Allen Craig could make the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster as a pinch-hitter

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The original expectation was that Allen Craig would miss the first month of the season following November surgery on his right knee, but it now appears that he is a realistic option for the Opening Day roster.

Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Craig took batting practice on the major league side this morning and is likely open the season as a pinch-hitter off the bench.

Craig began playing in minor-league games this week, though he has yet to play in the field. The Cardinals might not clear him for full-game action until mid-April or so, but he could still have some value as a right-handed bat. Once he’s fully-recovered, new Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny will have to find ways to fit him into the lineup. The most obvious possibility is sitting Jon Jay against tough left-handers while playing Carlos Beltran in center field and Craig in right.

Craig, 27, has a .290/.339/.503 batting line and an .842 OPS over his first 343 plate appearances in the majors. He clubbed four home runs during the Cardinals’ postseason run last year, including three against the Rangers in the World Series.

Mike Napoli and Rays have “mutual interest” in a deal

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Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times unloaded a lot of interesting news items about the Rays last night, including a report that the Rays might have “mutual interest” in a deal with free agent first baseman/DH Mike Napoli. The Rangers declined Napoli’s $11 million option earlier this month and owe the veteran infielder a $2.5 million buyout.

Napoli, 36, had a strange year in Texas. He turned in 29 home runs, good for 11th-most among AL hitters, but finished the year batting just .193/.285/.428 over 485 plate appearances. According to FanGraphs, his -0.5 fWAR was the worst mark of his career to date, but on the bright side, he should come cheap for a team looking to swap out their veterans come spring.

Of course, the specifics of the Rays’ offseason plan have yet to be divulged — or, by all accounts from Topkin, even decided on. The club could go the refurbishment route, changing out some of their higher-paid veterans for a mix of prospects and cheaper aging players; or they could opt for a full rebuild, which Topkin cautions against as it could have a negative effect on the financing of a new ballpark. Either way, the Rays figure to offload some of their bigger contracts this winter, and will need to decide if they want to retain Alex Colome, Chris Archer, Wilson Ramos, Evan Longoria and others before pursuing any other major free agents.