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Inbox: Who fills leadoff, cleanup roles for Cards?

Beat reporter Anne Rogers answers questions from fans
@anne__rogers
January 3, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- There’s no better way to kick off a new year than a Cardinals Inbox, right? Since adding left-hander Kwang-Hyun Kim on Dec. 17, not much has changed over the holidays for the Cardinals. But we are inching closer to Spring Training, which is where we’ll find some

ST. LOUIS -- There’s no better way to kick off a new year than a Cardinals Inbox, right?

Since adding left-hander Kwang-Hyun Kim on Dec. 17, not much has changed over the holidays for the Cardinals. But we are inching closer to Spring Training, which is where we’ll find some hard answers about a lot of the questions we’ll examine today. Let’s dive in.

Who hits cleanup for the Cardinals?
-- Nathan, Paducah, Ky.

With Marcell Ozuna still canvassing free agency, this is perhaps the biggest question heading into the spring. But the Cardinals haven’t ruled out Ozuna returning. The club is still interested in re-signing the left fielder who hit 29 home runs from the cleanup spot in 2019. But if Ozuna lands elsewhere, the Cardinals need a power hitter to complement Paul Goldschmidt, especially if they hope to improve offensively in '20. If they don’t add a piece to the offense, they’ll have to rely on a power hitter emerging internally.

The Cardinals will try a variety of lineups to see if a solution arises in the spring and into the season. The one that they’ve already seen, when Ozuna was hurt for a month, was Paul DeJong hitting third and Goldschmidt hitting cleanup. DeJong is coming off a 30-homer year, but the shortstop was inconsistent throughout the season. If he can be more consistent, he could potentially hit third, while bumping Goldschmidt to cleanup.

When batting third in 2019, DeJong slashed .265/.360/.422 with a .782 OPS. His slugging (.486) and OPS (.793) were only slightly better in the No. 5 spot last year. Goldschmidt hit cleanup in 17 games last season with a .318/.366/.697 slash line. If DeJong can find the consistency he searched for last season, that combination could work.

Who hits leadoff for the Cardinals on Opening Day?
-- Jackson, Kirkwood, Mo.

The Cardinals have a lot of lineup questions to consider. The cleanup spot is the priority, but the leadoff spot is an interesting one as well. Do they put their faith in Matt Carpenter or Dexter Fowler? Does Tommy Edman get a shot?

How about Kolten Wong?

It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals approach the leadoff spot considering that in 2019, it was one of the least effective ones in the Majors. St Louis' leadoff batters combined for a .216 average -- second only to the Cubs for worst in the Majors -- and a .355 slugging percentage, the worst in the Majors. Finding the right leadoff solution could spur an improved offense. Start the improvement from the top.

Because the Cardinals have put their faith in Carpenter having a bounce-back year, they’ll see what he looks like in the leadoff spot again. Fowler should also get a look after posting a .335 on-base percentage while leading off in 2019, citing his comfort in that spot as one of the reasons he was seeing his production increase. Edman could also get a look in the leadoff spot as well. Edman had a .257 average and a .664 OPS when he batted first last year.

There’s also a case to be made for Wong to hit leadoff. It took until the beginning of August to move Wong -- who had a stellar offensive year -- up in the lineup. When he batted second, he hit .309 with an .839 OPS. Wong’s speed makes him a solid candidate for the leadoff spot, and if he can continue his production from this year, he’ll make the job of whoever follows him in the order much easier.

What’s the ceiling for Alex Reyes this year?
-- Colby, St. Louis

Reyes’ expectations were talked about extensively at the Winter Meetings. The Cardinals believe that the normal offseason -- one in which he’s healthy -- in the Dominican Republic that Reyes is having this winter will help the former top prospect in 2020. They can’t predict health, but they think that the change in scenery is good.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said that Reyes appreciates it as well. For the first time since 2017, Reyes doesn’t have to deal with offseason rehabbing or the injury limitations that tested him. The goal is for Reyes to show up to Spring Training without any pressure and see what he can do to make the 25-man roster.

If Reyes makes the roster, it’s probably realistic to think he'll pitch out of the bullpen in 2020. This is a guy who -- after all the hype that came with being dubbed the organization’s top prospect -- has dealt with injuries for the last three years. It's unlikely Reyes could jump from seven Major League innings over the past two years to making 30 starts.

But the Cardinals see an open path for Reyes to find the control that he lacked this past season and try to stay healthy. If he can do that, there’s a high-leverage spot in the bullpen for him. There were some questions for this Inbox about who will be the Cardinals’ closer until Jordan Hicks’ return from Tommy John surgery, and if Reyes shows good control, he could be another option for the ninth inning.

From there, the Cardinals will see where Reyes can take them.

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