Alright sports fans, it’s here. The Mayan Prophecy didn’t wipe out America’s past time, nor the rest of civilization as we know it, and we have been granted yet another season of baseball. With pitchers and catchers reporting for all 30 MLB teams within the next 3 days, we can finally turn the page on Adrian Peterson, Bountygate and replacement referees and move on to real issues.
Speaking of issues, The St. Louis Cardinals have very few coming into this season. The Birds had a relatively slow hot-stove season, choosing to address the few question marks on the roster with their substantial organizational depth rather than free agents and trades. Outside of inking Ronny Cedeno (if that can be considered news) and avoiding arbitration with David Freese and Jason Motte, it’s been all quiet on the (mid)western front. Even though the Cardinals are returning with virtually the same roster that brought them a win away from another pennant in 2012, there are always question marks in Spring Training.
Despite the obvious tools he possesses, Rafael Furcal has had trouble being a consistent contributor since 2009 because of a slew of injuries. When healthy, Furcal has the potential to be one of the best shortstops in either league. He makes consistent contact with a line-drive-oriented swing that produces a handful of home runs a season. He has a rocket for an arm and above average range. Furcal also has speed and good instincts on the basepaths. After being selected to the all-star team and becoming a cog in the Cardinal machine for 121 games last year, Furcal tore a ligament in his elbow, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season. He opted not to have surgery, and Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has said that the elbow is completely healed coming into the spring. If Furcal is indeed able to play a full season, as Mozeliak has said he expects, it will make a world of difference at the top of the order and should have a reciprocal effect on the rest of the lineup. If not, get ready for a long and infuriating season of Pete Kozma and Ronny Cedeno putting up Brendan Ryan type offensive numbers without the Gold Glove defense to back them up.
If not for Allen Craig, the Cardinals might have the albatross of a contract that Albert Pujols is hanging around the neck of Angels owner Art Moreno. Craig’s methodical approach to his at bats and his ability to hit scorching line drives to any part of the field were a major factor in deciding to give El Hombre his walking papers last winter. Craig embraced the opportunity to play every day, posting a season in which he drove in more runs per at bat than any other player in baseball and finished in the top 20 of the MVP vote despite appearing in only 119 games. The question that lingers about Craig is how much better he could become. At age 28, we should be seeing Craig in his peak performance years until 2015-ish. All signs point to a superstar who consistently bats .300, drives in 100 runs, and hits the ball over the fence 25-30 times. He is a smart hitter with an impeccable batting eye, and he hits the ball with power to every part of the field. If Craig can make it through an injury free season, we may see a perennial MVP candidate for the next 3-4 seasons.
With staff anchor Chris Carpenter apparently calling it a career, and co-ace Adam Wainwright coming off of an up-and-down 2012 campaign after Tommy John surgery, there’s no clear cut choice for who will lead this staff. Can Wainwright continue his progress and recapture his Cy Young stuff from 2010? Can Jaime Garcia avoid nagging injuries and mental lapses to become one of the games premier lefties? Can Jake Westbrook continue to pile up innings and induce double play balls with a middle-of-the-road arsenal? What can we expect from youngsters Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, and Trevor Rosenthal as they prepare for their first full big league seasons? Can Lance Lynn continue to grow and build off of the progress he made last season?
Despite a handful of uncertainties, things could be much worse for Mike Matheny and Co. coming into spring. The redbirds look poised to make another deep run into the postseason in 2013. It all starts tomorrow.