Spring Swing ’14 — Cardinals benefit from competing with each other

David Brown
Big League Stew

JUPITER, Fla. — Not only did the St. Louis Cardinals add shortstop Jhonny Peralta this offseason because he improves the right-handed side of their lineup, but they also buy the biggest buckets of any team in Major League Baseball. Look at the size of that thing in the photo! It's almost as tall as Peralta.

But the left side of the infield and ball storage aren't the only places where Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has been working to improve the reigning National League champions. The Stew's next stop on our Spring Swing '14 caravan is Cards camp, along Florida's Atlantic Coast, where a great team says its goal is to get even better. One way to do that is to ensure that competition is happening at as many positions as possible. A likely exception is catcher Yadier Molina. Other than him (and maybe Matt Holliday, because of his contract), everything else could be up for grabs.

"Realize that you’re fighting for your position every single day," manager Mike Matheny said he told the players. "You need to realize that someone will take it from you and it’ll happen fast. We want to compete and make the most of what we’ve got."

What they've got is a lot of choices. The Cards were one of the deeper teams in the league a season ago and are no less so this spring. Holliday and Allen Craig figure to be at the corner outfield spots, and young Matt Adams will get a chance to play first base full time. If Adams struggles, Craig could slide to first base, which might open an opportunity for top-prospect Oscar Taveras in right. Mozeliak said he probably would prefer for Taveras to get regular at-bats — in the minors or majors — instead of coming off the bench for three or four at-bats a week.

Taveras, fully healthy after sustaining an injury to his right foot in 2013, is the best Cardinals prospect since Albert Pujols. At some point this season, he'll probably be ready to help them.

In center, Peter Bourjos is competing with incumbent Jon Jay for playing time. They bring different talents, with the right-handed hitting Bourjos able to cover more ground in the outfield and, theoretically, on the bases. Jay, who bats left-handed, is coming off his least-productive season at the plate — .276/.351/.370 — but posted a 113 adjusted OPS for three seasons before that. Bourjos, coming over from the Angels in a trade for third baseman David Freese, still has to prove he can be a productive enough hitter to be a starting player. If only the Cardinals could splice them into one center fielder.

"Will it be a shared opportunity? That answer may never come," Mozeliak said. "It may come during the season. It may come after spring training. We just don’t know."

With Matt Carpenter shifting to third base, Mark Ellis was signed to play second in a probable platoon with rookie Kolten Wong, though Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma will be around — competing against each other — for a roster spot. And if something unforeseen happens with Peralta, or Carpenter or anyone, the Cardinals can dip into their farm system, Matheny said.

"You just never know where another opportunity is going to pop up and if a person hasn’t been competing, they’re going to be behind in [seizing the opportunity]," Matheny said. "It sounds like a game inside the game, and it is."

The best offseason news about the Cardinals pitching staff has been the progress of left-hander Jaime Garcia, whose pitches had some of the best movement on the club before hurting his shoulder. He's healthy now, throwing bullpens at full throttle. If ready to go, he's a good bet to follow Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha in the rotation. Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly, each of whom were crucial at different times a season ago, are competing for two rotation spots. Kelly was pitching better than Lynn or Shelby at the end of the season, but he also would seem the most ready to be a swingman. Mozeliak could make a trade here.

Trevor Rosenthal seamlessly became closer in '13 after it was a trouble spot from time to time, and former closer Jason Motte is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Carlos Martinez might have the best stuff of anyone on the staff. Lots of depth here too, and plenty of decisions for Matheny and Mozeliak to make. It must be nice.

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David Brown edits Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rdbrown@yahoo-inc.com and follow him on Twitter!

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