ST. LOUIS -- This is the second of a seven-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and other options heading into Spring Training. Up next: corner infielders.
For all the question marks that surround the Cardinals' middle-infield situation, the club has security and stability at its corner-infield spots. That is, as long as health remains a non-issue, which is far from guaranteed given the history of the primary pair of individuals involved.
Still, both Allen Craig and David Freese took critical steps forward in 2012 to shed the injury-ridden label that had been affixed to both in recent years.
After missing the first month of the season while recovering from offseason knee surgery, Craig went on to appear in a career-high 119 games. The majority of those were at first base, which, with Carlos Beltran returning as the team's right fielder, will be Craig's position to carry again in 2013.
The Cardinals look to Craig's 2012 numbers with optimism that he can sustain such prolific production at a position where that's expected. Craig finished the season as the club's cleanup hitter and could well slot in there again next season, protected on both sides by some combination of Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Beltran.
"I've always thought of myself as a guy that could hit in the middle of the order and stuff like that," Craig said during the postseason. "I'm definitely excited about the opportunity to hit fourth on this team. It's an honor, and I like doing it."
Craig finished last season with a slash line of .307/.354/.522, as well as 35 doubles, 22 home runs and 92 RBIs. No National League first baseman with at least 400 at-bats had a higher batting average. And though Craig twice landed on the disabled list, only two NL first baseman -- Washington's Adam LaRoche (100) and Atlanta's Freddie Freeman (94) -- drove in more runs than Craig, who averaged an RBI every five at-bats.
"You get guys in scoring position and you give him too many opportunities, he's eventually going to make something happen," manager Mike Matheny said of Craig. "That's what he does. There are some guys who really do make the most of those opportunities, and Allen's stats really back that up."
The depth behind Craig is sufficient, too, should something happen that takes him out of the lineup. Matt Carpenter, who will be in the mix for playing time at second base, will serve as Craig's primary backup at first. Carpenter appeared in 44 games (30 as a starter) at the position in 2012, which marked his first full season in the Majors.
Carpenter finished the year hitting .294. He drove in 46 in 296 at-bats.
The Cardinals would feel plenty comfortable plugging in Ty Wigginton at first base, as well. Wigginton, who was signed in December to provide a veteran right-handed presence off the bench, gives the Cardinals depth at both corner infield positions.
Then there's Matt Adams, who is likely to return as Triple-A Memphis' starting first baseman. Though Adams is considered by many to be Major League ready -- he's ranked sixth among the Cardinals' top prospects -- there are concerns about whether keeping him on the big league roster in a bench role could stall his development.
"I don't know if that's best for his career," general manager John Mozeliak said when asked about Adams' potential to fit on the bench. "Getting at-bats is probably the most important thing for him."
Adams hit .329 with 22 doubles, 18 homers and 50 RBIs in 67 Triple-A games before an elbow injury ended his 2012 season prematurely. He would certainly give the Cardinals insurance at the position should Craig be sidelined for an extended period of time.
Across the diamond, Freese will look to build upon a 2012 season in which he played a career-high 144 games. Freese endured a handful of minor injuries last season -- including a right ankle sprain that cost him four games during the final week of the year -- but nothing that necessitated a trip to the disabled list.
It was a welcome and refreshing change for Freese, who had been limited to 167 games combined in 2010-11 because of injury issues.
"I've been an everyday guy growing up through college and through the Minors and kind of hit a wall here in the big leagues because of injuries," Freese said late in the year. "But I think I've battled through it."
Freese became a first-time All-Star in 2012 and finished the year with a .293/.372/.467 slash line. He drove in 79 runs and was one of five Cardinals players to connect for at least 20 homers. Among all NL third baseman, his home run and RBI totals ranked seventh.
Freese, who will turn 30 in April, has established himself as the Cardinals' permanent answer at third base -- and not simply because of one storybook month in 2011.
Backing up Freese will be Carpenter, Wigginton and Daniel Descalso. Though Carpenter will arrive at Spring Training ready to play at any of five positions, third base is still his natural one. Descalso can transition seamlessly to the hot corner, too, if needed. And of the 1,097 starts Wigginton has made in the Majors, 623 have come as a third baseman.