COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals have done an admirable job temporarily addressing questions that arose in spring training, but many of those same concerns have resurfaced nearly four months into the season.
Who will play shortstop?
When Rafael Furcal went down with Tommy John surgery, the Redbirds announced an old-school competition for the starting shortstop position. Pete Kozma quickly seized control and never looked back. His steady defense and impressive history with runners in scoring position from the eighth hole in the lineup made him a plus player through April and May.
But June and July have not been kind, driving Kozma's batting line to a dismal .233/.278/.293 overall. The sudden decline has forced Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to lean on utility infielder Daniel Descalso -- a poor fit at shortstop most days -- for much of the starting load.
With SS prospect Ryan Jackson (currently hitting .300/.374/.391 in Triple-A Memphis) pummeling lefties at a rate of .352 through July 17 and a prospect-rich farm system making St. Louis a trading-block boutique, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has some decisions to make by the deadline.
Who will provide right-handed power off the bench?
Ty Wigginton, signed as a veteran bench bat with power from the right side, hit just .158 with no home runs and two extra-base hits for the Cardinals. To make matters worse, he hit just .115 with 11 strikeouts in 26 at-bats against lefties. His release leaves at least a conceptual vacancy on the Redbirds' bench, but Mozeliak is not without options.
Temporarily using the roster spot to further protect Yadier Molina's aching knee, the Cardinals called up backup catcher Rob Johnson from Triple-A. Johnson isn't exactly an offensive threat, but his reputation behind the plate means Matheny can turn to right-handed backup catcher Tony Cruz -- a player with experience at both first and third base in his career -- for at-bats against lefties in key late-inning spots. But the club is not likely to carry three catchers for long.
If Mozeliak chooses to turn to his farm system, the most obvious call-up would be first baseman Brock Peterson. In 93 games for Memphis, the 6-foot-3-inch slugger has a .306 average with 22 home runs and 66 RBIs. Nine of those homers have come against lefties, against whom Peterson is hitting .341 with a 1.033 OPS. Compared to his career minor league numbers, that .306 average is due for regression, but his power numbers are no fluke. And that's just what the Cardinals need off their bench -- power from the right side.
While Peterson represents the path of least resistance, Matheny and Mozeliak may not like the idea of letting the trade deadline pass while relying on an untested rookie. Look for the Cardinals front office to acquire a proven right-handed power threat before the July 31 deadline.
Who will fill the fifth starter role in the rotation?
This is a question that's likely to plague the Cardinals well into August and possibly September. The return of Jake Westbrook -- and a fortuitous number of days off allowing the Redbirds to survive with a four-man rotation -- has somewhat stabilized the starting pitcher outlook. But recent struggles by both Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn may indicate a need for even more starting pitching than the Redbirds currently have the slots to accommodate.
Chris Carpenter, on track for yet another miraculous comeback, is positioned to be the Cardinals' most likely option for the fifth starter spot currently occupied by Joe Kelly. Kelly won't be needed until late-July, giving Mozeliak time to evaluate both Carpenter's rehab progress and the trade-market options. But a possible breakdown by Lynn and/or Miller will once again create pressing need. Prospects Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha remain options with Martinez holding a clear lead, but Joe Kelly possesses the rubber arm and relative experience that could prove invaluable with multiple rotation slots up for grabs in September.
And then there's the trade market options.
With the top farm system in the major leagues, the Cardinals' plethora of prospects positions them perfectly for trade proposals. Unfortunately, the top pitcher on the market presents problems of his own. For one, Matt Garza is reportedly expensive. The Chicago Cubs seem to be demanding top-dollar in terms of prospects. For another, the Cardinals are uncomfortable with the idea of handing a division rival one of their best pitching prospects, not to mention the idea of trading a potentially long-term, cost-effective starter for a half-season rental at the same position.
While multiple options exist, don't expect the fifth spot in the rotation to be resolved any time soon.
Who will close games for the Cardinals?
Fans don't like to hear this one, but Edward Mujica is not a closer. He's a good setup man who has been successful closing. He's going to regress, and his recent series of outings seems to suggest that regression is right around the corner. For the Cardinals, the concern should be in saving Mujica as an effective pitcher in the second half rather than ride him to exhaustion as they did Fernando Salas in the same role in 2011.
But that leaves the closer question front and center for the Redbirds' bullpen.
Trevor Rosenthal is the obvious option, perhaps finally ready to make use of his overpowering fastball and starter-quality assortment of pitches in the ninth inning. A lesser-discussed opportunity, however, may emerge in the form of Carlos Martinez.
Recently recalled from Triple-A -- oddly interrupting his development as a starter -- Martinez remains with the club in the pen rather than returning to his preparation as rotation rescue agent. His electric stuff and uncanny poise make him a possible candidate in a ninth inning role for a playoff run, much like Adam Wainwright served in 2006 before entering the rotation the next season.
With all these question marks up in the air, it seems GM John Mozeliak is in for a slew of sleepless summer nights.
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
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