ST. LOUIS -- If a championship team's greatest strength is up the middle, then it's fair to wonder exactly how strong the reigning World Series champions are.
No aspect of the 2012 Cardinals comes with more questions than the middle infield, where one position has no clear starter and one has a veteran with something to prove. Rafael Furcal returns on a two-year contract with the Redbirds, hoping to show he can still play at the high level he displayed as recently as 2009, while the team goes into Spring Training with an open competition for the starting second-base job.
A full season of Furcal should at least represent a defensive upgrade for St. Louis, but his bat is less than a sure thing. Furcal flashed impressive power after a move from the Dodgers at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, but his on-base percentage didn't look like a leadoff hitter's figure even after the deal, and he's entering his age-35 season.
"This year is a different year," said Furcal, who was hampered by injuries for much of the first half of last season. "Last year, I was hurt too much and never could get my timing back. ... I'm with one of the best hitting coaches with Mark McGwire. I can't wait to be in Spring Training to work so hard for improvement in my hitting. I never hit .220. This year, I want to improve in hitting and score more for my team."
If Furcal's performance is an unknown, at least his role is not. On the other side of the keystone, there's a different kind of uncertainty. Three players go into camp with a shot at winning time at second base: Tyler Greene, Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker. Any of the three could win the lion's share of the job, or manager Mike Matheny could fashion a job-sharing arrangement among two or three of the contenders.
Descalso and Greene are likely slicker fielders, but Schumaker has established himself as a solid hitter for a middle infielder. Whereas at the start of the winter it sounded as though he was being removed from the second-base picture, later indications have made it clear that Schumaker can compete for the job. That's all he asks.
"I don't think I've ever had a clear-cut job since I've been here," Schumaker said. "I'm talking the Minor Leagues, [too]. My ... I'm working hard to compete for a job in Spring Training, and that should be on everybody's list up and down our roster. I'm definitely no different than that. I've fought to get into the big leagues, and I'm fighting to stay and I'm fighting to win a job. That's kind of been my career path.
"If you hit, they'll find you a job."
Greene and Descalso both come from other positions. Descalso has played plenty of second, but in the Major Leagues, he's spent more time at third. Offensively, he's a bit similar to Schumaker, a line-drive hitter with some on-base ability but not much power. Defensively, he is probably a superior second baseman. But his versatility is also an asset that Matheny may covet.
Then there's Greene, who sometimes sounds like the favorite coming into the spring. A former first-round Draft pick and a shortstop by trade, he has tremendous tools but has yet to turn them into dependable production at the big league level. Greene's upside is the highest of the contenders, but of the three, he has proved the least in the Majors.
"It's an open spot, so there is going to be some competition for that spot," Greene said. "The goal is just to be out there every day. I'm looking forward to this year. I've learned a lot over the last couple years. Just really looking forward to coming to Spring Training ready and using what I've learned the last couple years to my advantage."
One advantage for Greene is that he is a shortstop, and there's no clear backup to Furcal. If Greene doesn't win the starting job, he could well stick as a utility player. Descalso is also almost certain to be on the roster for his positional flexibility, defense and pinch-hitting savvy, while Schumaker will be on as a utility man if not the starter. The Cards could still add another utilit yman to the mix, but it's not likely to be someone on a Major League contract.
Whatever the present may bring, the future is certainly intriguing up the middle for the Cardinals. It's entirely possible that the club already has its 2014-16 or so double-play combination already within the organization.
Second baseman Kolten Wong split last year between the University of Hawaii and low Class A Quad Cities, but the organization believes he will be a fast mover. He's a polished hitter with speed who has reputedly acquitted himself well defensively to boot.
Wong must prove himself against higher-level competition, but there's every reason to believe he'll get that chance starting in '12. An exact ETA for the 2011 first-round Draft pick is obviously unclear, but the club hopes it will be sooner rather than later. And if Wong doesn't work out, there's also the possibility that another top prospect, Zack Cox, could slide from third base to second.
At shortstop is a prospect with a little less pedigree, but still plenty of promise. Ryan Jackson is considered a very slick fielder with the potential to provide a plus glove in the Majors at shortstop. His bat lags a bit behind his defense, but he's shown promise on the offensive side, as well. Jackson should be the shortstop at Memphis in 2012, and it wouldn't be shocking if he began an apprenticeship behind Furcal in '13.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.