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Cardinals’ leadoff man and DH questions answered; others remain

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JUPITER, Fla. — Almost as soon as spring training started, it seems, it is all but over. The Cardinals have exhibition games slated Monday and Tuesday here against Washington and Miami, then fly home to start the season on Thursday at Busch Stadium against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Lead Post-Dispatch baseball writer Derrick Goold normally poses 10 questions to consider as training begins. This year, the list was cut to nine because of the condensed version of the camp because of to the owners’ lockout of the players. Now we follow up as to whether those questions have been answered:

1. Who will be ready, when and able to pitch how much?

We know right-hander Alex Reyes, who was going to be a reliever but wants to be a starter, won’t be pitching until June or so because of a frayed labrum in his right shoulder. He didn’t throw a ball in camp. We know that right-hander Jack Flaherty, who had shoulder issues at the end of last season, just began a throwing program on Saturday and will be out at least a month and probably more.

On the other hand, right-hander Miles Mikolas, who had a flexor tendon problem that largely derailed his past two seasons, appears healthy and will be the No. 2 starter behind 40-year-old right-hander Adam Wainwright. Right-hander Dakota Hudson who was out most of last season after having had Tommy John elbow surgery the September before, also is fit and will be back in the rotation.

Newcomer Steven Matz, a rare left-hander in the rotation, gives the Cardinals a reasonably solid, if not dominating, foursome. The fifth spot still is a toss-up between right-hander Jake Woodford, who made five good starts down the stretch last season, and right-hander Drew VerHagen, back from two years in Japan and hopeful of retiring left-handed hitters better than he had in the past.

But new manager Oliver Marmol threw a wrench into the matter on Sunday when he said he wasn’t against using an “opener” for the fifth spot or whenever otherwise necessary. Previous Cardinals managers have resisted that temptation — to start a reliever and use him for one or two innings before employing another reliever.

“I wouldn’t say that’s off the table at all,” Marmol said. “There’s definitely some versatility in our bullpen to be able to do that.”

Early in the season, Marmol and pitching coach Mike Maddux will try to limit their starters to five innings and/or 90 pitches. There will be 10 or 11 relievers available on some days, so look for constant change in April until starters are stretched out although some relievers have been trained to go more than one inning.

2. Who gets first crack at designated hitter?

It would be hard to believe that Albert Pujols, one of the most productive hitters ever to wear the Cardinals’ uniform, won’t be the first DH out of the box on Thursday, even with right-hander JT Brubaker starting for the Pirates.

But Pujols, back with the Cardinals after 10 seasons in California, was not nearly as productive last season against right-handed pitching as against left-handers. And left-handed batting Corey Dickerson, who like Pujols, signed to a one-year deal, has been more productive against right-handers, so some sort of platoon probably will be in order.

Marmol has said he will use the DH tool, novel to the National League, as a method to get his regulars players such as Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Yadier Molina a day off from the field. Also, there are two potential candidates at Class AAA Memphis in right-handed hitting Juan Yepez and left-handed hitting Nolan Gorman. Left-handed hitting Lars Nootbaar, the fourth outfielder, is a possible DH choice although his spring offensive numbers were not impressive as he tried to hit for more power.

3. What are the fundamentals of Camp ‘Oli’?

Given their limited time here, the Cardinals spent considerable time going over the fundamentals of base running, and not just the base stealing part of it.

Third-base coach “Pop” Warner aggressively tried to score runners from third on grounders to the infield or runners from second on a hit to the outfield. Some Cardinals’ veterans, such as Goldschmidt and even Molina, are good, if not fast base runners, and the club has some speed to deploy in Tommy Edman, Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader. If Dylan Carlson hits leadoff, he might steal more than two bases this year, too.

Though their defense is the best in baseball, Marmol and his staff also paid extra attention to that to keep it at top-shelf level.

4. Who’s the match that ignites at leadoff?

“Dylan’s done a nice job (at leadoff) when we’ve allowed him to do that this spring,” Marmol said. “You look at what he’s done against left-handers over the course of his career and it’s pretty good. And he’s proven to be pretty good from the left side, as well. So he’s someone who fill that spot more often than that.”

Edman, another switch-hitter who led off most of the time last year, spent much of the spring trying to make himself more productive against right-handed pitching, which, in theory, would help his .308 on-base percentage from 2021. The results did not necessarily show on the field. Edman had only an infield hit to show for his first 20 spring at-bats and is most likely to hit eighth or ninth, especially against right-handers. His ability to steal a base — he had 30 last season — still can be valued from that position in the order.

5. Can Paul DeJong seize shortstop?

He has. Other than Goldschmidt, DeJong was the best Cardinals hitter this spring, hitting for power and to all fields, the latter of which was not part of his game all season as he played mental gymnastics trying to figure out what had gone awry, and, instead, wound up on the wrong side of .200.

DeJong just looks like a more confident hitter rather than one searching for answers, after an offseason of reflection and work. Perhaps he seized on the dual mandates that (a) president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told him in November that the Cardinals were not going outside the organization to participate in the rich shortstop market and (b) that Marmol had said early in camp that the position was DeJong’s to lose.

He didn’t. And it wasn’t that Edmundo Sosa, who finished last season as the regular, played badly. He didn’t.

6. What roles await Reyes, Hicks & the Swingmen?

Reyes probably will not get his chance to start when he comes back from his shoulder injury. He could help the Cardinals more in the bullpen — and sooner — if he was programmed to pitch two or three innings and not five.

Jordan Hicks, who has been in 10 games (for 10 innings) in the past two seasons, was one of the most notable players in camp. He showed no ill effects from his balky right elbow and was able to pitch more than one inning. This doesn’t mean he is the closer again, but he could be a big part of the bullpen from the sixth inning on or even be one of the candidates for an “opener.” Hicks long has wanted to start anyway.

VerHagen, Woodford and Aaron Brooks, back after two years in Korea, all are capable of three or more innings as either starters or relievers. In theory, the Cardinals will leave camp with seven starters, which might barely be enough after their injury troubles of the last year.

7. How will they fill the openings before closer?

Marmol made it a point that presumptive closer Giovanny Gallegos wouldn’t always be pitching the ninth inning. If there was an inning fraught with peril earlier in the game, as in the seventh or eighth, Gallegos or several others could pitch then.

Ryan Helsley, healthy again after having his knee and elbow fixed, could close for any team, said Marmol, and that team occasionally could be the Cardinals.

Left-hander T.J.McFarland, a double-play machine after he joined the Cardinals for the second half of last season, will appear anywhere between the sixth and eighth. The mystery man is hard-throwing left-hander Genesis Cabrera, who could pitch the ninth inning but, for whatever reason, wasn’t as hard-throwing this spring as we have come to expect.

Look for a healthy Kodi Whitley to provide late-inning insurance, too.

8. Will there be any time for surprises?

There wasn’t much time but still plenty for Marmol and his staff to get a good read on versatile, lefthanded-hitting Brendan Donovan, who will be spending plenty of time in St. Louis this year — just not yet. Donovan didn’t have a great spring average but showed he could handle several positions, displayed some speed and didn’t strike out all that much.

Right-handers Jake Walsh and Andre Pallante and left-hander Connor Thomas all pitched well out of the bullpen this spring and should be in St Louis at some point this year. Walsh might have the edge now as a 40-man roster player, but Pallante has been more impressive.

9. Do they have enough to win it all?

That was the talk coming from camp.

“All” did not mean making the playoffs. It meant, from Marmol on down, talking of being the last team standing. But help will have to come from Flaherty and, maybe Reyes, too.

The Cardinals’ rotation, at present, does not match up with some of the others in the league, notably division rival Milwaukee.

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