We’ve entered the second full week of Spring Training games and the St. Louis Cardinals are 3-4-1 before today’s game against the New York Mets. Records are useless at this time of year. Even at the end of Spring Training, managers are not going to be overly concerned with W’s. The intention has always been to get in as many at-bats and throw as many innings as possible without getting hurt. But what if the age and injury history of players forces managers to coddle them and in turn prevents them from getting their time in?
The Cardinals are not a young team. There are several players in their low-to-upper thirties on the team. These are not role players, but important cogs in the machine. Coming into the season, the biggest question mark in my mind was how the Cardinals would handle situations with these players when they undoubtedly suffer an injury.
I wrote at length last week that the Cardinals were playing some of the Triple-A level players in different positions in an effort to show if they possess the versatility to fill in at a position that is foreign to them. Versatility has been a focal point of new manager Mike Matheny. They have maneuvered Matt Carpenter and Mark Hamilton so far. Even some of the big league players will see time at other positions if they haven’t already. David Freese is going to get some reps at first. Daniel Descalso has been all over the infield, except first base, as he cedes starts at his natural position, second base, to Tyler Greene.
The Cardinals were obviously well aware of the injury history of several of their players. They began Spring Training with a very slow approach with many of the older guys. has it been too slow? It is almost the middle of March and Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman each have six plate appearances going into today. Rafael Furcal has five in two games. Berkman and Furcal are not in today’s lineup, again.
Berkman was nursing soreness in his side last week and Furcal has been battling a tight back according to a tweet from B.J. Rains. We are continuously told that there is nothing to be concerned about. Really?
Furcal is coming off his worst offensive season of his career. It is true he showed a slight uptick in production when he arrived in St. Louis, but his performance in the playoffs was less than encouraging. Also, let’s be honest; anything Furcal did when he took over shortstop was better than what Ryan Theriot was providing and what he was giving the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to the trade. Winning glosses over defects and that is what happened with Furcal.
Berkman, who experienced a renaissance of sorts last year, is playing a position he hasn’t manned full-time since 2010. Wouldn’t you want him to get as much game time action as possible at first base? In Berkman’s case, his bat should not be a problem. In all likelihood he will hit more like he did last season than he did in 2010. But, Berkman is adequate at best as a first baseman. The Cardinals will deal with the fielding deficiencies because of his ability at the plate.
Beltran has been complaining of shoulder soreness since last week. He has been the DH for the games he has played so far and will play right field today for the first time this season. So, his shoulder can’t be too bad and he says it is a non-issue, but is it a precursor of things to come?
On the mound the obvious problem is with Chris Carpenter. We knew that the workload from last season was going to cause a slow path to game situations, but then the neck stiffness creeped up on him. The diagnosis is a bulging disk, not nerve damage that he has suffered from in the past. This is good news, but it is still going to take some time before he can throw. His opening day start is officially in jeopardy as the Cardinals have moved to a plan B of stretching out Lance Lynn. I’m not a doctor, but bulging disks can to lead to nerve issues if they begin to press on them. This I know from experience.
Carpenter will turn 37 at the end of April, so these types of injuries will take more time to subside. It’s nature. There is no avoiding it. Add that to the wear and tear since he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2009 and there is little doubt that 200 plus innings from Carpenter will be a luxury this season.
Adam Wainwright is one year removed from the same elbow surgery and now he’s instantly looked at as the man who will need to take the torch from Carpenter. This is a daunting task from a physical perspective. Pitchers coming off this surgery are not typically at their best immediately after they get back to the mound, nor should they be expected to shoulder the same load they did prior to the injury. Wainwright has come back on the earlier side of the typical recuperation time of 12-18 months.
He made his second start of the spring today going three innings allowing no runs, a hit and a walk and struck out one. He threw 40 pitches on three days’ rest. A nice start indeed and we’ll see how he feels tomorrow. Each start brings more apprehension about how he’ll feel the next day. While the Cardinals will want to ride his right arm, if there is someone on the roster who should be babied it is Wainwright. Carpenter, Berkman, Beltran and Furcal are all in the last segments of their careers. While they may have productive seasons left in them, Wainwright is the one who can still provide exceptional performances for the next several seasons, provided he is treated correctly.
Regardless of age, I’m of the belief that players need reps and lots of them to be completely ready for the regular season. A player’s timing is essential in all facets of the game. No matter how long they’ve been playing baseball, there is never enough a player can do to improve their timing in the field, at the plate or on the mound. Getting reps in aids in the consistency of motion, something each of these players needs to address.
Getting back to the initial question. Is it too early to for Cardinals’ fans to worry about aging veterans? The answer is a resounding no. The injury bug has already hit. It has taken a toll on players who were being used minimally to begin with. They are missing valuable reps which could cause poor performance at the onset of the regular season. The Cardinals can offset these issues because they have a deep bench. However, the fact of the matter is that bench players are usually fill-ins and no more. No offense, but Matheny does not want to be penciling Matt Carpenter and Mark Hamilton into his lineups on a regular basis. But, when you sign guys in their mid-thirties to be the focal point of the roster, then you better be prepared for the consequences.
Topics: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals, Carlos Beltran, Chris Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, David Freese, Injuries, Lance Berkman, Lance Lynn, Mark Hamilton, Matt Carpenter, Mike Matheny, Rafael Furcal, Ryan Theriot, Spring Training, St Louis Cardinals, Tyler Greene