Lineup strengthened but rotation a bit iffy as Cardinals begin spring training



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ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Cardinals dealt starting pitching, seemingly an area of strength, to fill a sudden void when promising outfielder Oscar Taveras died in a car accident.

Jason Heyward strengthens a lineup that underperformed last year and takes over the right field spot the Cardinals had been saving for Taveras. Heading into spring training, the rotation seems just a bit iffy.

The two-time defending Central Division champions are accustomed to making deep October runs, with 11 postseason appearances the last 15 years. Still, a team can't have enough arms this time of year.

Michael Wacha is coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him most of the second half of the season and will be monitored closely. Carlos Martinez is an unknown as the replacement for departed Shelby Miller.

"We're giving Carlos a great opportunity, but opportunity is just that," manager Mike Matheny said. "You've got to make the most of it."

Lefty Jaime Garcia feels strong, for now, following surgery to relieve nerve compression.

Even ace Adam Wainwright arrives with a bit of baggage. Though the procedure was deemed minor, the 20-game winner is coming off elbow surgery for an injury that at the end of the NL championship series left him unable to flip the pop top on a can of soda.

Wainwright, too, will be scrutinized coming off yet another heavy workload.

Lance Lynn and veteran John Lackey are proven innings eaters who'll help in that department. Still, don't be surprised if the Cardinals need some of their surplus arms like lefties Marco Gonzales and Tyler Lyons.

"We have to be very, very aware of what we see. And if something has to cause us to take a break, I believe we have some great options," Matheny said.

The first workout for pitchers and catchers is Friday with the first full-squad workout set for Feb. 25. Most of the team has been in Jupiter, Florida, for a while.

Things to watch for this spring:

CLUTCH BATS: The average with runners in scoring position plummeted last year, and the offense dropped about one run per game. Among the potential tweaks is shifting Kolten Wong to leadoff and moving two-time All-Star Matt Carpenter down in the order to capitalize on power potential.

"I don't remember ever being part of a team that had to grind like we did last year," Matheny said, "where every game was that close, where everything hinged upon one play, one pitch right down to the last out."

BETTER BENCH: Matt Adams has struggled against left-handed pitchers and might have to split time with slugging Mark Reynolds, the top upgrade on the bench. The team has vowed to live with Reynolds' high-strikeout, low-average profile for the power tradeoff. St. Louis trailed the National League with 105 home runs last season. Outfielders Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk, both of whom started at times last season, further strengthen Matheny's options.

BULLPEN SHUFFLE: Jordan Walden, also acquired in the Atlanta deal, is penciled in to replace departed Pat Neshek as the set-up man for Trevor Rosenthal. Another offseason pickup, Matt Belisle, figures to help in long relief or as a spot starter. Besides ability, Matheny is counting on both to add veteran presence.

SELLING HEYWARD: The Cardinals have a history of persuading newly-acquired players to stick around long-term. Mark McGwire, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, to name a few, all said yes to the nightly unconditional love at Busch Stadium that's part of the package. There's salary flexibility with Matt Holliday in the final two years of his deal and the 25-year-old Heyward, who'll be a free agent after this season, could be part of the core group moving forward.

MENTAL RE-SET: Wacha was unused in the postseason until Game 5 of the NLCS when he gave up the series-clinching homer in the ninth inning against the Giants. He'd been dominant in 2013 with a division series-saving victory at Pittsburgh and two wins over the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS. Besides monitoring his uncommon injury, a stress reaction to the shoulder, the young right-hander must move on from bitter disappointment. "Baseball's a game of forgetting," Wacha said. "Usually, you've got a game the next day. This just kind of gives you a little bit more motivation in the offseason that maybe the outcome will change the next time."

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