While everyone expects the Cardinals to have a playoff spot pretty much locked in, there are still a few questions that are left to be answered. For some teams, the questions asked here are big ones, involving things that may make or break a season. For St. Louis, these are more “hey, wouldn’t it be nice?” things — even if they don’t pan out, the Cardinals shouldn’t be in dire straits.
Can Allen Craig put together a healthy season?
Craig has done nothing but hit when in the lineup, and when he’s healthy, the Cardinals have one of the deepest lineups in the National League. The problem is that Craig hasn’t been able to stay off the disabled list since breaking into the majors. He came close last year, playing the entire season before going down in September with a foot injury that kept him out until the World Series. Before the injury, Craig was a fringe NL MVP candidate, and ended up finishing with a few down-ballot votes even after missing the season’s final month.
With Carlos Beltran gone, Craig will have to help pick up some of the slack offensively while also taking Beltran’s spot in right field. For a guy who’s had trouble staying on the field, more time in the outfield may not be the best idea, but if Oscar Taveras forces the team’s hand into more playing time, Craig could find himself back at first. As is typical for the Cardinals, even if Craig ends up making another DL stint or two, they’re at least well-covered.
Can they repeat their success with runners in scoring position?
Craig was just one of many Cardinals to excel while hitting with runners in scoring position last season. As a team, St. Louis hit an ungodly .330/.402/.463 with RISP, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they were easily the highest-scoring team in the National League. With two outs and runners in scoring position, the production did “slip” — all the way down to .305/.397/.424.
Stats-minded people kept expecting them to come back to earth, but the hot streak last the entire season. If your team was facing the Cardinals, it was maddening. No lead against St. Louis seemed big enough. So was it a one-year fluke, or does The Cardinal Way include laughing in the face of those that say clutch hitting isn’t a repeatable skill? While it’s certainly possible they’re doing something to emphasize situational hitting, recent history (and probably common sense) would say you shouldn’t expect them to hit .330 again. In 2012, they hit .264/.353/.422 with RISP. The year before that, they hit .290/.378/.454. Good hitters will tend to hit well in any situation.
Does Carlos Martinez belong in the rotation or the bullpen?
The Cardinals have one of the more exciting pitching prospects in the game in Martinez. Even though he’s just 22, he doesn’t have much more to prove in the minors. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a rotation spot for him — that sort of thing will happen when Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha came up ahead of him and staked their own claim to spots. So unless the Cardinals get over their love for Joe Kelly and put Martinez in the 5th spot of the rotation, it appears his role — at least for now — will be out of the bullpen.
With electric stuff, there’s no reason to think Martinez won’t thrive in a bullpen role, even if his first big league stint was a bit rocky. With Jason Motte still on his way back from Tommy John surgery, Martinez could be a valuable late-inning bridge to Trevor Rosenthal. The danger here is that Martinez would be so good as a single-inning reliever that the Cardinals would be tempted to leave him there. That is, after all, what happened with Rosenthal, who was a very good prospect as a starter in his own right and now seems locked into the 9th inning for the foreseeable future.
When people are calling you “Baby Pedro,” though, it’s probably a sign you should be in the rotation. Of course, even if Martinez does spend this year working the late innings out of the bullpen, it doesn’t mean he’ll be banished there for good — this is the same organization that broke Adam Wainwright into the big leagues as a late-inning reliever before putting him back in the rotation.