Uncertainty Surrounds Very Capable Cardinals

As the Cardinals open the 2013 season in Arizona, I think they can be really good, but have a tremendous number of question marks.

First, the items that can be counted on. Matt Holliday’s 162-game average with the Cardinals is .313 with 29 homers, 109 RBI and an OPS of .923. Based on what he’s done in St. Louis, it’s reasonable to expect a .308 average, 26 homers, 95 RBI and an OPS in the .918 area. Yadier Molina had a career year last season, one in which he hit .315 with 22 homers and 76 RBI with an OPS of .874. It’s fair to assume that with his durability, Molina will be in the same range this season. And then there’s Jon Jay. He’s a career .300 hitter with an OPS of .773. He’s been remarkably consistent in each of his three years, so he’s fair to have those expectations for.

At first base, Allen Craig played in a career-high 119 games last year, and hit .307 with 22 homers and 92 RBI. His on-base was .354, and his slugging was .522. But there’s a question: Will he be healthy? Last year was the first time Craig played more than 100 games in the majors. In 2008 in Springfield, he played 129 games, and the next year played 126 in Memphis. Those are the only two of six full professional seasons in which he’s eclipsed 119 games played. When he plays, Craig hits. But the Cardinals need him to play in 135 games this season.

At second base, defensive whiz Daniel Descalso didn’t hit last year, and neophyte second baseman Matt Carpenter is a defensive question mark with a good bat. Right now, the Cards have no idea who is going to play the most, or which one provides them the better chance of winning.

At shortstop, will Pete Kozma be the player who hit a career .236 in the minors (with a best of .258 in A-ball in 2008) with 127 errors in 529 games at short? Or is he the player who hit .333 with three errors in 25 games down the stretch last year, and built upon that with a strong postseason and an outstanding spring?

At third base, will David Freese be able to replicate his 144 games of last year? That was the first time he’d been able to play more than 100 games in a big-league season. His numbers and performance are strong when he plays.

In right field, what can reasonably be expected of Carlos Beltran? At the end of June last year, he was hitting .310 with 20 homers and 61 RBI, and an OPS of .972. After that, he hit .228 with 12 homers and 36 RBI, with an OPS below .700. Can Beltran, with his age, injury history and stamina concerns, be a force in 2013, or will he be this year’s version of Lance Berkman?

It’s not unreasonable to expect Adam Wainwright to return to form in 2013 after regaining strength and stamina last year. But Jaime Garcia, even after a strong spring, still must be considered a question mark because of his balky shoulder. Lance Lynn won 18 games last season, but had to be demoted to the bullpen late in the season. He lost a ton of weight and had a bad spring. What is he going to deliver? Jake Westbrook is a back-of-the-rotation starter. In his last three seasons, his innings pitched have fallen from 202, to 183 to 174. Is he going to return to his 200-inning form at the age of 35? And nobody ever knows what to expect of a rookie like Shelby Miller.

In the bullpen, Jason Motte starts the season on the disabled list, and appears weeks away from returning. Can Mitchell Boggs hold the ninth-inning fort until his return? What will Trevor Rosenthal do over a full season? Can Fernando Salas rebound from a difficult start last season? Can Edward Mujica bounce back from a bad spring? How will Joe Kelly respond to not winning the fifth starter job and return to the bullpen? And can lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Randy Choate pitch better in 2013 than they did last year and this spring?

Each and every one of the question marks is capable. This is a team that has a chance to be great. But the Cardinals also have many questions to be answered. If most of them wind up being answered in the affirmative, St. Louis should have a chance to succeed in September, and that’s all anyone can ask for.