When Justin Toerner struck out against Trevor Hildenberger yesterday with two outs in the ninth, it closed the book on the 2021 spring training. An awkward affair due to the COVID-related restrictions and structure (five of the six appearances by Carlos Martinez were against the Mets, including his relief work yesterday), it nonetheless did the job: it got players and staff ready for the 162-game marathon that begins Thursday in Cincinnati.
Sunday, the last roster machinations were revealed, showing that John Nogowski had made the team while Lane Thomas had not. The same was true for Jake Woodford at the expense of Kodi Whitley. While both of those latter players are probably going to have a role to play at the major league level this season, it is interesting to see them start out in the minor leagues. There’s no doubt that Nogowski had a strong spring and Mike Shildt and company may believe that he’s well suited to be a bat off the bench. Even with the off days, having a guy like Woodford that can go multiple innings could be important in the early going. (Or, of course, he might wind up as that old Cardinal delicacy, pitcher under glass.)
We knew Miles Mikolas was starting the year on the injured list and were pretty sure about Kwang Hyun Kim, but the club made that official as well. The word is that Kim might miss two or three starts, which would seem to have him returning mid to late April. It looks more like mid-May for Mikolas, assuming everything goes as planned. If everything had gone as planned, though, he’d be starting Sunday in the series finale against the Reds. Expecting a timetable on a pitcher, especially one with this sort of injury, to be accurate seems unwise.
There are plenty of questions as the season opens, which is typical. There might be more than other years, questions with more import or impact than the past, but just because there are questions doesn’t mean that this isn’t a good team. It certainly appears that way, even if we don’t know exactly how they are going to traverse the trail of the season to get, hopefully, to the promised land of October.
How will Nolan Arenado adjust to 81 home games in a ballpark that favors pitchers? It was good to see him erase that zero from the home run column yesterday, but will he be able to do that regularly at Busch? Matt Carpenter got his second hit of the spring pinch-hitting yesterday, raising his spring average to .054. However, perhaps it was notable that he succeeded in a pinch-hitting role after being told that he’s going to be seeing a lot of that with Tommy Edman getting the starting spot at second. Perhaps it wasn’t–it wasn’t his first chance as a pinch-hitter this spring, after all. Can Carp salvage his reputation and go out on a positive note?
Yadier Molina caught a complete game Saturday night and then seven innings on Sunday afternoon. Will there actually be any reining in of Molina so that Andrew Knizner doesn’t waste away on the bench? What’s the plan there and, more importantly, will Yadi sign off on it? Speaking of players that need days off, what’s the plan with Paul DeJong? He had 16 strikeouts in 50 plate appearances, which is a lot. Strikeouts are always going to be part of his game (one reason I’d like to see him a little lower in the lineup, but that’s a digression) but they can be overlooked if the rest of the offensive package is there. Hitting .200 with one extra base hit (a home run, granted) isn’t the way to do it. Can he turn it on and, if he does, will he get enough rest not to slump down the stretch?
We all know the outfield is full of questions. Tyler O’Neill had a great spring, though he cooled off from his red-hot start. Can he provide that sort of regular offense now that he’s got a starting job and a clear field in front of him? Dylan Carlson is still a rookie, albeit a rookie with a lot of expectations on his shoulders. Can he handle them, live up to them? Justin Williams will probably get a lot of starts with Harrison Bader on the IL. Can he do enough to make it a difficult decision when Bader returns? He had a great spring but, well, it’s spring. We always dismiss the spring stats we don’t care for and put too much emphasis on the ones we do.
Then there is the rotation. Can Jack Flaherty take another step toward being a Cy Young candidate? Can Adam Wainwright continue to look this masterful through a full 30 start season? And if so, would he be willing to sell access to the fountain of youth that he’s obviously found? What sort of Carlos Martinez are we going to see or will that change from start to start? How long with John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon be in the rotation and will they be positive impacts or will they make things a little dicey?
There are fewer questions about the bullpen, which is a little ironic since bullpens generally are the most volatile places on a roster. You never know if a guy that pitches so few innings can keep it up the next year and that’s doubly true coming off such a shortened 2020. Jordan Hicks is back, though he still seems to be finding his feel a little bit. The heat is there and the feel will come. Can Andrew Miller be effective on a consistent basis or is it always going to depend on how his slider is doing that day? How does this 100 inning thing work for Alex Reyes? Is this the year the league gets to Tyler Webb?
So many things that need to be answered. Thursday, at 3:10 Central Daylight Time, we start to get the answers. Will it be another historic season for the Redbirds or will we wonder how it all went wrong when the season is over?
Buckle up. It’s time to fly.