5 St. Louis Cardinal questions as Spring Training opens

St. Louis Cardinals

ST. LOUIS– As Spring Training begins in earnest this week for the Cardinals in Jupiter, the team welcomes back generational franchise stalwarts in Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, while adding a new star in third baseman Nolan Arenado. Here’s a look at a diamond-full of storylines the team hopes to answer before breaking camp next month:

  1. Who bats leadoff? Tommy Edman would seem likely to get an early first crack, although he and the Cardinals will be hoping his production matches his 2019 line (BA/OBP/SLUG/OPS)

All of those numbers dipped in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, particularly the OPS, which dipped to .685.

Dylan Carlson could also be a candidate, as he could be a candidate in the 2nd slot or even the cleanup role.

2. Rotation Outlook: Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright and KK Kim have three spots locked down. How the other spots shake out will be health-dependent and may be one reason why rumors persisted that the team was investigating starting pitchers still on the free agent market.

Is Miles Mikolas fully recovered from surgery last summer on a flexor tendon? Carlos Martinez, entering the final year of his contract (with two option years remaining), told reporters Wednesday that he’s “100 percent ready” and focused on starting, saying that his 2020 performance was impacted by COVID and complicated by asthma.

JUPITER, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 21: Carlos Martinez #18 of the St. Louis Cardinals poses for a photo during photo days at Roger Dean Stadium on February 21, 2019 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Proud new dad Daniel Poncedeleon is firmly in the mix, trying to show he can get through more innings without burning up his pitch count. Alex Reyes will get a chance to stretch out as a starter. Johan Oveido impressed when called upon to start in 2021. Genesis Cabrera is also a tantalizing talent.

Minor league prospects Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson, who spent 2020 in the Springfield Satellite Camp, will be in big league camp this spring. They could both see St. Louis at some point in 2021, but could they break camp in the rotation?

3. Back End Bullpen: Jordan Hicks returns after opting out of 2020, but Mike Shildt said Wednesday it’s too soon to name a closer. Reyes, Ryan Helsley, Andrew Miller, Giovanny Gallegos, John Gant, Tyler Webb, Kodi Whitley all figure to have some prominent roles getting from innings 6-9.

4. Outfield Production: The trade for Nolan Arenado may take a fraction of the pressure off players like Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Dylan Carlson and Harrison Bader when it comes to producing eye-popping power statistics, but only ever-so-slightly.

ST LOUIS, MO – JULY 15: Tyler O’Neill #41 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits his second two-run home run of the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the seventh inning at Busch Stadium on July 15, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Cardinals made clear by trading Dexter Fowler that this would be the year the team figures out what it has in the outfield. Thomas gets a chance to show what he can do, having been sidelined in the past by injury and COVID; O’Neill and Bader get to show if they’re able to cut down on strikeouts and produce offensively the way they already can on defense. Carlson, after struggling early last year and getting sent to the Satellite Camp, returned and even manned the cleanup spot for the Cardinals. Does he take over right field, or will he move around, based on matchups? Justin Williams will also be in this mix, after getting a look in the 2020 summer camp.

5. Bench roles: After spending the past few seasons trying to regain the offensive form he showed in 2018 when he hit 36 home runs and had an OPS of .897, Carpenter will start the season as a lefty bat on the bench since there is no universal designated hitter (at least as of yet). With Arenado and Goldschmidt not likely to miss many games (health-permitting), Carpenter could see some getaway day starts at second base.

The Cardinals did not shore up their backup infield inventory in the offseason. Will they need someone able to spell Paul DeJong at shortstop so he doesn’t wear down offensively? This would be the year for Edmundo Sosa to prove he can do it.

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About the St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals are one of Major League Baseball’s iconic franchises. The team with the “Birds on the Bat” have won more World Series titles than any other National League club, and are second only to the New York Yankees overall.

St. Louis has been home to a National League franchise since 1892, but the franchise wasn’t known as the Cardinals until 1900.

Behind future Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby, the Cardinals won their first World Series in 1926 over the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig Yankees. The ‘Gashouse Gang’ era Cardinals dominated the 1930s thanks to Dizzy Dean, Johnny Mize and Joe Medwick and won the 1934 World Series.

Did you know that Branch Rickey, who would later rise to fame for bringing Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues and breaking baseball’s color barrier, invented the minor league farm system we know today with the St. Louis Cardinals? It was Rickey who built a system of affiliate teams to grow talent that would later shine in St. Louis. In the 1930s and 1940s, that system produced the likes of future Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst and Enos Slaughter, all of whom won World Series championships for the Cardinals.

The Musial-era Cardinals would later give way to a new generation, and it was Bob Gibson and Lou Brock who helped bring the World Series back to St. Louis in the 1960s. Gibson had one of the most dominant seasons in baseball history in 1968. He was so good baseball lowered the mound the following year.

The 1970s saw the end of the Gibson and Brock years, the trade of Steve Carlton to Philadelphia and the arrival of Keith Hernandez. Hernandez would share the 1979 NL MVP award with Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell.

For the Cardinals, the 1980s could be summed up in a single word: Whiteyball. Behind Manager Whitey Herzog, baseball in St. Louis became synonymous with speed, stolen bases and defense. Shortstop Ozzie Smith was acquired from San Diego, and with Hernandez, second baseman Tommy Herr, a rookie outfielder named Willie McGee and closer Bruce Sutter, the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series over the Milwaukee Brewers. After Hernandez would dealt to the New York Mets, that core of players, along with slugger Jack Clark, would get the Cardinals to two more World Series trips that decade.

The 1980s saw the end of the Gussie Busch ownership era for the Cardinals. When he died in 1989, the Anheuser-Busch brewery took over after nearly 40 years under his watch.

In 1996 the brewery sold the club to the ownership group still led today by Bill DeWitt, Jr. The DeWitt family brought in former Oakland A’s manager Tony LaRussa, who would go on to be the winningest manager in team history. With another former Oakland hand running the front office in Walt Jocketty, the team acquired Mark McGwire from the A’s in 1997. The slugging first baseman would break Roger Maris’ single-season record for Home Runs in 1998 in a chase with Sammy Sosa that captivated the nation, only later to be tainted by the use of performance-enhancing drugs that McGwire admitted to years later.

In 2001, a young rookie named Albert Pujols burst on the St. Louis scene. Playing all over the field, he was the runaway winner of the National League MVP, setting the stage for the most dominant decade of offensive performance ever seen in a player’s first ten years in Major League Baseball. Catcher Yadier Molina came on board in 2004 as the Cardinals made their first World Series appearance since 1987. Two years later, a rookie pitcher named Adam Wainwright would fill in as the closer on a club that won its first World Series since 1982.

The Cardinals’ third World Series appearance in eight seasons may have been the most improbable when it came in 2011. A team that was left for dead at the start of September managed to roar into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season behind the pitching heroics of Chris Carpenter down the stretch. Once in the playoffs, the legend of David Freese was born. Freese, a St. Louis County native, won the National League Championship Series MVP by slugging three home runs against Milwaukee. Then in the World Series against Texas, down to the team’s last strike in what would have been a Rangers clincher, a Freese triple tied the game. A Freese home run in extra innings forced a Game 7, which the Cardinals won, bringing an 11th World Series crown home.

Albert Pujols left via free agency in the offseason and LaRussa retired, but the Cardinals kept moving forward, reaching the 2013 World Series against the Boston Red Sox with former catcher Mike Matheny now managing the club. In some respects, the Cardinals are still recovering from what happened October 26, 2014, when outfielder Oscar Taveras, considered a potentially generational talent who could have become the face of the franchise, died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.

The Matheny era would last 6.5 seasons, until he was replaced by current manager Mike Shildt in 2018.


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