Go away winter, St. Louis Cardinals warm-up is here

St. Louis has slogged through the first half of yet another gray, cold winter in the country’s heartland, especially without the aid of St. Louis Blues hockey until Saturday. But that all changed this weekend as the St. Louis Cardinals opened up their annual Winter Warm-Up celebration.

Friend of the site Cadence with Chris Carpenter in 2012
Friend of the site Cadence with Chris Carpenter in 2012

Each year, just as fans start to feel the pangs of being baseball-deprived for three months, the Cardinals host the Winter Warm-Up event in downtown St. Louis. The event serves as a pep rally for the club before it heads to Jupiter, Fla., in about a month, and gives fans a chance to meet with past, current and future members of the organization.

This year’s event ran Saturday through Monday at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch hotel.

For many fans, the Winter Warm-Up is their chance to get re-acquainted with their team and enjoy a baseball-filled weekend even though temperatures hovered in the 30’s Sunday and dropped to 24 degrees Monday.

In several ways, the Winter Warm-Up is similar to the Fanfest events that Major League Baseball has in the All-Star Game’s host city in the days leading up to the game. There are interactive displays and activities, as well as opportunities for autographs, although that’s an additional expense.

The Winter Warm-Up is also a chance for fans to ask questions about the team heading into spring training and the upcoming season. This year, people will surely have plenty of questions for the Cardinals about players such as Jaime Garcia, Rafael Furcal, Matt Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

Those four players, in particular, will be vital to the Cardinals success in 2013, but they each come with legitimate concerns for either the coming year or future years.

Garcia turned down an opportunity last week to pitch for Mexico, his native country, in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. That’s certainly his right to choose, but concerns about that decision arise because Garcia dealt with left shoulder problems last season and has spent the offseason trying to rehab so he can be ready for the start of the season. That rehab is especially important since he decided against surgically repairing the shoulder.

Furcal also has injury concerns. He tore a ligament in his right elbow Aug. 31 against the Washington Nationals and never returned to the field. His return as the starting shortstop is important to the team because the Cardinals and their fans aren’t sold on his backup Pete Kozma, even though Kozma hit .333 in 26 games down the stretch and played a key role in the Cardinals’ first-round series win over the Nationals.

Carpenter doesn’t have any injury concerns, but the Cardinals have asked him to pull a Skip Schumaker move during the offseason and transform into a second baseman. Carpenter has been a great utility player for the Cardinals in the past two seasons, but asking a player to change positions at the big-league level is always a dicey proposition.

The only questions for Wainwright about the 2013 season will be if he can fully return to his dominant form before suffering a season-ending elbow injury at the start of spring training in 2011. All of the other questions will likely be about the years following 2013.

Wainwright’s contract is up at the end of the season, and with another solid season he will be a highly sought-after free agent in the offseason. With pitchers signing increasingly large free-agent contracts in the last few years, Wainwright’s price tag could be incredibly high. With those factors in place, Cardinals fans could be on a Pujols-like watch at next year’s Winter Meetings.

All of those issues will be sorted out at the proper times, of course. Most importantly, the third weekend is always a chance for St. Louis sports fans to start dreaming about the warm summer days and nights they’ll experience in the heart of downtown St. Louis surrounded by a sea of red clothes in one of the best places on Earth: Busch Stadium.

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