Starting pitching will likely determine success in 2013

Starting pitching will likely determine success in 2013

ST. LOUIS -- The calendar is set to turn to 2013, and only seven weeks remain before the Cardinals' catchers and pitchers will all descend upon the team's Spring Training complex in Jupiter, Fla., in order to begin preparing for next season.

The club has done little so far this offseason, though that's been by design. The majority of the Cardinals' 2012 team -- one that advanced to within one game of the World Series -- is returning, and manager Mike Matheny has a year of experience to grow from.

The rotation is set to feature returning veterans and competition among the younger core. The middle of the lineup returns entirely intact. The bullpen should be better with the addition of Randy Choate. And upgrading the bench remains an ongoing priority.

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Questions remain, though, and here is a look at 10 of the most interesting ones the Cardinals face heading into 2013:

10. Will the bench become more formidable?

Due largely to injuries, the Cardinals' bench was substantially depleted by the time the club entered postseason play. Without many pinch-hitting threats, Matheny was limited in the late-inning moves he could make during the playoffs. The Cardinals signed 35-year-old Ty Wigginton to serve as a veteran right-handed hitter who can provide depth in the outfield and a tough at-bat off the bench. If there is not another addition before the spring, the bench will again be dominated by youth.

9. Will Kolten Wong and/or Oscar Taveras make a big-league impact?

The Cardinals top two position player prospects will be knocking on the big league door in 2013. Both made the jump from low Class A to Double-A in 2012 and thrived while helping lead the Springfield (Mo.) club to a Texas League Championship. Neither is likely to be on the Cardinals' Opening Day roster, but both should begin the year in Triple-A. If the Cardinals have a midseason need at second base or in the outfield, expect Wong and Taveras to be in the discussion as possible answers.

8. How well will Cardinals guard against wear and tear to veteran position players?

Matheny has vowed to do a better job resting his older position players in an effort to prevent nagging injuries from surfacing late in the season. Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal are among those who could benefit from such preventative maintenance. Otherwise, much like last season, the Cardinals could be susceptible to injuries if precautions aren't taken early.

7. Can the bullpen emerge as a strength of this team?

In 2012, it wasn't until Edward Mujica's arrival at the Trade Deadline that the team's bullpen finally meshed. With Mujica returning and Choate added as a lefty specialist, the Cardinals are hopeful that the 'pen will be settled from the start. Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs give the Cards a strong back end of the bullpen, and St. Louis could slide some of its young starters into relief roles, if needed. If Marc Rzepczynski enjoys a bounce-back year, it's certainly not a stretch to expect the relief pitching to be strong.

6. Will Chris Carpenter regain his ace form?

With his unexpected late-season return in 2012, Carpenter proved that he had successfully recovered from thoracic outlet syndrome. Now he has to show that he is still an elite pitcher after having missed almost a full year. Carpenter has worked to improve his strength all offseason, but the reality is that he will be 38 years old in April and has had a long list of arm troubles. The Cardinals anticipate that he'll slot in near the top of the rotation again, but he has much to prove before that can be considered a given.

5. Where will the Cards find a fit for all their young pitchers?

If all of their veteran starters are healthy, the Cardinals appear to have one open rotation spot to be filled by Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal or Joe Kelly. All four of those pitchers, to varying degrees, had breakout performances for the Cardinals in 2012. Obviously, not all can win a starting job, so the Cardinals will weigh using one or two in the bullpen. There's also the option of sending any of the four back to Triple-A to stay stretched out as a starter. While there seems to be a logjam for jobs, the starting pitching depth could be key in case of injury or ineffectiveness.

4. Can the Cardinals sign Adam Wainwright to an extension before he hits free agency?

Wainwright is poised to be one of the gems of the 2013-14 free-agent market, which is incentive enough for the Cardinals to work out an extension with the right-hander before Wainwright ever enters that pool. Wainwright has expressed an interest in working out a deal, and St. Louis wants him to stay. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, with the growing contracts for elite starting pitchers, Wainwright will likely command around $20 million annually for the duration of a long-term deal. The Cardinals ultimately have to decide whether the organization wants to make that sort of financial investment in Wainwright.

3. Will Jaime Garcia be healthy for a full season?

After receiving three opinions on his ailing left shoulder in October, Garcia opted to forgo surgery and instead address the injury with rest and rehab. He is slated to begin a throwing program in January, and when he does, the Cardinals will get a better feel for how ready he'll be for Spring Training. Garcia had to be shut down twice in 2012 due to the same left shoulder issue, meaning there are still no guarantees that he'll be able to make it through a full year. If Garcia, the rotation's only lefty, can't stay healthy, the Cardinals' pitching depth will be tested.

2. What will happen with the middle infield?

The Cardinals have few roster questions going into 2013, but the middle infield is one big one. First, Furcal has to prove that he is healthy. Like Garcia, Furcal chose not to have surgery after his season ended prematurely due to injury. The magnetic resonance imaging tests taken of Furcal's right elbow since he sustained a tear in it have come back clear this offseason, but he still hasn't put his arm through much rigorous throwing. Then there's the second base job, which looks to be Daniel Descalso's to lose at this point. If the Cards don't add another middle infielder, they may not get much offensive production from these two spots.

1. Can the club find a way back to the top of the National League Central?

Despite the postseason success the Cardinals have had the last two years, remember that the club has won a division title just once in the past six years. That was in 2009, when the Cardinals were then knocked out of the postseason in the first round. The Reds have been division winners in two of the past three seasons and have been active in improving their Major League team this winter. It could end up being a two-team race for the division late in the season and health and starting pitching will be keys as both clubs try to knock off the other.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.