How Kolten Wong's return from the disabled list will affect the rest of the lineup is one of the first questions the Cardinals will have to answer when the season resumes. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Rob Rains

The Cardinals begin the second half of the season Friday night in Pittsburgh, two games under .500 and 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers in the NL Central “race.”

This is a precarious, unusual position for the Cardinals, who will have to sort through multiple issues over the next 11 weeks before they know if they will be playing in October or watching the post-season at home for the second consecutive year.

Here are nine questions the Cardinals will need to answer, some of them sooner rather than later, and with the answer to one likely leading to the next question:

1. What happens when Kolten Wong returns?

This is expected to happen on Friday. More than likely, he will get the majority of playing time at second, which will move Matt Carpenter back to first and Luke Voit to the bench. This will improve the defense at second, but can Wong hit as well as Voit? For a team still searching for its offensive identity, this could be a problem.

2. Who should hit third?

The revolving door at the most important spot in the batting order landed on Dexter Fowler in the final games before the All-Star break, the sixth player the Cardinals have tried in that spot in the first 87 games of the season. This was supposed to be the new spot for Carpenter after signing Fowler, but that was a disaster, which has put Carpenter back in the leadoff spot and created the problem.

The combination of players has left the Cardinals with the lowest batting average in the NL out of the third spot, with only one homer since June 6. An interesting, but highly unlikely option given the way the Cardinals handle young players is shortstop Paul DeJong, who ended the first half of a major roll and has almost always hit in the third spot in his amateur career.

More than likely Fowler will remain in this spot for the time being. He seems to OK with that move, but don’t bring up the subject of him moving out of center field, even if it would improve the team’s defense. That seems to be a sore subject, and is another question to watch the rest of the season.

3. What will happen with Aledmys Diaz?


The former starting shortstop lost his spot to DeJong and was optioned to Memphis even though he was tied for the team lead in hits at the time. He has struggled offensively since he got to Triple A, which has kept the Cardinals from having to make a decision about whether to bring him back to the majors and what role he should play at that time.

What is interesting is that Diaz has been left at shortstop in Memphis, when, if the Cardinals are committing to DeJong to be the starting shortstop, it would seem to make sense to have Diaz log some playing time at both second base and third while in Triple A in case he settles into a backup infielder role when he returns to the majors.

This also would seem to make the most sense moving forward, giving the Cardinals some information to use as they sort through trade possibilities before the July 31 deadline. If they believe Diaz could play regularly at either second or third, as some have suggested in the past, it could present some interesting options for trade discussions.

Diaz has had a couple of roller-coaster seasons, going from being designated for assignment while in Double A to making the NL All-Star team a year later, to 12 months later finding himself struggling in Triple A, which does raise questions about his future.

4. At the deadline, will the team be buyers, sellers or both?


Of all the second-half questions, this could be the trickiest because the answers could not only shape what happens the rest of this season but for 2018 and beyond. The Cardinals seem to have some players they could move, potential free-agents at the end of this season, and their depth in pitching prospects and outfielders also should give John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch plenty of options when the trade discussions with other teams begin.

The two biggest needs on the team have not changed – they need a big bat in the middle of the lineup which scares people, and they need a lights-out closer. Both Seung Hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal have had their struggles this year, and even though Jedd Gyorko is a decent hitter, he is not the traditional fourth-place hitter in a championship-level lineup.

There isn’t one trade which can solve both of those problems, but there will be players available who would be welcome additions to the Cardinals, starting with Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins. Yes he has a huge contract, but the Cardinals could afford it, thanks in part to the extra $20 million per year, increasing each year, they will be receiving in their new television rights contract starting in 2018.

The price in terms of players to get Stanton might not be as problematic as some would think either, especially if the Cardinals agree to take on the bulk of the contract. A combination of young major-league ready talent is what the Marlins want and the Cardinals should be able to put a very competitive package together without including any of their top prospects.

Trading some prospects for a player such as Stanton could be offset by trading other players, such as the prospective free agents, for prospects.

5. Who’s untouchable?


There would seem to be five prospects the Cardinals will not include in a deal – pitchers Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson, catcher Carson Kelly and shortstop Delvin Perez, despite his demotion this week to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. On the major-league club, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez and Yadier Molina aren’t going anywhere, and neither is Fowler. Probably safe from rumors are Stephen Piscotty and DeJong.

Depending on the deals and who would be coming back to the Cardinals, it would not be surprising to see virtually anybody else on the roster involved in a potential trade if the Cardinals really want to blow up this team.

6. Who is the most available?


This list always starts with potential free agents that the club is not likely to sign, especially with the new CBA changing the level of draft pick compensation for free agents signing with other teams over the winter.

Lance Lynn heads this list and could be of interest to teams in the pennant race who would like to add another starter. Trading Lynn for prospects would seem to make a lot of sense. Oh’s struggles this season have at least at times moved him out of the closer role but teams in the race are always in search of extra arms and Oh is extremely affordable and could attract interest from teams looking for a seventh or eighth-inning option.

Players who could be attractive if the Cardinals make them available include Rosenthal, Carpenter, Gyorko, Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk, as they would seem to have internal options to replace them in addition to whatever players they would receive in return.

7. Who will be the closer?

Internally, the best option right now might be Brett Cecil, who has rebounded from a disastrous start to the season. Rosenthal has shown flashes of his past dominance, but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to whether he will be successful one night or struggle to throw strikes the next, and that inconsistency is deadly for a closer.

The problem with trying somebody new in the role, especially without a prior track record, is the risk of failure. For reasons no one has ever been able to quantify, there is just something different about trying to get the last three outs of a game when you are protecting a slim lead. Some pitchers who have had success in the seventh or eighth inning can make the change, others can’t.

If the Cardinals have enough depth in their rotation, one intriguing closing option might be Michael Wacha. He has been very dominant in the early innings of his starts, and with his durability question, might benefit from only throwing one inning – but he would have to prove he could bounce back quickly and be able to pitch multiple days in a row.

It also would seem to make sense for the Cardinals to use the rest of this season to take a couple of their good young starters in the minors and try them in a closer role. There will not be enough spots in the major-league rotation for all of them in the next couple of years, and perhaps one or two of them could adapt well to becoming a closer – and the organization could find that out before putting the pitcher into that role without any prior experience.

8. When will Harrison Bader get his chance?


One of the best aspects to the Cardinals season so far has been the performance of the young players who have been given an opportunity to play at the major-league level. DeJong and Voit have stepped in quickly, as did Magneuris Sierra when he got a chance earlier in the season.

The next player deserving of a chance is Bader, who has had a very effective first half in Triple A after playing well during spring training. He is tied for the team lead with 17 homers while hitting .296 and has shown there really is little else for him to prove at that level.

As with the young pitchers, there are too many quality outfield prospects in the Cardinals’ system than there will be spots available in the majors in the next few years, so it would seem to make sense to let Bader get his chance to see if he can match what DeJong, Voit and Sierra did when they got a major-league opportunity. Figuring out which outfielders to keep and which to possibly include in trades the rest of this season could be very important to the team’s future.

9. Will Voit get a chance to show if he is a legit first-base option?

It didn’t ever really seem like the Cardinals considered Voit, a St. Louis native, a prospect, but as he continued to hit every time he advanced a level in the minors they finally had no choice but to give him a chance in the major leagues. He has continued to hit.

Voit got his chance because of Wong going on the DL, and Carpenter’s move to second, but with Wong coming back, playing time for Voit is going to be a lot harder to come by. He suffers from the biggest problem which ended Matt Adams’ time in St. Louis – an inability to play anywhere other than first base.

Voit likely will get a lot of pinch-hitting duty in the coming weeks, and give Carpenter an occasional break at first base, but his future could be tied to whatever other moves the Cardinals might make before the trading deadline.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains