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02/11/09 10:00 AM EST

Cards to begin ride on closer carousel

Second, third also wide open; Carpenter key to contending

Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. Who gets the ball in the ninth?
The Cardinals identified the ninth inning as their top priority in the Hot Stove League, and then didn't pull the trigger to bring someone in to fill that need. Instead, they'll stay in-house, and the early rumblings are that they might at least begin the year with a committee approach. Chris Perez, Jason Motte, Ryan Franklin and even Josh Kinney could all get a look.

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2. Who plays second and third base?
With the release of Adam Kennedy and injury to Troy Glaus, two spots in the Opening Day lineup are wide open at this point. Second base appears to be a free-for-all, with Brendan Ryan, Brian Barden, Joe Thurston and Skip Schumaker all in the mix, but no favorite. At third, prospect David Freese begins as the favorite but could see challenges from Brett Wallace, Ryan and Barden.

3. How much can Chris Carpenter be relied on?
Carpenter's health is likely the single biggest variable for the '09 Cardinals. If he makes 30 starts, and Adam Wainwright does as well, this is almost certainly a contending club. Another season where the top two starters combine for under 25 starts would be a very long year. Carpenter's offseason has gone well thus far, but it remains to be seen how he will hold up to starting every fifth day.

2008 record
86-76, fourth in NL Central

Projected batting order
1. LF Skip Schumaker:
  .302 BA, .359 OBP, .406 SLG, 8 HR, 46 RBI in 2008
2. RF Ryan Ludwick:
  .299 BA, .375 OBP, .591 SLG, 37 HR, 113 RBI in 2008
3. 1B Albert Pujols:
  .357 BA, .462 OBP, .653 SLG, 37 HR, 116 RBI in 2008
4. CF Rick Ankiel:
  .264 BA, .337 OBP, .506 SLG, 25 HR, 71 RBI in 2008
5. C Yadier Molina:
  .304 BA, .349 OBP, .392 SLG, 7 HR, 56 RBI in 2008
6. SS Khalil Greene:
  .213 BA, .260 OBP, .339 SLG, 10 HR, 35 RBI in 2008
7. 3B David Freese:
  .306 BA, .361 OBP, .550 SLG, 26 HR, 91 RBI in 2008 at Triple-A Memphis
8. Pitcher
9. 2B Brendan Ryan:
  .244 BA, .307 OBP, .289 SLG, 0 HR, 10 RBI in 2008

Projected rotation
1. Chris Carpenter, 0-1, 1.76 ERA in 2008
2. Adam Wainwright, 11-3, 3.20 in 2008
3. Kyle Lohse, 15-6, 3.78 in 2008
4. Todd Wellemeyer, 13-9, 3.71 in 2008
5. Joel Pineiro, 7-7, 5.15 in 2008

Projected bullpen
Closer: Chris Perez, 7/11 saves, 3.46 ERA in 2008
RH setup man: Ryan Franklin, 3.55 ERA in 2008
LH setup man: Trever Miller, 4.15 ERA in 2008

The new guys
Khalil Greene: He's coming off the worst full season of his Minor League career, but then again, that's why the Cardinals were able to get him for such a small outlay of talent. Greene has power and has been a well-regarded defensive shortstop. The hope is that getting him away from a frustrating situation -- as well as a pitchers' park -- will turn around his offensive numbers.

Trever Miller: He's the biggest name in an assortment of small-name signings in the Cardinals bullpen this winter. Miller comes with questions about the health of his shoulder, but he's been an effective lefty specialist.

Charlie Manning, Royce Ring and Ian Ostlund: The Cards got creative with the second lefty spot, bringing in several candidates to see who sticks. Ring is a former first-round pick and hyped prospect, while Manning and Ostlund have not been so heralded.

Joe Thurston: Originally signed for depth, Thurston's chances got a lot better when Aaron Miles left as a free agent and Kennedy was released. He's always been a fine Minor League hitter but has never shown what he can do in the big leagues. Also regarded as an excellent teammate and worker, he'll have a chance to impress the manager and the front office, and the opportunities for an infielder on this year's Cardinals team are just about limitless.

Prospects to watch
Colby Rasmus: Even after a down year, Rasmus is still The Future. And this year he'll have a very real shot at making the team. The perfect scenario for the Cardinals would be for Schumaker to make the transition to second base smoothly and seamlessly, opening up an outfield spot for Rasmus. His ETA is 2009, even if it's not Opening Day, and he's a complete package: power, on-base ability, speed, defense.

Brett Wallace: Drafted in the first round in 2008, Wallace raked at every level -- all the way up to Double-A and the Arizona Fall League. He's a long shot to win the third-base job while Glaus is out, but if anybody can do it, Wallace can. He's a special hitter.

Francisco Samuel: He's still a ways off, but Samuel may have the most exciting arm in the Cardinals' Minor Leagues. He throws very hard and had scouts drooling in the Florida State League. Samuel's control isn't there yet, but he's a name to remember. And long-shot pitchers have certainly made the Cardinals out of Spring Training before.

On the rebound
Rick Ankiel: In his first full year as a big league outfielder, Ankiel put up borderline All-Star numbers in the first half before sustaining a sports hernia. If he stays healthy, he's a major power threat as well as an elite defensive outfielder.

Chris Carpenter: His few late-season appearances were a major lift to the team, but it was all over far too quickly. He sustained a nerve injury in the back of his shoulder, and underwent an unrelated surgery for nerve transposition in his elbow during the offseason. A healthy Carpenter means everything to the Redbirds.

Joel Pineiro: Signed to a two-year deal after a fine cameo in '07, Pineiro did not have a good '08. He had a great deal of trouble holding leads, and was bumped from the rotation at times. He must perform better if the rotation is going to be what the Cards hope it will be.

Chris Duncan: A forgotten man for much of 2008, Duncan will be looking to regain the form he showed from mid-2006 to mid-2007. He's battled injuries since, but at his best, Duncan is a beast. He gets on base and hits for power, and a healthy Duncan's offense more than makes up for whatever defensive difficulties he may have.

Long gone
Braden Looper: If everyone stays healthy, Looper won't be missed too much. The Cardinals have five starters, and if Pineiro is shaky in the fifth spot, he's no worse than what most teams also have at the No. 5 position. If and when injuries strike, though, Looper's durability could be missed. He signed with Milwaukee.

Jason Isringhausen: The franchise's all-time saves leader departed without much fanfare. It was really time for a fresh start for both Isringhausen and the team.

Adam Kennedy: Kennedy endured two disappointing and frustrating years in his return engagement in St. Louis, and less than a week before Spring Training, he was released. Kennedy provided exceptional defense at the keystone in 2008, even though his offense never returned to where it was in his Anaheim years.

Cesar Izturis: The veteran shortstop enjoyed an exceptional year with the leather but hit about as expected, which is to say not very much. So he was allowed to depart as a free agent, replaced when the Cards traded for Greene.

Felipe Lopez: A late-season acquisition, Lopez provided welcome offense at second base. However, he and the Cards never really got on the same page in contract negotiations, and he signed a one-year deal with Arizona.

Aaron Miles: With Miles coming off a career year, the Cardinals non-tendered him and he signed with the rival Cubs. If he's actually the hitter he was in '08, he'll be a plus for Chicago and the Cards will miss him in the lineup. If it was a one-year blip, he'll be missed more for his qualities as a teammate.

Russ Springer: The club elected to go young in the bullpen, letting Springer depart even when he wanted to come back. He had a fine couple of years in his second St. Louis tour of duty, but an army of young right-handers led the Cards to feel confident letting him leave.

Randy Flores, Ron Villone and Tyler Johnson: Left-handed relief was a persistent problem for the '08 Cardinals, so the whole group is gone. Flores had a down year, Villone was solid at times but struggled at times and Johnson missed the year due to injury.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.