Top 10 Cardinals Storylines as Camp Begins; Is There Harmony or Discord This Spring?

I think the premise here is pretty simple…no need for a big setup or explanation. Alex Reyes is out for the season with Tommy John, so what are the biggest storylines we’ll be following in the wake of his loss?

  1. Is there harmony or discord in camp?
Matheny and team leaders discussed morale in a closed-door meeting last spring.

I don’t want to make this too big of a deal but last spring wasn’t exactly smooth. Don’t remember? Read this piece from my buddy Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch from March 30, 2016.

Here are the things reported and/or discussed off the record from Jupiter last year:

– Mike Matheny, Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina missed batting practice before a late spring Grapefruit League game because they held an hours-long meeting among themselves. According to Goold’s piece, one of the things discussed was the “clubhouse’s climate.”

Basically, the newer elements of the locker room weren’t all that excited about the old ways of doing things, unless I’ve been misinformed. There were meetings. Some were “pretty raw” according to the manager (via Goold). Obviously things were not rosy.

– The defense was shoddy in Grapefruit League games and it was a source of frustration and concern with Matheny openly wondering if the team’s plan that called for “monitoring workloads” was to blame for the sloppy play.

– Jose Oquendo stepped away from the team for medical reasons (knee replacement surgery).

So, do they clean those things up?

Is the clubhouse culture less of an issue now that a lot of the “new guys” aren’t new anymore and does Dexter Fowler’s presence help in that regard?

What’s the workload like? Are they going to make sure they’re “just pounding,” Matheny’s term last year when talking about the alternative to backing off on some guys, or do they keeping massaging things with the long grind of the season in mind?

With Oquendo back for the spring, how much can he help? After all, he was with the team throughout most of Spring Training last year…

We shall see.

  1. How does the bench shape up?

This has been a common question on the show lately with listeners regularly asking about a left handed hitter as the 5th outfielder.”

Here is what we know for sure…

– There will be a backup catcher, likely Eric Fryer

– Whoever is not starting between Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko will be on the bench

– Barring a trade, Matt Adams will be on the bench

So that’s 3 of 5 bench spots. With the team expected to carry 12 pitches along with the 8 starting position players, 5 bench spots is all they’ll have.

Greg Garcia earned a spot on this team last year. He was 8-for-23 (.348) as a pinch hitter and he can play 2B, 3B, SS and can probably handle some time in LF. I’d be surprised if he’s not around.

So that leaves a catcher (Fryer), one right handed bat (Gyorko or Peralta), two left handed bats (Adams and Garcia) and a wild card. Do you want a 3rd left handed bat, leaving the team with only one viable right handed bat off the bench on a given night – remember, the Cards do not use their backup catcher as a pinch hitter very often – or do you want another right handed bat.

To me, Tommy Pham is the answer. He has power, speed and can play all three outfield positions. That’s a lot of good things for a backup outfielder to have.

So I think, barring injury or something unexpected in terms of performance, you’ll see the bench made up of the players I just listed…with a left handed hitting outfielder stashed away at Memphis, just in case. Jose Martinez has some interesting skills so he bears watching if he dramatically outperforms Pham.

  1. Who wins the battle at 3B?

I’m not sure there will be a winner, to be perfectly honest. I expect Gyorko and Peralta to share third base all season long with both of them getting a little time elsewhere too. I expect both players to be in the 400 AB neighborhood and if the match ups are played right this could be a good time share for the team.

  1. How do the upper level prospects look?

The Cardinals have a good bit of pitching close to the Majors: Luke Weaver, Marco Gonzales and Austin Gomber for sure with Jack Flaherty, Sandy Alcantara and Dakota Hudson not far behind. How do they fare this spring?

Weaver will get a lot of Grapefruit League action. So will Gonzales if his recovery goes well. Gomber is a wild card but he lit up the Arizona Fall League and may be a factor this season. The others are likely further down the road but still, it will be interesting to track them in the early part of the season.

Then you have top catching prospect Carson Kelly. If he shows well that could complicate things for the #6 item on this list.

Others to watch include OF Magneuris Sierra, SS-3B Paul DeJong and OF Harrison Bader.

  1. Do the Cardinals talk contract with Yadier Molina?

This is the last guaranteed year of his deal with a mutual option that needs to be picked up by both the player and the team for next year. Molina has clearly stated that he’d like to finish his career with the Cardinals and I’m sure the Cardinals would love for that to happen but with Kelly in the mix soon, what does that mean for Molina’s playing time in 2018 and beyond?

This is an interesting and dicey situation. Molina likes to play. A lot. Is he willing to accept less playing time as he moves into his late 30’s after this year or does he still value playing every single day. Father Time catches up to everyone and sooner or later Kelly is going to need significant Major League playing time.

Is a deal reached this spring or is it tabled until the offseason? I hope it’s the latter…at least then we can see what Kelly does this summer before a decision needs to be reached.

  1. How will Aledmys Diaz and Kolten Wong swing the bat?

This team absolutely needs Diaz to be something close to what he was last season. He was a monster for much of the time in 2016 and if he can replicate that – or just come near it – then that will be huge for the Cardinals.

As for Wong, we just need to see more maturity and consistency. He has bat speed, he can hit in the Majors, but he needs to avoid long slumps and long swings at inappropriate times.

I think we’ll learn a lot about both in the spring.

  1. How does Lance Lynn look?

I expect he’ll be okay because he’s 16-17 months removed from Tommy John surgery but he still has to get the feel back for all of his pitches and that can only happen in game action. It took Wainwright several months to get it right when he came back after TJ in 2012. So this will be a process.

  1. How does Wainwright look?

Waino was really hard on himself last year. He spoke openly and thoughtfully about the problems he had with his release point and how frustrating it was to struggle like that all season long. We can get a gauge for how he looks in Grapefruit League games – if his fastball has life and stays down and if ol’ Uncle Charlie has it’s typically bite those will be encouraging signs.

  1. Do they catch and throw the ball cleanly on the infield?

Last spring was a disaster, as you read above, and it continued throughout the 2016 season. Is their play cleaner and crisper this spring or will we have to carry doubts into the regular season?

Lord I hope it’s clean…this team can’t excel without at least average infield defense.

  1. Who is the 5th starter going to be?
Wacha has allowed 27 home runs since the 2015 All-Star Break.

This is the big one. We know Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Mike Leake have rotation spots, barring injury. With Alex Reyes out of the mix it would seem like we have three realistic candidates: Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal and Luke Weaver.

Wacha was an All-Star as a starter in 2015 but after the All-Star break it all started to fall apart. In fact, since the 2015 All-Star break Wacha has posted a 4.71 ERA over 212 innings of work and allowed 27 home runs. For reference, Wacha had 279 innings in the Majors prior to the 2015 All-Star break and he allowed just 17 home runs during those innings. That’s a HR rate going from .55 per game to 1.15. That’s more than double, folks. Not great. He needs to get right and quick if he’s going to stick in the rotation moving forward.

Rosenthal hasn’t started a game in nearly 5 years. To me, moving him to the rotation is a long shot. He’s not efficient with his pitches and he’s a max effort pitcher. That screams “4-inning starter” and that’s not good for anyone.

Sure, he has a great arm and he has good secondary pitches but that 98 MPH fastball in the pen will be more like 94 MPH as a starter…can a guy with spotty command get by without the extra velo? I don’t think so. I’m pulling for him but I’m not gonna hold my breath.

Weaver is intriguing to mean and I’m just dumbfounded by how often he’s kind of downplayed by people. He’s a 2014 first round draft pick who posted a 1.78 ERA in 197 2/3 innings in the minors before showing up in the Majors while posting a 192-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His average fastball was 92 MPH but he ran it up to the mid-90’s at time, he throws a solid curve and his change up was just rated as the best of any prospect in baseball by a couple of weeks ago. He’s a damn fine prospect and I’d take my chances with him any day.

Could they bring in someone from the outside? Sure, I can see that. I think it would take another injury or a couple of poor performances from the in-house guys but I can see where they might look at some veteran who is still sitting out there. But with these three guys, as well as Gonzales, Gomber, Tyler Lyons, etc. I think they can probably manage to handle the 5th spot in the rotation internally.

As long as none of the top four guys get hurt, that is.

More: The Bernie List: 10 Cardinals On the Spot Going Into the 2017 Season