speedy center fielder, he has talked about what a good fit he makes in the eight-hole. Being able to draw walks by hitting in front of the pitcher is a near-certain way to improve Bourjos’ .306 career OBP. Put him on ahead of a pitcher and you won’t need them to sacrifice as often, either. The Cardinals wanted Bourjos for his speed, and they intend to let him use it.
WHO MAKES THE BULLPEN?
Somewhat surprisingly, hard-throwing lefty Sam Freeman was sent down Sunday, leaving a three-man competition among right-handers Keith Butler, Jorge Rondon and Scott McGregor for the seventh and final place in the bullpen.
McGregor holds an edge because he was a starter last season in the minors and the club needs a long man. Butler, the only one of the three with big-league experience, and Rondon both served mainly as short-inning relievers last season.
WHAT HAPPENS TO KOZMA?
Mozeliak has admitted sending the regular shortstop for a pennant-winning team to the minors would be difficult. But the Cardinals figure to do just that with Pete Kozma. He has looked better at the plate this spring and remains the team’s best defensive infielder but still hasn’t done enough to beat out Daniel Descalso for the utility infield job. Kozma won’t move past Mark Ellis as the backup second baseman, either.
Kozma told me recently he went into the off-season expecting the Cardinals to find an offensive upgrade, and he has handled a tough situation with nothing but professionalism. That won’t make it any easier to accept a decision to return to the minors, but he really has no other choice.
Sometimes it’s difficult to be employed by a team that operates from such a position of strength.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.