1. Will Carlos Martinez fulfill his promise?
We’ve heard a lot the last few years about Carlos Martinez. But his control problems — both on and off the field — have inhibited his growth. Will 2015 be his breakout season? The biggest questions are his role and whether he can be effective against lefties; the gap in his splits — .355 career wOBA against vs. LHB, .282 vs. RHB — may help answer the first, as Mike Matheny may opt for a chance to use him more advantageously as a reliever if Martinez can’t sufficiently fill in for the injured Jaime Garcia in the rotation. Cardinal fans have reason to be hopeful, regardless of his role, since Mike Podhorzer figures that Martinez’s walk rate will decline in 2015 based on his expected walk rate.
2. Will the offense’s lack of power matter?
The Cardinals were dead-last in in the league in home runs in 2014, and observers are concerned that the team’s paucity of power this spring will be a problem come April 5. Will it?
One can answer that question in a couple of ways. First, last year’s success despite the lack of power is a strong argument against it mattering. The club won the division on the strength of their defense, pitching and an above-average ability to reach base, so assuming that those other aspects of their game remain intact, the power dearth is a secondary concern. The only real change to the lineup is Jason Heyward instead of Allen Craig in right field, so their defense is only improved, even given some expected degradation from Matt Holliday. The pitching staff is also better, if anything.
Another response to the question is to question the premise: After all, the Steamer projection system forecasts that the Cardinals will improve to a 19th rank in home runs this year. Heyward, who projections systems variously expect to knock 16-20 long balls, almost singlehandedly accounts for the upgrade.
3. Does the team have enough depth to support the vets?
Although the team has been getting steadily younger over the last five years, three of its key starters — Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta — and two of its rotation — Adam Wainwright and John Lackey — are on the wrong side of 30. The Cardinals have an ascendant Randal Grichuk backing up the outfielders. However, his 2014 postseason highlights notwithstanding, he offers the on-base skills of Pete Kozma. Speaking of, Kozma is the team’s lone backup for Peralta at shortstop (as well as at second base). As for catcher, the Cardinals thought so much of backup Tony Cruz that they opted for AJ Pierzynski last year, as one blogger noted. Bottom line: If the team’s 30-somethings miss much time, the Cardinals will be hurting.
4. What will become of Jason Heyward?
The on-the-job interview — for both parties — begins tonight at Heyward opens the season in right field. Will he follow in the footsteps of Matt Holliday, convincing the Cardinals to make a rare nine-figure long-term investment? Will he rediscover the offense to go with his prodigious defense and price himself out of the Cardinals’ market? We expect that Cardinal fans will do their part to woo the 25-year-old, and that the club’s success in 2015 will be sufficient to engender goodwill toward the franchise. Even if Heyward doesn’t revisit his early-career power, his defense and on-base skills should warrant a new Cardinal contract. Indeed, the Cardinals may be wishing for a productive but not flashy — as in ESPN home-run reel — season from their new right fielder.
5. Will Matheny mature as manager?
Mike Matheny enters his fourth season as big-league manager. Will he remain on his current plateau of conventionalism or ascend a new path to give the Cardinals strategic and tactical advantages? Joe Maddon’s transfer into the division decreases the margin for error, meaning Matheny needs to tighten up his game, whether it’s with pitcher deployments or sacrifice bunting. A manager’s role pales in comparison with the players, but in a division in which one or two games may be the difference, Matheny can help be a difference maker — in a positive way.