How long can Oscar Taveras be contained?
Honestly, this question probably has more to do with what happens at the big league level than how Oscar Taveras performs, especially since we know that the Cardinals considered calling him up last season when Beltran's health was in question for October. Should one of Beltran or Holliday get injured, I doubt that Taveras would linger in Memphis for much longer, unless the early returns on Matt Adams have changed decision makers' minds.
This will be Taveras' first taste of triple-A but his well-above .400 wOBA between Quad Cities and Springfield has me feeling pretty confident about his chances for success. Unless you want to quibble over his walk rate or success on balls in play, there's not much to dislike. Even so, Taveras has drawn a free pass about as often as the league average player, and it's hard to fault someone with his contact skills for swinging more often. Anyone worried about how his .440 BABIP might have influenced his numbers in Quad Cities should have been appeased by a much more reasonable .323 BABIP in 2012.
Can Kolten Wong withstand the long season?
Kolten Wong finished 2012 with underwhelming numbers considering his fast start. Whether it was the result of fatigue or misfortune (suffered through 121 PAs with a .242 BABIP in July), Wong seemed to be pressing as evidenced by a walk rate that fell to 3% in August. Then the Cardinals made a perplexing move by assigning him to the Arizona Fall League where he netted enough singles to inflate his batting average, but his three extra base hits and two walks in 76 plate appearances left me wanting more. So far in 2013, he's at it again with two extra base hits and two walks in 39 plate appearances. Here's to hoping he can sustain a better plate approach throughout this season or his eventual promotion could be threatened by a suddenly competent Matt Carpenter or a surging Greg Garcia.
Can Michael Wacha turn over lineups?
Michael Wacha had a dazzling professional debut. In 21 innings pitched across three different levels in 2012, Wacha struck out more than half of the batters he faced and walked few. Then he showed up at major league spring training and pitted fifteen strikeouts against one walk in 11.2 innings, inspiring Yadier Molina to declare him major league ready and Matheny to annoint his changeup as the best in the organization.
Of course, all of that happened when Michael Wacha only faced batters once coming out of the bullpen, so now he will have to prove that he can turn over lineups by retiring batters multiple times, a more difficult task since it allows hitters to make adjustments and requires more stamina from the pitcher. At the time I'm writing this, Wacha has made two starts for triple-A Memphis where he has accumulated five walks and three strikeouts in nine innings. We should prepare ourselves for the possibility that his learning curve will be steeper than anticipated.
How will playing time be distributed between Ryan Jackson and Greg Garcia?
My favorite spring training tidbit was learning more about the team's opinion of Greg Garcia, even if it meant more doom for Ryan Jackson. At some point, I just assumed Garcia was playing shortstop because Kolten Wong was blocking second base but, if that's not the case, then maybe the Cardinals' depth at shortstop isn't quite the black hole we thought it was. Garcia as a legitimate starting shortstop becomes a much more exciting prospect given his advanced approach at the plate that includes walking far above and striking out less than league average rates.
As for Ryan Jackson? Well, let's review his progress on the organizational depth chart these past eight months: First, he was the preferred SS over Pete Kozma at triple-A. Then he was the backup to Pete Kozma in MLB. Now he is the backup to Greg Garcia at triple-A. Not exactly a banner year.
Jackson is said to be the utility player at Memphis, meaning he should see time at shortstop, second base, and third base. With the more highly touted Wong stationed at 2B, one would think Jackson's best chance for playing time is on the left side of the infield. And if the Cardinals think Garcia can really stick at shortstop, then I'm thinking Jackson might make more appearances at third base, stealing playing time away from Jermaine Curtis. So far (not counting Sunday), Jackson has appeared in three games at shortstop and one game apiece at third and second base. Meanwhile, Garcia has appeared in five games at shortstop.
Can Seth Maness master another level despite underwhelming stuff?
I nearly shed a tear upon reading the line for Seth Maness' most recent start in triple-A. Sure, the results were fine and dandy (1 run in 6 innings), but there was something deeply dissatisfying in his walk total. While it was only two, that's an absurd total for him. Guess how many times he walked two batters in a game last season. Once! In twenty-seven games!
Last year, Jeff suggested that Maness might need to find a little more velocity in order to enjoy success at the big league level, so I was encouraged when Derrick Goold described him as "an unapologetic strike-thrower with more horsepower on his fastball than the previous command specialists the Cardinals have had in the Class AAA rotation."
In case you couldn't tell from my post on Mike O'Neill, I'm a sucker for one trick pony type of players, so I'll be rooting for Maness as he tries to conquer another level of the minors by refusing to hand out free passes.
Will anyone take Tyler Lyons seriously?
Chances are you've heard John Gast's name more often but more reliable statistics portray Tyler Lyons as the superior south paw. Unless you're asking Future Redbirds, all of the most respected top prospect lists ranked Gast higher than Lyons, who usually was left completely off of the list. The numbers don't really support such an opinion, unless of course you have some type of weird fetish for pickoff moves.
Lyons pitched more than eighty innings for Memphis last season and posted his best numbers yet. Compared to his career, his strikeout percentage improved by three percent (24.3%) while his walks decreased by one percent (4.9%), and that combined for a 3.19 FIP. He deserves much more credit.
Can Eduardo Sanchez or Maikel Cleto distinguish themselves?
Cleto and Sanchez are probably my two favorite relievers who still have yet to stick in St. Louis. They generate tons of strikeouts but are plagued with control issues that result in too many base on balls.
Sanchez was electric in his first taste of the majors when he struck out ten of the first seventeen batters faced. Ever since then, he's walked about as many batters as he's struck out which explains why he still finds himself in Memphis. If you're feeling optimistic, he only walked two in 6.1 spring training innings and has only issued one walk in 5.2 innings so far this year.
Cleto, another guy regularly pumping 100-mph fastballs in a farm system loaded with high velocity arms, took some strides in 2012 by increasing his already impressive strikeout rate by seven percent while decreasing his walk rate by four percent. The problem? He still allowed walks to 9.5% of the batters he faced, which was slightly above average for the Pacific Coast League. Even with that many walks, Cleto could still be a valuable bullpen piece if he can sustain improved control and continue missing bats. Unfortunately, Cleto has not enjoyed a promising start to the season as he's allowed eight runs (seven earned) on seven hits and five walks in 4.2 innings, though he has struck out seven.
What did I miss?
Who else should we be paying attention to? What other narratives should we be following? Let's discuss.