5 Things to Watch This Spring for the Cardinals

Today is the day we fans have been waiting for: pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training today. There are already reports that Nolan Arenado, Paul DeJong, and others have reported as well. As camp gets going, here are the 5 storylines to watch with the team.

Who is going to finish games? There are could be some questions about who will be closing games in 2021. Last season, the Cardinals used 7 pitchers to close out games, and Giovanny Gallegos and Andrew Miller led the team with 4 apiece; this was due to incumbent closer Jordan Hicks opting out of the season (along with recovering from Tommy John surgery). Hicks will probably be eased back into the role after essentially 2 seasons away from pitching, so we could see someone else start the season as the primary closer. Gallegos would be the obvious choice, but Ryan Helsley, Miller, and Alex Reyes could all see some saved until someone steps up. There is also…

What to do with Carlos Martinez? Martinez might be the most polarizing figure on the team. He looked like he had ace potential at one point, but injuries and mental blocks have limited that potential. He’s also seen some time at closer and looked almost unhittable, until he’d give up a big hit and become very hittable. He’s also had some off field issues that have driven fans nuts (see recent driving video).

Martinez is saying he’s 100%; we’ve heard this before though. I would assume that the team will slot him in as the #5 starter until he falters or someone passes him; at that point, he could be up for one of many roles. If he extended for the starter role, he could be a long man; that’s worst case scenario because his stuff is too good for mop up duty. Closer, until Hicks is ready, could be an option, if he’s learned to forget about a bad outing. Set up man would probably be where he’d settle in; he’s just making a lot to be a non-closing reliever. The dark horse option would be using an opener and have Martinez follow (check back later this week how and why this would work).

Who replaces Kolten Wong? With gold glove second baseman Wong being cut loose, this is the one opening in the infield. Matt Carpenter and Tommy Edman have lost their gig at third base, so they have the best chance of competing the position; Edman has played the position in the minors while Carp has played it (badly though) in the past. I think Edman proves more valuable as a multi-positional utility player, while Carp hasn’t proved he could hit in the last few years. The team also brought in Max Moroff and Jose Rondon to compete for a utility role, so either one could see time at second if they were to make the roster; both should be considered the longest of long shots.

The sleeper could be Edmundo Sosa, who is out of options; Sosa didn’t play last season due to Covid, but he’s got the ability to take the position and could be a lead off hitter for the team. There could also be Kramer Robertson and Evan Mendoza. Robertson is the better bat of the 2, but Mendoza is a better defender; if one of them made the roster, it would be as a utility player.

What will be the makeup of the outfield? One spot that could still use an upgrade is the outfield, although the team has said they are pretty much done adding players. The projected starting outfield is Tyler O’Neill in left, Harrison Bader in center, and Dylan Carlson in right. Should any of them falter, Lane Thomas, Austin Dean, and Justin Williams are on the 40-man and Matt Szczur in camp.

I believe O’Neill will have a short leash and we could see Thomas in there quickly, especially if there is a slow start in spring games. I’d like to see more Williams this year, but I think he’s 6th on the depth chart at this point. Unless Szczur has a breakout camp, he’ll be at Memphis.

Bader might be the most interesting here. While people are not high on his bat, he was one of three players to have an OPS+ over 100 in 2020 (meaning he was above average). Part of the issue with carrying Bader in the past was being on the same roster as Wong; both were light hitting and streaky, but made up for it with plus defense. With Wong out of the picture, they can afford to carry him (unless second base has a light hitting player).

To me, the only lock should be Carlson. While his first stint in the majors was not pretty, he corrected things after a short demotion. There will be more growing pains, but he’s an elite talent that needs to get at bats to succeed.

Who will be carrying Yadi’s gear? For a while, the catching tandem looked like Andrew Knizner and Tyler Heineman; that was until the Cardinals brought back Yadier Molina, so the battle shifts to the back up position. Knizner should have the lock on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he spends a majority of the season at Memphis to get playing time; Knizner being at Memphis means Ivan Herrera would start at Springfield. That leaves Heineman and recent acquisition Ali Sanchez as the primary options to back up Yadi.

Heineman has slashed .208/.288/.302 over 62 plate appearances between 2 seasons in the majors. Sanchez has slashed .111/.200/.111 over 10 plate appearances last season. Both are considered defensive first receivers. Of the 2, Sanchez probably has the edge since he’s on the 40-man roster. Neither will see much time if they win the role.

The 5th starter could be another interesting battle, especially if Martinez proves he’s not ready to return to the rotation. Jake Odorizzi still appears to be an option; his availability was recent compared to to that of Kyle Lohse in 2008, when he signed below market value during spring training.

Don’t forget to check the Cardinal Salary Matrix and the Cardinal Prospect Tracker for updates.

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