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(KMOV.com) — With fewer than 10 days until the Cardinal pitchers and catchers report and the Super Bowl in the barn, the gears of baseball have begun to grind to life.
There are a million little storylines that will spring to life and flame out between now and Opening Day, and many more after that. Until those emerge, I’m kicking off the new season with three long-term stories I think will provide some entertainment this season. You may have more-or better- narratives to suggest, but from where we are on February 3, these three seem the most interesting.
Allen Craig’s durability in the the outfield
Really, the entire outfield is going to be fun to watch as it sorts itself out with who plays where and how often. Peter Bourjos appears to be the center fielder going into camp, and GM John Mozeliak sketched out the outfield as Craig in right, Bourjos in center and Matt Holliday in left.
Jon Jay and Shane Robinson remain on the team, and Oscar Taveras- according to my sources- still exists and plays baseball. Even without counting Stephen Piscotty and James Ramsey (both of whom have camp invites) that’s an interesting swarm of outfielders that will be fighting for meal time. Whether or not Craig can last in a position that requires more mobility will determine who is eating thin crust pizza and who is eating dry rub ribs.
Craig has started 129 games in the outfield, 41 in 2013. Last year he posted -3 defensive runs saved compared to the league average, and extrapolated out over a full year it would have been -10. They aren’t great numbers, but he entered the season as the first baseman, playing roughly twice as many innings there. Assuming his numbers rise due to being able to train for and commit to the spot, the main concern is the mid-foot injury. Lisfranc injuries have a habit of not going away, or taking longer to fully heal than a rigorous athletic season allows.
A quick look at the last two years in the NFL shows how unpredictable the healing process can be. Football is a lot rougher, but anyone who has broken a toe knows just how little it takes to cause considerable agony if you step the wrong way. A Lisfranc injury is far more complex and painful than that.
Craig’s foot could be 100 percent by March, or it could linger for months.
The role of Oscar Taveras
Everybody is excited for Taveras’ inevitable MLB debut, but Mozeliak has said multiple times they will be taking it slow with Taveras, bringing him up in a low-pressure environment. He is slated for duty in right field instead of center, likely to focus primarily on hitting so as not to overwhelm the young prospect with too many competitive upgrades at once.
So what is a reasonable hope for the rookie in 2014? After missing time with an ankle injury, he’ll almost certainly begin in Memphis to get his sea legs back. He could just explode in camp and force his way onto the Cardinal roster, but following an high ankle sprain and missing a big chunk of 2013, it's far more likely he takes some time to find his stride again.
When he eventually comes up to the bigs, Mozeliak has said Taveras could be used to strengthen the bench, or provide pop in pinch hit situations.
How willing the Cardinals will be to let their prize pony sit in the stable is something we can’t know for sure, but we have to assume he doesn’t come up to St. Louis just to take in the scenery. He is going to have to work into a semi-regular role, and how he gets there will be one of the more interesting things in an already interesting season.
Kolten Wong’s bat
Kolten Wong enters 2014 as the starting second baseman. Camp is camp, and he may not be starting in April, but it’s his spot to lose.
His defense and speed are well-documented, and those never slump. His bat has always been strong through the minors, but his turn in The Show didn’t go so well. It’s an unfairly small sample size, and everyone in the organization- and most of the media, myself included- expect him to be just fine.
But what if he isn’t? This admittedly reads like a troll-ish question, but I just mean what if we are into June and he’s still not hitting? Mark Ellis is on the roster for this very reason- and paid quite handsomely to be there- but if Wong just can’t find it and the season is drawing to a close, it’s going to be kind of uncomfortable isn’t it?
Ellis is on a rent-a-vet contract, and Matt Carpenter will have moved to third base. What do you do with the young Wong? He’s too promising to give up on, but management could be faced with signing another second baseman just after moving an All Star out of the spot to make room for the rookie.
Though history seems to paint Wong's hitting more of a 'when' than an 'if,' he could save everyone a lot of hand-wringing if he broke into the hit column early.