By Rob Rains
As the Cardinals begin arriving in Florida in advance of the official start of spring training, here are the top 10 storylines to follow over the next six weeks before the regular season opens on March 26:
- Who will win the job as the starter in left field?
The pre-camp favorite to emerge as the starter on opening day is Tyler O’Neill. Of the three primary contenders – O’Neill, Lane Thomas and Dylan Carlson – O’Neill has the most major-league experience. He has teased the Cardinals with his potential, especially for a team which could be short on home-run hitters, and at 24 deserves more of a regular chance than he has received the last couple of years. Part of the reason O’Neill hasn’t received regular playing time, however, is that he hasn’t proved that he can stay healthy – another challenge he faces this spring. How well O’Neill plays this spring will also be measured against the springs for both Thomas and Carlson. There also of course is no guarantee that whoever starts in left field on opening day will still be there in September, or even June.
- Can Harrison Bader hit enough to remain the starting center fielder?
Bader comes to come as the projected starter in center, but he also will face competition from the other young outfielders, especially Thomas, who has shown in brief glimpses that he is probably only a slight tick behind Bader in defensive ability. Bader’s defense isn’t a question, but on a team looking for more offense, the question the Cardinals will have to answer this spring is if Bader can provide that upgrade. No matter how good of a defender he is, Bader is not going to hold on to his starting spot this season as a .205 hitter. He is confident that he can hit for a much higher average than that. Time will tell.
- Will Carlos Martinez be a starter or the closer?
Martinez has been very vocal about wanting to start, and there is an opening in the Cardinals’ rotation. Like Bader, however, Martinez has a lot to prove this spring if he wants to move back into the rotation. Primarily he has to show that he has recovered from the weak shoulder which prompted the Cardinals to drop him from the rotation and move him into the bullpen last year, believing that he did not have the physical stamina to hold up as a starter. Martinez has been more diligent in his workouts this winter, and the front office has expressed optimism about his health. This decision won’t be made in a vacuum, however. With Jordan Hicks likely out until at least the All-Star break, even if Martinez is healthy enough to start, the Cardinals will have to decide if they would be better off with him closing instead of being in the rotation.
- How much can the Cardinals expect from Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler?
This potentially could be the most important storyline of the spring, because so many other decisions could spin off how Carpenter and Fowler play. Their contracts guarantee both will get a long look, but the Cardinals do have options should one or both of them fail to perform. The pressure is more on Carpenter based on last season’s results, and the fact Tommy Edman proved in 2019 he can be a reliable third baseman and offensive contributor, Fowler’s spot also could be in jeopardy depending on how all of the young outfielders perform.
- Who will be the cleanup hitter?
The free-agent loss of Marcell Ozuna not only opened up a spot in left field but also in the cleanup slot. The only two players on the roster who started more than three games as the fourth-place hitter last year were Paul Goldschmidt (17) and O’Neill (12) but the favorite to hit there going into this season could be Paul DeJong. O’Neill might be a more traditional power-first hitter in that spot, but just as important this year for the Cardinals will be the balance of the lineup, where DeJong’s experience should give him the edge. What DeJong will have to do better than he did a year ago, however, is come through with runners in scoring position. He hit just .193 with a man on second or third in 2019.
- What will be Kwang Hyun Kim’s role?
The only pitcher added to the 40-man roster this winter from outside the organization is the 31-year-old Korean, who signed a two-year contract. Kim has primarily been a starter in his career and last year in Korea was 17-6 with a 2.58 ERA in 190 innings with 180 strikeouts and only 38 walks. Kim also has been told he might be used as a reliever this season, depending on how his competition with Martinez goes for the open spot in the Cardinals’ rotation. The Cardinals have had success lately in signing pitchers from the Far East (Miles Mikolas and Seung Hwan Oh) and hope that luck continues with Kim.
- How does Alex Reyes look?
The last three seasons have basically been lost years because of injuries for Reyes, at one time considered among the best pitching prospects in the game but who has pitched a combined seven innings for the Cardinals since 2017. Reyes is still only 25, but all of those injuries have left him without those high expectations coming into this year’s camp. All Reyes really has to do this spring is prove that he is healthy and the rest should take care of itself. He is not being counted on to make the major-league roster, which should help him be able to focus on his health. If he can regain his past form, Reyes could be a wild card for the pitching staff as either a starter or reliever.
- Does Matthew Liberatore look as good in person as advertised?
The Cardinals will get their first look at Liberatore since they acquired the 20-year-old left-hander in a trade from Tampa Bay. He instantly became the top pitching prospect in the organization and the Cardinals are eager to watch him in person this spring. They won’t be rushing Liberatore, however, and after he pitched in the low Class A Midwest League last summer it would not be a surprise if he begins this year at high Class A Palm Beach, but expectations are he will be in the rotation at Double A Springfield by the middle of the year. If he is as good as advertised, Liberatore probably will rank as the Cardinals’ best left-handed prospect since Rick Ankiel 20 years ago.
- Can the Cardinals find enough playing time for Tommy Edman?
The answer to this question could hinge on how some of the previous questions on this list work out. Because of his versatility Edman could likely start in at least six positions – the five he started at last year (LF, CF, RF, 3B and 2B) plus shortstop, where he will certainly get time this spring to prepare him to step in when DeJong needs a day off. In an ideal world, the Cardinals would like to bounce Edman all over the field but in order for that to happen all of their other projected regulars need to be playing well or it would make sense for Edman to just move into whatever spot he is needed the most and play there on a regular basis.
- Who will be the surprise of camp and force his way onto the opening-day roster?
This is an annual question and it usually happens. Even if Edman did not make the opening day roster last season, his strong spring put him into a spot where he was promoted early in the year. Carlson could do the same thing this spring, or even become the opening day starter if he lights it up in March and some of the other young players struggle or have injury problems. One change this year is the addition of a 26th-man on the roster, which could give the Cardinals a chance to keep somebody like Rangel Ravelo, primarily a pinch-hitter, or a third catcher such as Andrew Knizner, which would free up Matt Wieters to be used as more of a pinch-hitter than would be the case if there were only two catchers on the roster.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports