JUPITER, Fla. -- Just days after hinting at plans to include Allen Craig on the Opening Day roster, the Cardinals have reined in their optimism and appear to be leaning toward a more cautionary timetable for the outfielder. That would include a season-starting stint on the disabled list.
Craig's timetable had been fluid from the start, with the Cardinals all along leery to set April 4 as a return goal. It wasn't until Craig continued surpassing rehabilitation checkpoints earlier than expected that talk began about him possibly being part of the Opening Day roster.
Such chatter has now been hushed.
Though Craig, who underwent surgery on his right knee in mid-November, has not had any specific setbacks since resuming baseball activities, the Cardinals have reconsidered the risk-reward equation when it comes to pushing him back onto the field.
"I think we've all just taken a step back to say, 'Hey, we still have time,'" manager Mike Matheny said. "I'd rather have a completely healthy, ready Allen Craig a little bit later in the season than maybe push too hard and not have him ready for the remaining six months and hopefully October.
"He's responding to everything. But to try and push him may not be the smartest thing."
Even Craig, who established Opening Day as his goal several months ago, has tempered his own expectations.
"I don't know," Craig said. "We still have a week left, and obviously this is going to be a big week for me. We'll just see how it goes. I don't think we're going to push it. Whatever is decided will be the right decision. It's just a wait-and-see deal."
With the Cardinals considering the long-term benefit of beginning the season without Craig, the expectation is that he will not make any Grapefruit League appearances. By remaining out of spring play, Craig would not have to spend the usual 15 days on the DL.
Teams have the option of backdating a DL stint to March 26 if a player limits his appearances to Minor League games from that date forward. That means the Cardinals could have Craig begin the year on the DL but only miss the first five games of the regular season.
In the interim, Craig can continue getting work in Minor League games.
"It's day by day," Craig said when asked to describe his progression. "It's kind of like a drill-by-drill thing. There are still some things that I have to do before I can go play in games. When I get out there, I'm going to be playing a lot. I need to be ready."
Though Craig has participated in defensive drills, he has yet to play the field in any of his Minor League appearances. He hasn't run the bases either, limiting himself to running from home to first. One of his earlier benchmarks in camp was to begin swinging a bat again, and he estimates that he's taken about 20 at-bats in those Minor League games.
His last game appearance came four days ago.
"I usually don't need a ton of at-bats to get up to speed," Craig said. "It's more making sure my body is ready."
The status of the latter seems be trumping one of the Cardinals' other considerations, which is including Craig on the Opening Day roster but limiting him to a pinch-hit role early. The team is going to lack an impact right-handed bat off the bench, and there were thoughts that Craig could be that guy.
Though that possibility hasn't been entirely discarded, it's certainly being weighed against the risk that rushing Craig back, even if just for a part-time role, could jeopardize his health for the rest of the season.
Craig spent close to half the 2011 season on the DL.
"Not too long ago, I was really excited about all the progress he's made, and started pushing him as he wanted to be pushed," Matheny said. "His body has responded, but I think we're all just sitting back and talking about all the scenarios. It's more long-term. What do we need? We need Allen Craig healthy for the season."
If Craig were to begin the year on the DL, that would, at least temporarily, open another bench spot. That would put four players -- Shane Robinson, Erik Komatsu, Eugenio Velez and Matt Carpenter -- in the mix for three remaining bench spots. The other two openings will be filled by infielder Daniel Descalso and a backup catcher -- either Tony Cruz or Bryan Anderson.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.