Whether Tommy Pham's eyes are OK is one of the 10 questions facing the Cardinals as they begin the regular season. (Scott Rovak/USA Today Sports)

By Rob Rains

As the Cardinals begin the regular season on Thursday against the Mets in New York, here are 10 questions looming over the team, the answers to which likely will determine whether their playoff drought ends at two years or lasts another season.

1. Are Tommy Pham’s eyes OK?

Pham’s vision problems throughout his career have been well-documented, but he seemed to have found a solution last year with a new set of contact lenses. Then, just as spring training began, he lost one, and had trouble getting it replaced correctly and struggled offensively all spring.

Pham has set high goals for himself this year, especially after he was disappointed when the Cardinals renewed his contract, and said he was “betting on himself.” If he has continuing problems with his vision, however, it not only will affect his personal performance but have a major impact on the team’s success as well.

2. How much authority will Mike Maddux have to make in-game pitching decisions?

Whenever Mike Matheny was asked a question about pitching this spring, he almost always deferred the answer to Maddux. This can only be a good thing if that trend continues during the regular season.

Maddux had several options about where he wanted to coach this season, and by picking the Cardinals, almost certainly because he was given some assurance that he would have more of a say in how pitchers are used than former coach Derek Lilliquist. Figuring out the structure of the bullpen, with so many new candidates for different roles, would seem to be a task the Cardinals need to complete sooner rather than later.

3. Can Matt Carpenter really be effective batting third?

The answer to this question in the past, as every Cardinals’ fan knows, has been no. But Carpenter vows things will be different this year, and he seemed more comfortable in the spot when he returned to the lineup this spring and said he was going back to his old style of hitting.

Drawing a lot of walks while hitting third won’t necessarily be a bad thing with Marcell Ozuna batting behind him, and if Carpenter gets back to his old approach and stops trying to hit more home runs, the top of the Cardinals’ lineup could get on base often in front of Ozuna.

4. Will the lack of a regular closer be a problem?

(Update March 29,2018: Cardinals apparently have a deal with Greg Holland. Appears one of issues facing #STLCards might be about to be answered. According to Bob Nightengale Holland deal is for 1 year, $14 million, pending physical. He has been throwing, but won't be ready immediately... We're told Cards will give up 59th overall pick in June Draft, for signing Holland. Slot value for that pick is $1.1 million.)

The job, at least to start the season, was supposed to go to Luke Gregerson, who is on the disabled list because of a strained hamstring. Now it looks as if the primary closer to start the season will be Dominic Leone with Tyler Lyons also getting some assignments in that role, depending on matchups.

Being able to close out games was one of the team’s biggest problems last year and was a reason many fans wanted the team to sign an established free agent to be the closer. It didn’t happen, and the Cardinals are hoping their quantity of relievers who could close will produce somebody who can move into that role successfully.

5. How will Jose Martinez get 400 to 450 at-bats?

He can play three positions, but all three of those have a player ahead of him who figures to be in the lineup almost every day – Carpenter, Ozuna and Dexter Fowler. Still, Martinez was one of the Cardinals’ best hitters last year and needs to be in the lineup somewhere.

The most logical plan, it would appear, is for Carpenter to shift to second or third a couple of days a week with Martinez taking over at first. He also could spell Fowler or Ozuna when either needs a day off. For that plan to work, however, Carpenter’s shoulder has to be able to make the throws from both second and third and not become even more of a defensive liability.

6. Can Carlos Martinez become an ace?

He is the number one pitcher on the staff, but Martinez still has not elevated his game to the point where he can truly be labeled an ace – a pitcher who is pretty much guaranteed to have a quality start almost every time he takes the mound.

There is still too much uncertainty about Martinez to expect that consistency, and he needs to find the focus, especially in the first inning, to put those doubts to rest. Getting Martinez past that hurdle could be the biggest challenge for Maddux.

7. Is Jordan Hicks really ready to pitch in the majors?

There is no doubt the Cardinals are very high on the future of the 21-year-old right-hander, but the decision to promote him to the majors to open the season, and to put him in the bullpen, almost has the feel of a panic move the team did not really need to make. The decision seems to be based on one start against the Nationals in the final game of spring training, a game Hicks would not even have pitched if Adam Wainwright had not hurt his hamstring running sprints as part of a conditioning drill.

Hicks has pitched only 27 innings above low Class A – none in either Double A or Triple A - and has made only three relief appearances in the 34 games he has pitched in his pro career. It will be interesting to see how this move plays out.

8. Are Yairo Munoz and Mike Mayers as good as they looked this spring?

They were two of the biggest stories in the Cardinals’ camp and the most unexpected as they earned spots on the opening day roster. The challenge for both now is to show they can play just as well in the regular season.

Munoz has the versatility of being able to play all over the field, which helps him, but especially early in the season there will be a question about playing time and his role could be limited to mostly being a pinch-hitter, something he has never really done before.

Mayers had a terrific spring, not giving up a run or walk until his last appearance Monday night in Montreal. The team now has to figure out how he factors into the eight-man bullpen.

9. When will Alex Reyes be ready?

The projection still seems to be May 1 as the target date for Reyes’ return, still likely in a bullpen role for several reasons. Once he gets a couple of months into his return, however, it does not appear out of the question he will move into the rotation at some point in the second half of the year unless all of the starters are pitching well – which never seems to be the case.

10. When Adam Wainwright returns, will he be able to regain his past form?

The prediction from the Cardinals is that Wainwright will miss only one or two starts because of his hamstring injury, with Jack Flaherty getting those assignments. Flaherty had a terrific spring and looks ready for the majors, but the Cardinals will no doubt defer to Wainwright when he is healthy.

How long Wainwright can stay in the rotation, ahead of either Flaherty or Reyes, will be determined by his effectiveness. He had a good spring and believes even if he is not the same pitcher he was three or four years ago, he can be good enough to give his team a chance to win. The question will be if Wainwright struggles, will the Cardinals be willing to take him out of the rotation?

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