Cardinals preview

03/25/2013 4:42 PM

03/25/2013 5:13 PM

It’s important for me today to write about baseball in the midst of college basketball’s NCAA Tournament. I hope you’ll indulge me, even with Wichita State and Kansas in the Sweet 16. I’m writing columns about the Shockers and Jayhawks all week long. I’ll be in Los Angeles with the Shockers and I have plenty more to say and write about college hoops.

But with snow on the ground and basketballs still in the air, I need a little baseball. And the season starts in less than a week. I cannot wait.

The St. Louis Cardinals are my team and even in the wildness and craziness of the past week, I do Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright is the team’s ace. whatever it takes to follow my team. I’ve watched several of the Cardinals’ spring training games, read as much as I can read and come to a few conclusions.

It’s going to be an interesting season. The Cardinals are in a bit of a state of flux, what with the absence now of injured starting pitcher Chris Carpenter and shortstop Rafael Furcal.

But I like this team. I like the possibilities. But, as with the other 29 teams in MLB, what the Cardinals do or don’t do centers around starting pitching.

So let’s start there.

Starting pitching – Adam Wainwright is the No. 1. Now nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and by all accounts nearing a big contract extension with the Cardinals, he’s the ace. And a good one. He’ll be followed in the rotation by left-hander Jaime Garcia and righties Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller, a rookie. This could be a really strong rotation, but it depends on the health of Garcia and the readiness of Miller. Garcia is only 26 and has the talent to be a legitimate No. 2 starter. Miller can be a future ace. The Cardinals need them both to approach their ceilings this season if they are to challenge the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central.

Bullpen – It doesn’t help that closer Jason Motte, one of the best in the National League, will start the season on the disabled list with some elbow irritation. Mitchell Boggs steps into the closer’s role, at least temporarily, while rookie Trevor Rosenthal assumes Boggs’ eighth-inning role. Edward Mujica is still slated to be the seventh-inning guy while the lefties are Marc Rzepczynski and Randy Choate. Fernando Salas and Joe Kelly are likely the other bullpen guys until Motte returns. There are some nice power arms in the Cardinals’ pen, but it’s not what it could be with Motte sidelined.

First base – Allen Craig is the guy here and if he can play 140 games, he’s capable of hitting 30 homers and driving in 110 runs. The key is being healthy. If Craig misses time, rookie Matt Adams will be the guy. Adams is a powerful left-handed hitter who has had a big spring. He looks like a born hitter and he’ll be on the roster to start the season.

Second base – The Cardinals wisely asked left-handed hitting Matt Carpenter to work out at second base curing the offseason after Carpenter batted over .300 in a utility role in 2012. He’s a hitter and now he’s put himself in the mix to get some starts at second, sharing the position with Daniel Descalso. I like both of these guys a lot. I think Descalso will have his best offensive season by far. And prospect Kolten Wong is in the wings if these two can’t get it done.

Third base – Like Craig, the only question about Freese is his health. He had a relatively injury-free season in 2012 and put up nice numbers. He’s a dangerous hitter, part of a middle-of-the-order for the Cardinals that is capable of putting up big numbers. Too often last season, though, it was feast or famine. St. Louis rarely had everyone in its lineup clicking at once.

Shortstop – Warning, warning, warning. The Cardinals do not have a proven shortstop, what with Furcal scheduled to miss the season after elbow surgery. Pete Kozma, who was so good in September last season and even better in the Cardinals’ playoff run, gets the first shot. As he should. It’s possible that Kozma has simply found himself as a big leaguer, even after a lackluster few years in the minor leagues. If not, though, the Cardinals are left to scramble. Descalso has played some shortstop and is adequate. But he’s better at second and even third base. This might be an area the Cardinals have to address quickly. Then again, maybe Kozma is ready. We’ll see.

Left field – Matt Holliday is the left fielder. And he’ll be the left fielder, the Cardinals hope, for about 150 games. He’ll bat third in the lineup. There is no mystery here.

Center field – Ever after proving himself as a .300 hitter over the past three seasons, some question Jay’s staying power. Not me. I like his defense and he’s a good hitter. Not a great hitter and not one with much power. But he’s a good hitter, good enough to be in the leadoff position for 130-140 games. When Jay isn’t in the lineup, look for Shane Robinson. He’s had a terrific spring.

Right field – Veteran Carlos Beltran is the guy here, but look for manager Mike Matheny to be careful about how much Beltran is used. He’s 35 and prone to injury. Beltran can still be a huge threat, but the Cardinals are going to give him more time off in 2013. When he’s out, St. Louis can play Craig in right and Adams at first. Or Carpenter in right. Or . . . are you ready? . . . 20-year-old Oscar Taveras. It’s likely Taveras opens the season at Triple-A Memphis, but he’s ready to be a big leaguer. His time is approaching quickly.

Catcher – Yadier Molina is the best in the business. Or second best in the business to San Francisco’s Buster Posey. Tony Cruz has the loneliest job in the big leagues, backing up Molina.

Bench – Descalso, Robinson, Adams, Cruz and newcomer Ty Wigginton should form the bench when the season begins. As always, it’ll be constantly evolving.

Prediction – The Cincinnati Reds still look like the best team in the NL Central. But the Cardinals could challenge if that starting rotation pans out. There are some question marks there. I look for 87 to 90 wins. But I see a ceiling of 95 if Garcia and Miller have good, healthy seasons. The Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are the other dynamite teams in the National League. The Cardinals fit in there somewhere.

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