5 St. Louis Cardinals Storylines to Follow During Spring Training

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5 St. Louis Cardinals Storylines to Follow During Spring Training

5 St. Louis Cardinals Storylines to Follow During Spring Training
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

As the St. Louis Cardinals close in on the Feb. 13 Spring Training reporting date for pitchers and catchers, there are more uncertainties than is usually the case for a team coming off a World Series appearance. The Cardinals reached the Fall Classic in 2013 largely due to a group of players who had previously been unestablished as big leaguers, including infielder Matt Carpenter, first baseman Matt Adams and pitchers Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. It will be interesting to see if this group can carry over their success into 2014 as there is more pressure on them to succeed.

Over the offseason, the team lost two key parts of their offense in Carlos Beltran and David Freese. In addition, two members of their 2013 postseason bullpen, Edward Mujica and John Axford, departed as free agents. With top prospect Oscar Taveras possibly ready to break into the majors, Adams having earned a full-time role and outfielder Peter Bourjos having entered the fold as part of the Freese trade, there are plenty of questions concerning how this Cardinals squad will ultimately come together.

It’s important not to overreact to spring training performances, but the spring will be rather important for players like Taveras and rookie second baseman Kolten Wong who are still trying to establish themselves. In addition, the last three starting rotation spots beyond Wacha and Adam Wainwright are more or less up for grabs, so the month of March will be crucial in determining pitching roles.

There are plenty of storylines to follow as the Cardinals’ season gets underway, but here are five of the most important to watch during spring training.

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5. Can Kolten Wong Prove Himself as an Everyday Player?

5. Can Kolten Wong Prove Himself as an Everyday Player?
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Despite his struggles following his first big-league call-up on August 15 of last season, the Cardinals expressed a huge vote of confidence in 23-year-old Kolten Wong by trading third baseman David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels and moving 2013 All-Star Matt Carpenter back to third to make room for Wong. Now with the pressure firmly placed upon him, the left-handed hitting infielder must prove that he is better than the .153 average he had over his first 59 major-league at-bats. If Wong struggles significantly during spring training, it’s possible that veteran Mark Ellis, signed to be Wong’s backup and occasional platoon partner, could supplant him as the starting second baseman.

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4. Will Oscar Taveras Play Himself into a Roster Spot?

4. Will Oscar Taveras Play Himself into a Roster Spot?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the loss of starting right fielder Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals have a logjam for playing time at first base and the outfield positions. As things stand now, Matt Holliday is assured the starting left field job, while Matt Adams is expected to start at first and Allen Craig is projected to be in right field. With new acquisition Peter Bourjos getting the first shot at the job in center, former starter Jon Jay is expected to hold a reserve outfield spot. That doesn’t leave much room for 21-year-old top prospect Oscar Taveras, who is capable of playing all three outfield spots.

For now, the most likely scenario involves Taveras returning to Triple-A to get consistent at-bats, though spending multiple seasons in Triple-A is rather unprecedented for a prospect who has been hyped up as much as Taveras has. The Cardinals will probably try to keep him in the minors until the “super two” deadline has passed, meaning that they will have him under arbitration control for an extra year. However, if he delivers a spectacular spring training performance, he may force their hand and end up on the opening day roster.

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3. Will Jhonny Peralta Hold Up Defensively?

3. Will Jhonny Peralta Hold Up Defensively?
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

In an effort to upgrade their offense at shortstop, the Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million deal this offseason. Besides the fact that Peralta was just a few months removed from a suspension related to the Biogenesis PED scandal, the signing has been criticized because Peralta’s defense has regressed for the past several years, and quite frankly he looked like he was on track for a conversion to third base. Peralta’s UZR ranked 14th among MLB shortstops in 2013, and it’s been speculated that he packed even more weight onto his 215-pound frame this offseason. He’s never been statistically terrible at short, but as he continues to age and fill out his body, it should be interesting to see if Peralta is a serious downgrade defensively.

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2. How Will Jason Motte Rebound?

2. How Will Jason Motte Rebound?
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Motte, who led the NL with 54 saves in 2012 but missed all of 2013 following Tommy John surgery, returns this year. However, he’ll be in a new role: setup man. 23-year-old flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal seized the opportunity that was given to him last season, and as a result he will continue in the closing role while Motte is projected to handle the eighth inning duties. It’s unknown if Motte’s velocity or pitching style will be affected by the surgery, and this will be a big spring for him as he seeks to reestablish himself.

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1. How Will the Starting Rotation Look?

1. How Will the Starting Rotation Look?
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals once again have the problem—one a lot of other teams would like to have— of having too many good starting pitchers. Adam Wainwright is entrenched as the ace, and with the showing Michael Wacha put together down the stretch last year it’s a near certainty that he’ll be part of the rotation. Beyond that, nothing is set in stone. Management seems to be very loyal to Lance Lynn as a starter, despite the fact that he’s gone through several rough stretches and had a somewhat unimpressive 3.97 ERA last season. The interesting thing is that Lynn would probably be the most effective reliever among the four starters who could move to the bullpen.

Shelby Miller was very good for most of last season, and it would seem that he would be a near-lock to gain a spot in the rotation. However, there are conflicting beliefs about how much management likes him, and it was notable that he was only used for one inning in last year’s postseason. Lefthander Jaime Garcia is back from a shoulder injury and holds an advantage in that he’s the only left-handed starter. And righty Joe Kelly had a great 2013 season, though his experience as a long reliever may be the quality that ends up returning him to the bullpen.

All of these starters could very well make it to opening day healthy, creating a controversy, but since the team played a whole extra month last year, the likelihood is that the team will be affected by injuries and fatigue and need all of them to start at some point anyway.

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