By Rob Rains
Back in February, before the Cardinals reported to the start of spring training in Florida, the biggest questions facing the team were simple, baseball-related issues that promised to sort themselves out over the course of a six-week camp.
Who would be the starting left fielder? Who would hit cleanup? Would Carlos Martinez be a starter or the closer?
Those were some of the questions back then, in what seems a long time ago, that Mike Shildt and his staff were hoping to answer.
As the Cardinals and baseball attempt to come back from the shut down of the sport caused by the coronavirus pandemic, an entire new list of questions will greet the start of their summer camp on Friday at Busch Stadium.
The old questions remain, even if they have been pushed down the list, and Shildt said the staff will use the knowledge of what happened prior to the games stopping on March 12 to help decide how the team will look when the delayed, 60-game season begins on July 24.
“I think it’s a hybrid,” Shildt said of combining the information from four months ago with what happens the next three weeks. “We can’t ignore what we saw. We always gather information and process it, weigh it accordingly. We have a reference point to draw off, where we are and where we were. … There is constant evaluation.”
As the new evaluations begin, here are the 10 biggest questions facing the Cardinals:
- Are all the health and safety protocols really going to work and keep players and staff safe from the coronavirus?
Nobody knows; not the commissioner, not the owners, not the team executives, not the players, not the media, not the fans. It is seemingly impossible to predict where COVID-19 cases will spike, and what that could mean to the completion of the season and the postseason. What would have to happen for the game to shut down again? John Mozeliak, the Cardinals president of baseball operations, said that is the kind of question that keeps him up at night with worry. The team will do what it can to protect people once they are inside the bubble of Busch Stadium and at the other ballparks, but it’s what could potentially happen away from the ballpark that creates the most fear.
- If Dylan Carlson tears up the camp, will he really not make the opening day roster?
This is a much easier question and can be answered in one word – yes. The reason is baseball economics 101. By keeping Carlson off the roster for six games/days when he is 21 years old, they will gain an extra year of control over his contract when he is 27 years old instead of him becoming a free agent, at least under the rules of the current CBA. Don’t expect to see Zack Thompson the opening week for the same reason. It might be different in a full season, but playing only 60 games the team does not want to give up that year of control for one week’s worth of games.
The only way this might change would be if both Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas suffered some kind of injury in camp, forcing the Cardinals to play Carlson.
- How will the expanded roster change the makeup of the team?
To accommodate for the shorter camp, just 19 days of workouts, each team will be allowed to carry 30 players for the first two weeks of the season, four more than usual. The Cardinals are expected to have a roster breakdown of either 16 or 17 pitchers with 13 or 14 position players. At least three of the extra players, if not all four, will probably be pitchers so it gives more opportunities for pitchers who would have been on the bubble to make a 13-man staff. Another bullpen spot opened up with the injury to John Brebbia which will sideline him for the season. At the moment, which could change, the Cardinals are bringing 22 pitchers to camp with all but a couple likely under consideration to make the opening day roster.
After the first two weeks, the roster limit will drop to 28 players and then it will go down again to 26 after two weeks, where it will stay for the remainder of the season.
- What changes by adding the designated hitter?
It should give more at-bats, at least initially, to O’Neill and Thomas and should create more of an opportunity for Tommy Edman to get in the lineup, at a variety of positions. Matt Carpenter makes sense as a frequent DH with Edman then available to play third base. The Cardinals do not expect to have one player consistently in the lineup as their DH but expect to rotate the position among several players. It’s possible there will be days when Paul DeJong is the DH with Edman playing shortstop. Backup catcher Matt Wieters even could see some games as the DH when they want another left-handed hitter in the lineup.
On a team that likely will be searching for offense, having an extra hitter in the lineup everyday instead of a pitcher batting can only help.
- Will the Cardinals be able to resist using Jordan Hicks at the start of the season if he has a great camp?
Probably. They will try to be cautious and they do have other options to fill the closer role. Still, the expectation before this season was interrupted was that Hicks should be ready to pitch around the All-Star break, which was to be in mid-July. The hardest part of deciding if Hicks is ready, of course, is that there are no minor league games where he can go and pitch on a rehab assignment. He will have to get his work in during live BP’s and simulated games. Trying to ease him back into game action, however, only makes sense to help both the team this season and to be sure he is ready for a full year as the closer in 2021.
- If Hicks isn’t the closer, then who gets the job?
It probably will be a committee approach, depending on both the opponent and the batters they would be scheduled to face in the ninth inning. Andrew Miller could get some of those assignments if there are key left-handed hitters coming up, or it could be either Giovanny Gallegos or Ryan Helsley on most nights. An interesting, dark-horse candidate might be Alex Reyes if he is healthy and has an impressive camp.
- Did Carlos Martinez train diligently over the last three months while baseball was shut down?
Mozeliak admitted that it was tougher to get information about players who spent their time in the Dominican Republic than it was for players training in either Jupiter or St. Louis, which might make Martinez the most evaluated player in the camp’s first few days. He was very diligent with his workouts last winter, and he was impressive in the spring in Florida, and the Cardinals hope he is still in a good spot as this camp opens. Barring a setback, he is still the favorite for the open spot in the rotation, with Kwang Hyun Kim sliding into a relief role.
- How much will what happened in March influence decisions being made in July?
Shildt says information from the spring can’t be ignored, which likely means that unless something changes Kolten Wong will be the primary leadoff hitter and DeJong the normal cleanup hitter. The fact that Dexter Fowler had a very poor spring should also be considered, however, but there probably won’t be enough information over the next three weeks to change his status as the opening day right fielder. Carpenter also had a slow spring but figures to be a starter at either third base or as the DH.
- What will be the biggest battle in camp?
As it stands at the opening of camp, the only starting position that appears up for grabs is in left field, which will probably come down to a decision between Thomas and O’Neill, one of whom could also become the DH. Carlson will get a chance, and the look of the lineup could change a week into games in early August. There also will be competition to be the closer, but as mentioned, that job is expected to rotate between a number of relievers.
- Of the projected starters, who has the shortest leash if he struggles in camp?
Probably Harrison Bader. It could be Fowler or Carpenter, but they will likely get the benefit of the doubt because of being veterans. Still, in a 60-game season, the Cardinals can not afford to be as patient with any struggling hitter as they could in a 162-game season – especially if the team gets off to a slow start. Only 15 games, basically two weeks, will equal one-fourth of the schedule. Bader has to prove he can hit enough to stay in the starting lineup, especially if Thomas and O’Neill are hot and Carlson is waiting for his turn.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Cardinals via Twitter