A Mid-Spring Checkup

The Cardinals have played 17 spring training games.  They have 15 remaining.  It’s as good a place as any to take stock of this team and see what we may have learned or what has intrigued us during the camp so far.  (Allen and I did some of this last night as we attempted Meet Me at Musial, only to find out neither of us had our recorders on.  We’ll try again Friday!)  While your thoughts and opinions on this team may depend on your point of view, there’s still been some interesting things to discuss.

The first being someone that hasn’t actually played yet.  Matt Carpenter has done some swinging of the bat (though as Twitter had fun with, he drew a walk in his first outing after being told to get some swings in) and should DH in today’s game against the Marlins.  If the back and shoulder hold up, Carpenter should get enough reps to be fine for Opening Day, but he’s really going to need to get out in the field soon for us to feel good about it.  The concern is that even if Carpenter is 70% or so, if he says he’s good to go he’ll not only go but be batting third every day, even if the injury is lingering.  There are times where that would be OK or even necessary, but the Cardinals aren’t in that situation right now.  Jose Martinez had a very good season last year and is having a solid spring.  If he had to man first for a few weeks it wouldn’t be the same as if Carpenter was there, but it wouldn’t be a huge dropoff.  You’d like to think that the powers that be would take that into account when determining Carpenter’s status, but I think we all know that’s unlikely.

Again, Carpenter is likely to be fine, but it is concerning to hear that not only is the back an issue but the shoulder is as well.  I would assume it’s less of an issue than it was at the end of last season but there’s also a season’s worth of wear and tear coming for it.  Carpenter can’t go all year looking to get into full counts like he did at the end of last season.  (I mean, he’ll always get into full counts, but last year it felt like he wasn’t going to swing the bat until he had two strikes, which is extreme even for him.)  If the rest of the offseason didn’t do enough to heal up the injury entirely, is this going to be a recurring problem?  Last September Carpenter hit .230/.420/.525 (I’ll admit, I was a little surprised to see he had five homers in September).  Is that a line they’ll be happy with this year?  If you believe batting average is irrelevant, maybe so, but it will be a bit interesting to see if the expectations are different with him hitting in the three spot and with the injury from last year hanging over his head.  You’d like to think, given the solid backups in Jose Martinez and perhaps Luke Voit (though we still need to see more of Voit at the major league level to know if solid fits him), the Cardinals would be willing to put Carp on the DL and let him heal a little quicker than they have in the past.

We’ve talked often about the bullpen and what issues could be out there.  Many of us thought that the Cardinals needed or at least would go out and get that lockdown closer to finish games.  It’s possible that they actually did, given the way Dominic Leone is pitching this spring.  It would seem that Leone will be the closer, not Luke Gregerson, who has pitched just one inning this spring and is dealing with an oblique injury.  Leone might have gotten the job anyway and it’s probably somewhat telling that he’s three-for-three in save opportunities–not that he’s perfect, but that he’s had more of those chances than anyone else.  Leone’s stuff, which Joe Schwarz has written about over at Birds on the Black (and perhaps will write about here when he’s posting after Butler loses to Arkansas in the NCAA tournament Friday), makes him much more of an interesting and exciting option in the ninth than Gregerson.

Then again, almost everybody that could be out in the bullpen seems to have strikeout stuff.  Rusty Groppel over at The Redbird Daily lined out a lot of the bullpen options yesterday and it helps clarify just who we might see go north with the club.  As Rusty notes, six of the eight spots (because we know that, no matter how many off days are in March, Mike Matheny is going to want his 13 pitchers) were locked down with either contracts or players that are out of options.  The one caveat may be what I expect to happen, which is Gregerson may start the year on the disabled list dealing with that injury.  If so, that allows for three spots to be claimed from folks that have options.  Of course, one of those guys is Matthew Bowman and you know he’ll be going north, so a Gregerson DL spot allows for a couple of decisions.

John Brebbia has the experience and had a good year last year, but is having a weaker spring.  How much will that play into the decision?  Mike Mayers is the biggest surprise in camp.  I again have to eat crow as I’ve said (as I did with Jose Martinez) I didn’t understand why the club did so much to keep him on the 40-man roster.  Mayers reinvented himself in the offseason and now has been moved exclusively to the bullpen.  His work against the Astros on Friday, where he struck out four of the six outs he obtained, would have been eye-opening had not eyes already been opened by his early work.  You have to figure he’s in good shape for a spot.  So is Josh Lucas, though, who is putting up very similar numbers to Mayers, with a large number of strikeouts and little else.  Then there is John Gant, who could be in the rotation in Memphis but also could be a swing man up in the big leagues.  Gant also is putting up some overall solid numbers, including 10 strikeouts in 8.1 innings, and if Mike Maddux can change the bullpen philosophy so that the long man doesn’t get buried like we’ve seen in the past few years, he could make an impact as well.

Most likely whoever doesn’t make the club will be there before too long as I expect Michael Girsch (who you’d think will probably have more say on the day-to-day stuff this year, right?) will be using the “expanded roster” theory of roster management, swapping out players in Memphis every couple of weeks to keep arms fresh and seeing what really clicks.  There could be a lot of innings available for the bullpen this year, given we don’t know how deep into games they’ll want Luke Weaver to go, that Michael Wacha seems to be best as a five-six inning pitcher, and the whole Adam Wainwright situation.  Having a rotation of arms won’t be the worst thing at all.

While there are a lot of other things in camp, let’s wrap it up with Wainwright.  As you know, Carlos Martinez will go in today’s game against Miami and Waino will go tomorrow against Houston.  This lines it up for Martinez to go Opening Day and Wainwright to get the home opener.  So, on paper, it looks like the rotation will go Martinez, Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Wacha, and Weaver.  While that’s not the way you would order them if you were going to rank them in talent or in expected effectiveness for the team, it makes some sense beyond the sentimental.  I mean, nobody would fault the club for working it so that Wainwright started what well could be his last home opener.  One of the great things about baseball is tradition and recognizing when people have made a significant contribution to an organization.  If the club was opening the season at home, that might be different, but allowing Wainwright this honor makes sense.

Here’s the other reason that it might work.  We’re all hoping that Martinez makes that next step this year and really joins the “top pitchers in baseball” discussion.  (You can argue that he should already be there, but it doesn’t feel like he often gets mentioned with Clayton Kershaw and the like.)  If Martinez makes that step, he should regularly go seven innings, right?  That’s what those aces do, at least in my mind.  So there wouldn’t be a lot of a need for the bullpen on days when Martinez pitches.

Third in the rotation is Mikolas.  Now, we still don’t know what we are going to get from Mikolas, though Friday’s outing against the Astros was very encouraging.  If he’s able to approximate what he did in Japan, though, he also threw a lot of innings and hopefully that means that there are a lot of seven inning outings in his future as well.  Which would give the bullpen a chance to catch their breath as well.

We know that Wacha is likely to need three or four innings of relief each time out and it’s unlikely they’ll let Weaver go past the sixth very often either.  If you have Wainwright after those three guys–and again, we’re assuming that best case scenario for Uncle Charlie is he can be an effective six-inning pitcher–that could be a lot of bullpen innings right in a row.  Putting Wainwright between Martinez and Mikolas might alleviate that a bit.  (Plus it breaks up the Ms and some of the Ws, which obviously is a huge consideration.)

We talked a lot about the pitching and little about the offense, but I can’t worry much about the hitting while they are playing in Jupiter.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the drunken prospect maven that is Kyle Reis over the past year, it’s that the Florida State League is where hitters go to die and pitchers go to inflate their stats (which perhaps would give us pause on some of these bullpen numbers if it wasn’t for the high number of strikeouts).  If hitters like Marcell Ozuna–who, I admit, might also be pressing to prove why the Cardinals traded for him–are still scuffling mid-April or so, maybe then you start to get concerned.  While they are down in Florida, with the swirling winds and such, I’m not going to worry a lot about it.

As noted, it’s another intra-Jupiter game as the two clubs that share Roger Dean–excuse me, Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium–match up yet again.  It’s probably a good thing that the Marlins are in the NL East and the Cards only see them twice a year, otherwise we’d get really sick of teal!

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