Outlook: Miller is primed for strong sophomore season

LAKELAND, Fla. -- When the Cardinals lost the 2013 World Series to the Red Sox in six games, right-hander Shelby Miller never took the mound. After a stellar rookie season that included 15 wins and a 3.06 ERA, he pitched only once in the postseason, throwing one inning in Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the Pirates.

It just so happens that Miller's first appearance of 2014 will come against Boston, which travels to Jupiter, Fla., on Wednesday. But Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said on Monday that the timing of Miller's opening Grapefruit League start is just a coincidence.

"That wasn't how it was lined up. This wasn't his retribution for Boston," Matheny said. "I think Shelby is going to be motivated no matter who he's going to pitch against."

After winning the No. 5 spot in the team's rotation last spring, Miller got off to a tremendous start. He was 7-3 with a 1.91 ERA over his first 12 outings before falling off a bit the rest of the way, and then finding himself left out of the postseason rotation.

Since then, Matheny has observed plenty of development from a 23-year-old pitcher who threw his four-seam fastball more than 70 percent of the time as a rookie.

"I see his stuff being better," Matheny said. "I see he's worked hard on his secondary pitches. I've seen a little more diversity, and he's a more well-rounded pitcher.

"I like how he's going about it. He's just doing everything right. He's working hard. He's saying the right things. He's working on the right things. He's just maturing."

Matheny speaks with Wong, relaxes pressure

Outlook: Wong possesses a great deal of potential

LAKELAND, Fla. -- "Don't try to do too much." It's a baseball cliché that often means little.

But in the case of the Cardinals' Kolten Wong, a tired phrase seems to contain a layer of truth. The 23-year-old is the favorite to start at second base, but coming off a season in which he endured a rough introduction to the Major Leagues, manager Mike Matheny sees a player burdening himself with too much pressure.

"I think all players in general are tough on themselves," Matheny said. "Some are harder on themselves than others, and Kolten is very hard on himself. I think he wants to get in there and prove it every single at-bat. I think he holds himself to very high expectations, as all our guys do. He seems to be a little further beyond most."

Wong is 0-for-9 with four strikeouts in Grapefruit League play, although he made hard contact on a deep flyout to center field and a lineout to shortstop on Monday against the Tigers. The results are not the most important thing to Matheny, who wants Wong to be realistic with his expectations early this spring and not dwell on the failures of 2013.

The two shared a conversation on Sunday in which Matheny encouraged Wong to simply go play and trust his talent.

"Mike was really helpful to me, because he could see I was ... not getting down, but getting a little frustrated," Wong said, "because I worked so hard this offseason trying to shorten up my swing and figure things out. And to come in and kind of not see success, it's tough. I have the right mindset. He told me to just have fun and enjoy the game. It's a process. I know it's gonna come."

Wong, MLB.com's No. 58 overall prospect and a former first-round Draft pick, hit .303/.369/.466 at Triple-A Memphis last year. But in 32 games with St. Louis, he went 9-for-59 (.153) with one extra-base hit and 12 strikeouts.

Despite that, Matheny sees a hitter who can work the count, fight off tough pitches and put the ball in play, provided he -- of course -- doesn't try to do too much. As Matheny spoke with reporters during batting practice Monday, he watched Wong take his cuts and pointed out his "incredible hands" and quick stroke.

"I want to see him be himself ... a guy that can grind out at-bats," Matheny said. "And if there's a way to define what our expectations are as a club, that's really what it is."

Even if Wong is expected to be the regular second baseman, the position is open to competition after the Cardinals signed veteran Mark Ellis to provide a right-handed counterbalance. As he makes his case, Wong has been working plenty hard, but that's not necessarily all there is to it.

"There's no fault in enjoying this a little bit, too," Matheny said.

Kelly focuses on offspeed improvement

Outlook: Kelly solid source for double-digit wins

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Spring Training can be a time for a pitcher to work on his process, whether it's a new pitch or a new approach. It also can be a time when results do matter, especially if a job is at stake.

Cardinals right-hander Joe Kelly is trying to concentrate on the former, even as he finds himself -- for the second straight season -- competing for the fifth spot in the team's starting rotation. Kelly made his spring debut on Monday, throwing 1 2/3 innings against the Tigers, and he took the opportunity to refine his secondary pitches. He surrendered two runs on two hits and two walks, but that wasn't the focus.

"Obviously, I'm going to get the hitter out the best I can," Kelly said. "But I really want to know where I'm at with my offspeed stuff and my breaking stuff, especially early on in Spring Training when there's time to work on it."

Manager Mike Matheny lauded that approach by the 25-year-old, who threw a breaking ball only 18 percent of the time last season, according to brooksbaseball.net. Kelly's breaking pitches have more bite and depth now, Matheny said, and he's been able to throw the curve slower in order to provide more contrast to all of his hard pitches.

"I think he realizes he's gonna need those secondary pitches in order to compete to the best of his ability," Matheny said. "He's gonna have to get those under control and make them consistently.

"But Joe wants the results too. He wants his cake and to eat it, too."

Kelly, who wasn't crazy about the strike zone throughout his outing, walked leadoff man Ian Kinsler on four pitches, one of two free passes he issued in the first inning. He gave up RBI singles to Victor Martinez and Austin Jackson, but he set down the last three batters he faced before exiting with two outs in the second.

Despite the short outing, he got the chance to implement his pregame plan with catcher Audry Perez, which involved using the breaking ball in specific counts and situations.

"If you look at it, I think every time we went [to an 0-1 count] we threw the slider or mixed in a breaking pitch early, just to get that ready and know I could do it during the season," Kelly said.

Worth noting

• Outfield prospect Oscar Taveras, who has been recovering from right ankle surgery, made the trip with the club to Lakeland, Fla., but was he not available to play in the game. Matheny did not offer specifics on when Taveras will be able to see his first game action since last July.

"Still just trying to push him forward and follow the medical staff's advice of what he needs, and right now he's just going to keep working to get his legs stronger to where there's no reservation in his movements," Matheny said. "But he's looking better all the time. It just takes a while when you've had an injury that's held you out for a while. You can't come back instantly. He's making the right steps forward."