What are the nine biggest questions facing the Cardinals in their shortened spring training?

By Rob Rains

JUPITER, Fla.- During a normal spring training, one that is not affected by Covid or a work stoppage, the Cardinals have about six weeks to come up with answers to the most pressing questions in their camp before the regular-season begins.

This year they have only about three to get that task completed.

From the time the camp begins with the first workout on Monday, there will be 25 days on the calendar before the Cardinals take on the Pirates on April 7 at Busch Stadium.

The schedule calls for 15 games to be played over 19 days, starting on Friday, before the team will leave Florida after the game on April 5 to fly to St. Louis. That is exactly half of the 30 games on the original spring schedule.

That is not a lot of time for new manager Oli Marmol, new bench coach Skip Schumaker and the rest of the Cardinals brain trust to evaluate these nine questions:

  1. How will Marmol be different than the former manager, Mike Shildt?

The answer to this question likely won’t totally be revealed during spring training, where Marmol will do things in much the same manner that Shildt did in his four springs as the Cardinals’ manager. He will pay attention to fundamentals, will be a stickler for details, and will rely heavily on Mike Maddux when it comes to making pitching decisions.

There is not a lot of strategy involved in spring training games, where winning or losing doesn’t really matter, so Marmol will no doubt save his most important decisions for the games that do count. Still, he likely will show that he is a little more open to the use of analytics when it comes to making out a lineup and looking for the most advantageous matchup for either his hitters or pitchers.

Marmol has an advantage over a lot of new managers because he already has a built-in relationship with the bulk of the team’s roster from his five years on the coaching staff, but he will have to navigate the differences in those relationships when you are the manager and not a coach.

  1. Who hits leadoff?

This might be one area where we start to see a difference with Marmol as manager. In the team’s 162 games last season, Tommy Edman was the leadoff hitter in 124 of them. The only other hitter who started in that spot more than once was Dylan Carlson (35 games). The positives for Edman in that role were his nine homers, 33 doubles and 25 stolen bases while occupying the top spot, but his .312 on-base percentage was a little lower than what a team would like out of its leadoff hitter. Combined, the team’s .313 on-base percentage hitting first was the fourth lowest in the majors in 2021.

Edman could well hit there the most of anybody on the team in 2022, but a case could be made – especially with the DH – that using one of the hitters with a higher on-base percentage might be more beneficial. A non pitcher will have to hit ninth, and Edman could also easily slide into that role. Expect there to be more than two players who start more than two games hitting at the top of the lineup this season.

  1. Can Paul DeJong bounce back offensively?

Considering the Cardinals project, at least going into the spring, to have the same eight position players in their normal starting lineup as they had in 2021, the question becomes where can more offense come from, besides the DH spot? DeJong might be the best bet. He certainly will have to hit better than .197 to keep his hold on the shortstop job, and the team would like for him to also get closer to the number of homers (30) he hit in his All-Star season in 2019. DeJong hired a private hitting coach after last season and has been working with him all winter, and this spring, and is pleased with the results. Having success this spring would help him build more confidence that he can find  his 2019 form going into the regular season.

  1. How will they handle the designated hitter spot?

While fans are clamoring for the addition of somebody like Kyle Schwarber, or even the sentimental return of Albert Pujols for this role, all indications from team president John Mozeliak are that the team plans to fill the role internally. This would be similar to last season, when many people hoped the Cardinals would sign an external outfielder, but the team made a commitment to Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Carlson and the results showed that was the right choice. Now, expect Juan Yepez and Lars Nootbaar to get a lot of the DH at-bats, perhaps with the addition of Nolan Gorman. The team also can spread the at-bats around by using Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, DeJong, O’Neill and others as the DH to give them an occasional day off from playing the field but keep their bat in the lineup.

  1. What do they do with Jordan Hicks?

Before this question can be answered, the Cardinals have to know if Hicks is healthy, which has not been the case since 2019. If he is ready to pitch, and the team is serious about having him transition into a starting role, that probably won’t happen immediately in the major leagues. Even if they decide to make him into a hybrid multi-inning reliever, he likely is going to have to get more innings in than he can get this spring to be ready for that role so starting the season in Memphis would seem to be a strong possibility. That way Hicks can get the innings in that he needs, not only to prove that he is healthy, but to determine if being a starter or a multi-innings reliever would be the best way to use him instead of putting him back in the closer’s role.

  1. Can Nolan Gorman hit his way onto the opening day roster?

The only way the answer to this question is yes is if Gorman hits his way into the starting lineup and not just onto the roster. Mozeliak has been adamant with other young players on the cusp of the majors in the past that the only way it makes sense for them to be on the roster is if they can get enough at-bats to make it worthwhile. Just being a bench player, or a part-time DH, would not provide those at-bats and the team would prefer that Gorman continue to start and play everyday in Memphis over having that role in the majors, at least at the start of the season.

The answer to this question also could be determined in part by how DeJong plays, and whether the Cardinals consider moving Edman to short and letting Gorman become the regular second baseman.

  1. Do they have enough pitching?

Anybody in baseball will tell you the answer to this question is always no, no matter when it is asked. What makes it a little more interesting of a question this spring is the timing, with only three weeks before opening day, and the fact that the new CBA limits a team to just 13 pitchers on the roster – although that could be altered if MLB decides to expand the rosters for the first month of the regular season because of the shorter spring training. The starting rotation appears set with Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas and newcomer Steven Matz, barring injuries, but all of them are likely going to need several starts to be prepared to throw at least five innings. That will put more pressure on the bullpen, so finding pitchers who can throw multiple innings several days a week could be a key to the staff’s success.

Jake Woodford and Alex Reyes would seen to be candidates for that role, as well as the newly signed Drew VerHagen and non-roster righthander Aaron Brooks. If the Cardinals need another starter, the best plan likely is to have somebody ready to come up from Memphis, which should open the season with a rotation that includes Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson, Andre Pallante and Angel Rondon.

  1. What will the role be for Alex Reyes?

This question was partially answered in the section about pitching depth. Reyes pitched enough last season to prove he is healthy and still profiles best in the future as a starter. Two factors working against that now are the shortened spring and the fact the rotation is full, unless the Cardinals were to go to a sixth starter. Having Reyes available to pitch 3 to 4 innings a couple of times a week probably makes the most sense, and also would help stretch him out enough that he could be ready to start if the need arises later in the season.

  1. Will Turner Ward have enough time to get to know how he can help the team’s hitters?

Of the two new coaches on the Cardinals staff, one is well known, fan favorite Schumaker returns after working with the Padres. The other newcomer is Turner Ward, now working as a hitting coach with Jeff Albert. Ward has been around the game for a long time, and has a pre-existing relationship with Goldschmidt from the years they spent together with the Diamondbacks. Ward will have to get to know the rest of the team’s hitters quickly, however, as well as figuring out how he can best augment Albert’s work. There are lingering questions from last year, and even previous years, about Albert’s performance and the answer about how well he and Ward are doing will be reflected by whatever improvement the team shows offensively.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

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For the latest news and features in St. Louis Sports check out STLSportsPage.com. Rob Rains, Editor.