Bless the month of March. With spring training in full swing, a writer can devote a column to baseball without it being merely wishful thinking. March is a month of optimism for every fan base, and one for questions. Lots of questions. Here are five that will need answering within the St. Louis Cardinals system.
• Is Michael Wacha healthy?
If one question could be a tipping point for the Cardinals’ 2015 season, this may be it. An unusual shoulder injury — a stress tear — limited Wacha to 19 starts last season. The MVP of the 2013 National League Championship Series was not the same pitcher when he allowed the pennant-winning home run to San Francisco’s Travis Ishikawa in Game 5 of last October’s NLCS. If Wacha is closer to his 2013 self this season, the Cardinals could have the best trio of starting pitchers (Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn) between Los Angeles and Washington D.C. If Wacha’s injury compromises his considerable talents, the domino effect will be profound, and felt here in Memphis with the Redbirds.
• Will Marco Gonzales be a Cardinal or Redbird?
The most significant domino in play among Cardinal pitchers is the 23-year-old lefty from Colorado by way of Gonzaga. Everyone from Cardinal managing partner Bill DeWitt to that fan in red you passed last Sunday in the grocery aisle wants Carlos Martinez to win the fifth slot in the St. Louis rotation. And Martinez (now 23) desperately wants the ball every fifth day. Alas, he threw all of 89 innings last season and started only seven games. What kind of load can Martinez be expected to handle? Veteran Jaime Garcia — he of the annual arm trouble — is back in the mix and is being paid like a starting pitcher ($9.25 million this season). Gonzales will likely land in middle relief for the Cardinals, or at the front of the Memphis rotation.
• Who will be the new faces to know at Third and Union?
The Redbirds will have a veteran backbone in 2015, with Xavier Scruggs (1B), Stephen Piscotty (OF), and Tim Cooney (P) expected back from the 2014 playoff team. But there’s always turnover in the minor leagues. Mike Mayers (an Ole Miss alum) will compete for a spot in the Redbirds’ starting rotation. Flame-throwing reliever Sam Tuivailala may become a 9th-inning star for Memphis. And a pair of veteran infielders — Dean Anna and Ty Kelly — will be making their debuts in the St. Louis system, each on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster.
• Is Jacob Wilson coming home?
This 24-year-old infielder has had AutoZone Park on his horizon since being selected by the Cardinals in the 10th round of the 2012 draft. The graduate of Bartlett High School starred at the University of Memphis where he led Conference USA with 17 home runs in 2012 and was named C-USA’s Player of the Year. Wilson split time at Class-A Palm Beach and Class-AA Springfield last year, his season shortened to 66 games by a knee injury. The Cardinals had Wilson play some first base in the Arizona Fall League, expanding his value in the system, second base in St. Louis appearing to be in the firm possession of Kolten Wong. Look for Wilson to start the season in Springfield, but also expect a Memphis professional debut for the former Tiger at some point in 2015.
• What can we expect from new Redbirds manager Mike Shildt?
Like Pop Warner before him, Shildt is a Cardinal soldier, with more than a decade in the system, the last six years as a manager. And championships seem to follow him. He won a pair of Appalachian League titles with Johnson City (2010 and 2011), then a Texas League flag with Springfield in 2012. (That Springfield team featured Wong, Martinez, and the late Oscar Taveras.) Shildt emphasizes the “process-driven” ways of the Cardinal farm system, with less emphasis on game-to-game wins than on developing winning players, ready to perform at Busch Stadium. During a brief media session last month, Shildt came across as a professional still enthused by the chores of teaching baseball played the right way. Will he win games in Memphis? As always, that will depend on the players the parent club deals him. But there’s no reason to believe Mike Shildt will lose games in the dugout. He has the jewelry to prove it.