Cardinals play it safe with Craig

2012-02-27T11:30:00Z 2012-03-03T16:51:18Z Cardinals play it safe with CraigBY JOE STRAUSS | > 314-340-8371

JUPITER, Fla. • Stealing a line from their former manager's spring anthem, the Cardinals are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst regarding Allen Craig's availability for opening day.

Now recovering from knee surgery in November, Craig last summer provided impressive production per at-bat before contributing three home runs and three game-winning RBIs during an epic World Series. He represents the biggest variable on a bench that otherwise projects little power or righthanded presence.

General manager John Mozeliak concedes his assumption is the club would open the season without Craig, meaning Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny will devote much of camp to contingencies.

"I don't want to oversell it and not have deliverable expectations," Mozeliak said during Sunday's workout. "The most important thing is to get him back healthy and playing, the sooner the better, no doubt about it. But we don't want to do anything that creates a setback simply because we're trying to reach early April."

Craig is expected to participate in on-field stretching activities with the rest of the club today. He has so far been confined to the weight room and trainer's table except for isolated light throwing sessions with training staff.

Craig is scheduled to continue strength exercises on his right leg this week before progressing to agility drills next week. The club might then consider allowing Craig to again swing a bat and run, activities he hasn't performed since October. Of his right leg, Craig said Sunday, "I'm really starting to get stronger."

The Cardinals are more concerned about Craig's long-term availability than in him beating a conservative timetable. The club initially projected a rehab of four-six months for Craig after he required insertion of two screws to mend his fractured right kneecap. Resulting inactivity caused his right quadriceps to atrophy.

Craig arrived at the Roger Dean Stadium complex in January to press his recovery in hopes of being available for the April 4 season opener. Creeping reality has caused him to modify his goal to the April 13 home opener.

"I haven't had one day where I've gone in the gym and haven't been able to do an exercise or haven't done the program because I've been sore or been too swollen," Craig said. "It's like a plateau. You make progress then level off for a while then take another step forward. It's a process. I feel like I'm on another upswing."

Described by Mozeliak as a "very, very important part of our team," Craig's short-term absence would initiate a series of moves affecting the Cardinals' early bench.

"I've been pretty forthright. When they say he's ahead of schedule, that's what I know," Matheny said. "There are still peaks he has to get to. He's where he's supposed to be and actually he's a little bit ahead. But the next jump is going to be a test and I don't know if he's going to make that next test. I'm listening to what they're telling me and I'm not jumping too far ahead with my own conclusions."

Craig averaged a home run every 18.2 at-bats and an RBI every five at-bats last season. Though his 219 plate appearances fell far shy of officially qualifying, Craig's home-run frequency would have tied for 12th among National League players.

"When he plays, he's a pretty good bat," Mozeliak said. "In a rate-stat mode, he's very productive when he plays."

Matheny allowed Sunday that he sees little chance of the club opening with three catchers, barring injury to starter Yadier Molina. Tony Cruz, Brian Anderson and nonroster veteran Koyie Hill will compete for the backup role, leaving four other bench spots should the club break with a 12-man pitching staff.

A three-man competition at second base will also factor. Should Tyler Greene emerge as the starter, lefthanded bats Skip Schumaker and Daniel Descalso would serve utility roles. The team's starting second baseman for much of the previous three seasons, Schumaker would move to a hybrid role that could offer more time in the outfield.

Descalso, who appeared in 148 games last season, would represent depth at three infield positions. He ended last season as late-inning insurance at third base, where he was nominated for a Gold Glove.

Greene's regular presence at second base would also widen an opening for veteran Alex Cora to remain as backup to shortstop Rafael Furcal.

Cora, 36, played all infield positions last season with the Washington Nationals but has spent the vast majority of his 14-year career at shortstop and second base. Ryan Zimmerman's early-season abdominal injury caused Cora to appear most often at third base, a position the Cardinals hope belongs to David Freese.

Cora, another lefthanded hitter, has taken more than 250 at-bats in only one of the last six seasons.

Were Greene to play himself off second base, the Cardinals might revisit Schumaker's role and increase the need for an additional outfielder. Shane Robinson, rookie Adron Chambers and Rule 5 acquisition Erik Komatsu would in turn appear to benefit from Schumaker's enhanced exposure at second base.

Two other lefthanded bats, third baseman Matt Carpenter and first baseman Mark Hamilton, could receive time in the outfield this spring as well. Should Craig be unavailable to begin the season, Carpenter could land a bench role after hitting .300 last season at Class AAA Memphis and making seven appearances with the parent club.

Already Matheny has heard questions about who might back up Lance Berkman at first base and Carlos Beltran's availability to play center field. Impressed by the team's flexibility, Matheny has consistently said that the next several weeks will provide answers and that he is wary of premature judgments.

As Craig prepares to enter the next phase of his rehabilitation, the Cardinals project a confident front.

"As we sit here today," Mozeliak said, "I'm not overly concerned."

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