Spring training is underway for the St. Louis Cardinals and opening day is less than two months away. Mike Matheny’s players will look to reclaim their spot atop the National League Central after a disappointing 2016 season, but they’ll have a tough time matching up against their division foe, the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs, who won the 2016 World Series, return a strong lineup, highlighted by All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. On paper, the Cubs are the projected favorites to repeat in 2017, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, so the Cardinals will have their work cut out for themselves this year.
With a number of questions still surrounding the team, here are some things to watch during spring training.
Who will fall into the fifth rotation spot for the Cardinals?
Right now, Adam Wainwright is the projected opening day starter on April 2 against the Cubs. Although, Carlos Martinez, the second-best pitcher on the team, could give him a run for his money. Lance Lynn is back from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for all of last year, and Mike Leake is also poised to make improvements after finishing 2016 with a record of 9-12.
Alex Reyes, the team’s top prospect and the top-rated pitching prospect in Major League Baseball, has everyone’s attention. He has a fiery fastball topping out at 97 mph, but walks an average of 4.5 batters per nine innings.
Michael Wacha dominated in the playoffs in his rookie season, but shoulder discomfort last year made him a less than dominant pitcher, which could result in a relegation to the bullpen.
If Reyes can improve his command, the spot is ultimately his. If Wacha rebounds and shows signs of his 2015 self, he makes a strong case too.
Another area to watch is overall defense from the infield. Cardinal’s general manager John Mozeliak said he’s committed to Kolten Wong at second base in 2017, but he has to prove it during spring training.
Wong lost the job and spent some time down in Memphis in 2016 after losing confidence in the field and at the plate. Additionally, Aledmys Diaz’s 16 errors surely cost the Cardinals some games last year, but with his rookie season behind him, defensively St. Louis should be much better up the middle.
St. Louis’ speed on the base paths has drawn some concern over the past few seasons. The Cardinals aren’t traditionally a base stealing team and they didn’t need to be last year with all the home runs they hit. This year, however, is different.
There isn’t the big power hitter in the middle of the order now that Matt Holliday is in New York. Matt Adams has a big bat, but he’ll be used in a utility role with Matt Carpenter making the move to first base. After acquiring Dexter Fowler in the offseason to be the team’s new center fielder, Mozeliak said the Cardinals will opt to become faster and more athletic, with a decrease in emphasis on the long ball.
Watching how Matheny elects to use his guys on the base paths and how aggressive he elects to be, should be interesting to watch during spring training.
Figuring out how the batting order will shake out is another area to watch. With a lack of power, Matheny has plenty of options to mix and match his new athletic lineup. Fowler is expected to leadoff, with Diaz behind him, and Carpenter likely falling into the three hole. Grichuk seems the most likely option at four, with Piscotty hitting fifth, Molina sixth, Peralta seventh, Wong eighth, and the pitcher ninth.
While Grichuk might bring the most power to the team, he isn’t always consistent. Piscotty could make a bid for the fourth spot, but he seems more suited for the fifth spot.
Ultimately, these are all questions to be sorted out as the pre-season progresses.
[Featured Image by Stacy Revere/Getty Images]