one week till pitchers and catchers report

the trucks have hit the road. ninety gazillion baseballs are bound for jupiter (not that jupiter).

meanwhile, the club keeps making small moves to improve depth, while it quietly plays a last-hand-on-the-car waiting game with roy oswalt. earlier, the club signed a minor league contract with alex cora, hopefully to be the eleventh-string guy called up rather than making kyle lohse play second base on his off-days.

maybe a more interesting signing was yesterday's minor league signing of scott linebrink. hopefully, he won't cut in line ahead of the more deserving young relievers. but, as relief depth that can be stowed in the minors at little to no cost, he seems like an excellent value. he's older (35), and he had a down year last year. he may be in a decline phase. on the other hand, he's been a pretty decent reliever in the past. bgh showed us yesterday how well he compared to kyle mcclellan in 2011. if anything, calling linebrink a mcclellan clone is selling him short. zips thinks linebrink will turn out more like mitch boggs - both have a projection for a 99 era+. mcclellan on the other hand projects to have only an 88 era+. a reliever who projects to be a hair below average is a good thing to get on a minor league deal, however you slice it.

the other most recent signing was a little younger and a little further from the majors. the cardinals signed andres serrano, a 17-year-old hurler from the dominican. for $750,000, getting a young pitcher with a fastball reportedly sitting in the low-90's, reaching up to 95 mph, with a nice curveball to complement his fastball. don't expect him to show up in jupiter next saturday.

but the gang has already started assembling. yadier molina and tony cruz have been catching pitches from adam wainwright, who apparently is in . . . wait for it . . . the best shape of his life. tyler greene and - bizarrely - rick ankiel have been standing in to take pitches against waino. it's great to see him obviously raring to go. i'm not sure that he would have told us that he felt terrible, but ordinary optimism wouldn't require the kind of hyperbolic commentary we've heard from him so far, as well as from the catchers and hitters sitting in with him.

not in the best shape of his life is allen craig, who isn't running and isn't taking swings. he is still rehabbing the muscles in his leg, following knee surgery a few weeks after the world series. it's hard to know how much time he'll need to get back into playing shape once his rehab is done.

stories to watch for:

catchers: bryan anderson and tony cruz face off to find out who gets a big league backup role. but monitoring the roles and commentary from coaches and pitchers is essential to seeing who the club is going to trust in the future. even for catchers who remain far from the majors - like cody stanley and robert stock are trying to impress.

catcher remains a role where subjective impressions are very important. spring training is one of the only chances young catchers get to impress the major league coaching staff. and matheny will be inclined to take catcher development pretty seriously.

left-handed relief: unless rj swindle really impresses, or someone gets injured, the major league staff is pretty much set.but the day is coming when the cardinals will rely on internal lefty depth. sam freeman is on the 40 man already. john gast makes his second non-roster invite appearance, after wowing the club with his magical pickoff move. other possible left-handed relievers include nick greenwood (who's been unimpressive since being got as the other part of the ryan ludwick trade) and kevin siegrist. a prospect who looks like a real future lefty-specialist could move quickly.

starting pitching: there's a good chance lance lynn could be a better choice as a starter than jake westbrook, or even kyle lohse. if roy oswalt doesn't sign, does the club throw a starting pitching competition open? can shelby miller make himself irresistable to the club and move his september promotion forward to april? probably not, but it's definitely worth watching our almost major league ready top pitching prospect. it will also be interesting to see which, among the other options, the court lets take the most starts. do they keep trying mcclellan as a starter? do they take long looks at potential spot starters cleto or dickson?

right-handed relief: less interesting that starters, this category is basically defined as pitchers not good enough (or ready enough) to start. still, watch some guys to begin spring training as relievers. for some, this may represent a role shift. adam ottavino probably pitches most of this season in the bullpen at memphis. joe kelly and jordan swagerty are to other prospects with real question marks on whether they can start. beginning spring training in the bullpen is not the end of the world, but it might lend some credence to the notion that the club views them as relievers long-term.

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