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3 questions Cards must answer entering 2020

@anne__rogers
January 20, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals have had their focus on 2020 since the middle of October, when they lost the National League Championship Series to the World Series champion Nationals. St. Louis got back to the top of the NL Central in 2019, and it wants to sharpen its strengths

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals have had their focus on 2020 since the middle of October, when they lost the National League Championship Series to the World Series champion Nationals.

St. Louis got back to the top of the NL Central in 2019, and it wants to sharpen its strengths and improve its inconsistencies in the coming season, with the hope that this brings the club even deeper into October.

As we turn the page on 2019, here are some key dates and questions for the Cardinals' '20 season:

Countdown to Spring Training: Key dates and events to remember

Pitchers/catchers report date: Feb. 11-12

Position players report date: Feb. 16-17

First Spring Training game: The Cardinals begin Spring Training -- and the 2020 season -- against the Mets at 12:05 p.m. CT on Feb. 22 at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.

When is Opening Day?
The Cardinals open the 2020 season in Cincinnati on March 26 at 3:10 p.m. CT. Their home opener is against the Orioles on April 2 at 3:15 p.m. CT.

Three questions the Cards need to answer before Opening Day

1. What does the outfield look like?
This is perhaps the Cardinals’ biggest question, as they have a glaring hole in left field that Marcell Ozuna left behind when he rejected the qualifying offer. There’s a chance the 29-year-old could return, but it’s more likely he finds a team that will commit more years to him. This spot could be filled from the outside -- the Cards have said they’d like a left-handed bat in the lineup, and left field is a good spot to fill. But St. Louis has also said it wants to determine whom from its young outfield group could emerge as an everyday left fielder (assuming, as the Cardinals are doing right now, that Harrison Bader will be in center and Dexter Fowler will be in right). Lane Thomas, Tyler O'Neil, Justin Williams and the recently acquired Austin Dean are all expected to compete for a spot. The Cards’ top prospect, Dylan Carlson, will also be in that mix. All except Williams are right-handed, but St. Louis is hoping that, through competition, a quality bat and new face in the lineup emerges.

2. Who will be in the fifth rotation spot?
After the Cardinals signed left-hander Kwang Hyun Kim to a two-year deal on Dec. 17, there is almost certainly going to be a new face in the rotation. The Cardinals now have six potential starters to fill the rotation: Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, Carlos Martínez and Kim. The biggest competition seems to be for that fifth spot between Martínez and Kim. Martínez is working toward a return to the rotation, but the PRP injection that he had in his right shoulder at the end of the season has set him behind in his offseason plan, meaning the Cards aren’t going to know if he can handle the workload until late January or February. That’s part of the reason St. Louis signed Kim, who is seen as a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher with the ability and willingness to go to the bullpen. Depending on whether Martínez can withstand a starter's workload, it’s likely we’ll see some competition for that fifth spot in the spring, with some of the Cardinals’ Minor League players, like Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber, showing up ready to compete as well.

3. Who takes over the closer’s role?
Jordan Hicks isn’t expected back from his Tommy John recovery until the middle of the season, so his replacement at closer will largely depend on the answer to that rotation question, as the player who doesn’t make the rotation will likely appear in relief. Martínez (3.24 ERA since June 26) was effective in the closing role for the second half of the season in 2019, and Ryan Helsley emerged as a hard-throwing, efficient reliever. There’s also Giovanny Gallegos, who had a 2.31 ERA in '19, and lefty Andrew Miller, who could be used as closer. Needless to say, the Cardinals have viable options on their roster, although they are willing to add a reliever via trade or free agency. Adding Kim to the bullpen would also strengthen the bullpen -- and shift roles around some -- so the Cards have to find which roles cater to each player.

Anne Rogers covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @anne__rogers and on Facebook.