By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – As the Cardinals pitchers and catchers take the field for the first time on Wednesday to mark the start of spring training, here is a look at the 10 biggest questions facing the team which manager Mike Shildt and staff will need to answer between now and the April 1 start of the regular season:
1. Is it safe?
Everybody hopes so, but nobody really knows. The owners and commissioner’s office had enough concerns about it that they wanted to delay the opening of camps for a month but that request was rejected by the player’s association. Many of the same health and safety protocols from the 2020 season will be in place, with a reduced number of fans in the stands, but teams won’t be under the protective bubble that let them complete the shortened 2020 season. There is a limit on how many players and instructors can be in camp, and workouts will be staggered to try to reduce the number of people who are together at any one time. The schedule was reduced to 24 games, with less travel, and the length of games might even be shorter in the early portion of the schedule, all in an attempt to keep everybody safe. Players and staff will be asked to follow the guidelines, but whether that actually happens or not could be the determining factor on whether or not a team has an outbreak. Everybody is keeping their fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen. The biggest thing baseball hopes to avoid is having to shut down spring training, as they did a year ago, which would in turn force a delay to the start of the regular season.
2. Who will hit leadoff?
There really seems to be only two legitimate candidates, Dylan Carlson and Tommy Edman, and whoever doesn’t win the job likely will end up hitting second. Both bring some intriguing possibilities to the role. Each is a switch-hitter, while Carlson is more of a power threat. Edman likely will hit for a slightly higher average, but Carlson’s strong plate discipline could lead to more walks and a higher on-base percentage. Neither will be a major base-stealing threat, but neither are slow runners either and both should be able to pick their spots where they can steal bases. No matter which way they line up, the goal will be for both to get on base as often as possible in front of Paul Goldschmidt, most likely hitting third, with Nolan Arenado following in the cleanup spot, giving the team’s two best hitters more RBI opportunities.
3. Who will emerge as the fifth starter?
There will be several pitchers who come into camp with the intent of having them on a starter’s schedule, but realistically the battle is probably a two-man competition between Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes. Martinez has made his desire to start well known in the past, and Reyes is an intriguing choice. Either also could be an option at the back end of the bullpen, working as a closer on the days when Jordan Hicks is not available. What will be interesting to watch with all of the starters is how the team manages their workload after all threw so many fewer innings than normal last season. It’s possible the team decides to use a six- starter approach as one way to do that, which could allow both Martinez and Reyes to start. They also could have a piggyback approach where basically they use two “starters” in each game, trying to cover six or seven innings between them. The depth of starting candidates available would seem to make that a viable option.
4. Is Jordan Hicks healthy and ready to pitch?
Hicks decided not to pitch last season for two reasons. He was coming off Tommy John surgery, and really wasn’t ready when the delayed season started in July, and he also was at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because he is a Type 1 diabetic. Those extra months gave him more time to rest and build up his arm, but there really won’t be an answer about where Hicks is physically until he starts throwing this spring. One hurdle he will have to overcome is that there really won’t be any opportunities for him to pitch in minor-league games on the back fields to try to ease his way back into competition. The one advantage he does have is that as the closer, he really won’t be asked to pitch more than an inning at a time.
5. How will the outfield at-bats be divided up?
The surprising trade of Dexter Fowler to the Angels reinforced the Cardinals’ commitment to giving their young outfielders a chance to play this season, believing 2020 was not really a fair opportunity for them to show their ability. Carlson projects as the everyday right fielder with Fowler gone, and Harrison Bader as of now should get the most starts in center field. Both Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas need to get work. Thomas can play center on days Bader doesn’t play, but since all three are right-handed hitters there really is not a strict platoon situation available. The Cardinals will no doubt use analytics to try to find the best matchups for all three on a particular day and that will help determine who is in the lineup on a daily basis. Two other outfielders are on the 40-man roster, Justin Williams and Austin Dean, but their chances likely will be limited.
6. Can Matt Carpenter succeed in a reduced role?
Once the Cardinals traded for Arenado, Carpenter’s best hope for playing time was if the NL adopted the designated hitter rule again for this season, but at least as of now that hasn’t happened. That will reduce Carpenter to being primarily a pinch-hitter and occasionally giving Arenado, Goldschmidt or maybe even Edman a day off. Carpenter, in the final year of his contract, did have some success as a pinch-hitter in the second half of the 2019 season so there is hope he can do that again. It certainly would help the Cardinals if he can do that, as they were a collective 1-of-29 in pinch-hitting at-bats last season.
7. Who will be the backup middle infielder?
The only candidate currently on the roster is Edmundo Sosa, but it would seem likely the Cardinals will try to bring in somebody with a little more experience, even if it is on a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training. A player such as former Cardinal Greg Garcia might have been a good candidate, but he recently signed with the Tigers. With the expectation that Arenado, Paul DeJong and Edman will be playing virtually every game, there will not be a lot of at-bats available for whoever fills this role, and it might make sense to keep Sosa playing on a regular basis at Memphis in case he is needed to fill in if one of those three should suffer an injury and have to miss more than just a day or two. One interesting candidate to watch this spring is non-roster invitee Jose Rondon, who was signed as a free agent in December. He has major-league experience with the Padres, White Sox and Orioles, and hit well this winter playing in his native Venezuela.
8. Who gets squeezed out of a spot because of numbers in the bullpen competition?
This promises to be the most competitive part of the spring. With a 26-man roster, the Cardinals likely will open with 13 or 14 pitchers. Assuming nobody is injured, there are probably at least seven relievers assured on being on the roster, meaning the rest of a talented group will be battling it out for either one or two spots. Pitchers such as Seth Elledge, Kodi Whitley, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo performed well when they had a chance last season, but could fall victim to the numbers game this spring and might have to begin the year in Triple A. There are 22 pitchers on the 40-man roster, and only one of them – Angel Rondon – did not pitch in the majors last season.
9. Will a surprise candidate emerge and play his way onto the opening day roster?
It will be hard. If the Cardinals decide to go with 14 pitchers to open the season, that would leave them with only four bench spots. One woutd be reserved for the backup catcher, almost certainly Andrew Knizner, one would be Matt Carpenter and one would be a fourth outfielder, most likely Lane Thomas. That would leave only one open spot for either a backup middle infielder or another outfielder. Having a reduced number of spring games also means the regulars will likely play more to be sure they get the at-bats and innings they need to be ready to start the season, which will reduce the playing time, and chances, for a surprise candidate to show that he should make the roster.
10. Of the non-roster players who will be in camp and won’t make the opening day roster, who will be the most intriguing to watch?
Matthew Liberatore. The Cardinals want to see their top pitching prospect pick up this spring where he left off last summer at the alternate site camp. The 21-year-old lefthander should begin this season in the rotation at Double A Springfield, where he could position himself as a candidate should the Cardinals need a starter at some point during the season. Carlos Martinez, Marco Gonzales and Trevor Rosenthal all made the jump directly from Double A to the majors, and there’s no reason to think Liberatore won’t be able to do that as well if he is needed in St. Louis.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains for full Cardinals coverage during spring training
Photo of Mike Shildt by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports