Goold: Answers to Cards' spring questions

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  • JUPITER, Fla. • A clubhouse fixture and favorite with teammates from the first day of spring through the last, one late addition to the Cardinals spent spring earning a place with the ballclub and got word recently of a role in the regular season.

    Yes, the ping-pong table is going north.

    The Cardinals closed the Grapefruit League portion of their spring training Thursday afternoon with a loss to Miami, 6-4. They conclude spring with an exhibition tonight in Memphis against their Class AAA affiliate at AutoZone park, and minutes after the final out will fly a finalized 25-man roster to Cincinnati for Monday’s opener.

    The ping-pong table, where so many players improved over the course of two months, will meet them in St. Louis for the home opener April 7. The Cardinals, 11-13-2 in the Grapefruit League, leave spring behind with fewer questions than they started and one trait any club covets at the end of March: the same level of health they had at the beginning.

    “We had some questions going in: What was our starting rotation going to look like? What was our bullpen going to look like? We’re not even there yet,” manager Mike Matheny said. “But we’ve answered some of those.”

    Rookie Kolten Wong seized his chance to be an everyday player. Stephen Piscotty pulled a Michael Wacha and left such a favorable impression that he could be on speed dial. The Cardinals got solid springs from newcomers (Peter Bourjos) and new starters (Matt Adams), and had uncertainty emerge in the bullpen.

    Forty-eight days ago, on the eve of camp, the Post-Dispatch presented 10 questions for the Cardinals to address in spring. Click the arrows to read how they did:

  • Who won the fifth spot in the rotation? The joust for the opening became a two-man duel and its conclusion proved how role can trump results.

    As a starter, Carlos Martinez dazzled during spring training — once carrying a 14-inning scoreless streak — but without him the bullpen failed to take shape and an eighth-inning answer did not emerge from the right side. The Cardinals scrolled through some young alternatives for the ’pen, but ultimately settled that how Martinez and Joe Kelly finished 2013 would be how they’d begin 2014.

    Kelly was named the fifth starter, Martinez was moved to the eighth inning role, in which he can help save games now and save innings for an inevitable move to the rotation eventually.

  • What injured players proved their health? The two who had uncertain health entering spring training will open the regular season on the disabled list, and be in Florida still rehabbing.

    Jaime Garcia (shoulder surgery) had a setback and his status is an unknown for the first half of the season.

    Jason Motte (elbow surgery) expects to be on a rehab assignment in April and in the majors by sometime in May, at the latest.

  • How would new shortstop Jhonny Peralta fit in?

    In between a welcoming embrace from ace Adam Wainwright on day one and an apology from newcomer David Aardsma this week, Peralta did what the Cardinals expected — quietly interlaced into the clubhouse culture and produced.

    The righty had three homers in spring and proved willing to table-set at No. 2 or No. 7.

  • What rookie would seize his opportunity?

    After a teeth-clenching 0-for-10 start to spring training, second baseman Kolten Wong blossomed and few Cardinals had a better all-around spring that the Hawaiian. He earned the starting job, forced his way toward the top of the lineup and brought the planned vigor to the offense.

    Top prospect Oscar Taveras made more news for his absence than his impact. Lingering distrust with his ankle kept Taveras sidelined as Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk capitalized on their extra at-bats.

    “Everything had to go right” for Taveras to make the opening-day roster, Matheny said. Everything went wrong, and he’ll have to regain lost ground in Class AAA Memphis.

  • Who would run away with the center field job?

    Playing time and cumulative at-bats can be a better measure of a competition’s winner than average, on-base percentage or any other stat, and by all of them Bourjos asserted his claim to the position. The defensively nimble newcomer acquired to cover ground and “create havoc on the bases” had a .425 on-base percentage, while incumbent Jon Jay rarely started in the final two weeks and had a .208 on-base percentage.

    That leaves Jay where he’s been before — trying to earn more playing in the season, as he did in 2010 and 2011.

  • Would the Cardinals embrace defensive shifts?

    The Cardinals increased the use of an unbalanced infield throughout spring, moving Thursday every time Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia came to the plate.

    For at least five batters who had pull-happy tendencies the Cardinals would move their third baseman (not shortstop) over to shallow left field to cover the area.

    Pitchers hesitant to welcome the shifts before got a feel for it, and the Cardinals have mandated that shifts will be used more extensively this season throughout the minors.

  • Can the Cardinals run for more offense?

    Bourjos didn’t get many chances to flaunt his thievery, but most Cardinals operated with a green light all March. Wong had two steals and the Cardinals routinely were aggressive.

    Several times, the Cardinals’ threat of speed — that new offensive trait this season — invited errors by the defense.

    “It’s weird and uncanny that crazy stuff happens in the field when you get those guys on base or when they’re at the plate,” Matheny said. “It makes a difference. It’s going to be fun. Even if we’re not doing anything intentionally, what their speed brings is going to make a difference.”

  • Will returning backups be challenged?

    The Cardinals’ bench won’t look much different to start the season with Mark Ellis the noteworthy addition as backup second baseman and Daniel Descalso, a titan at the plate this past month, back in a utility role.

    Change is on the horizon. Stephen Piscotty, most notably, had an impossible-to-ignore spring with six-extra base hits and a .342 average, and power prospect Xavier Scruggs impressed.

    It’s been several years since the Cards had righthanded muscle off the bench; this spring proved it could be a few months or less before one arrives.

  • How will the ace emerge from a league-high innings last year?

    Adam Wainwright modified his spring schedule to get five starts and not add superfluous games or bullpen sessions. He used his time however to “throw the tar” out of a new sinker, a pitch he believes can give him a different look.

    His efficiency with it peaked in an expedient 81-pitch, eight-inning spring start.

    “They’re not going to be prepared for what he’s doing right now,” Matheny said.

  • What will club do with its financial flexibility?

    The Cardinals bend toward youth this season meant arriving at spring training with a payroll substantially less than last year’s opening-day figure. General manager John Mozeliak accomplished a long-term extension with third baseman Matt Carpenter for six years, $52 million, and he landed Cuban infielder Aledmys Diaz for four years, $8 million.

    Payroll room also allowed the Cardinals to add Pat Neshek and possibly David Aardsma to the roster while only approaching last year’s $115-million roster. With increased revenue from broadcast rights, the Cardinals still have room to grow if necessary around the trade deadline.

    They spent the past month learning what they had.

    They can spend a few more determining what they need.

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