Cramming 40 (Plus) Into 25: Examining the Cardinals Roster

First off, I probably should wish you a happy new year and all that.  After all, it’s been a little bit since we got together and talked.  I mean, it was right before Christmas when we talked about Andrew Miller.  While the stove is fairly cool and there’s not necessarily anything major to discuss, I gotta get back to putting words to screen.  (Cardinal words to screen, at least–I spent some of this time writing posts over here.)

With the activity the Cardinals have done this winter, it sometimes becomes difficult for me to keep the likely Opening Day roster in my head or to determine where there’s a squeeze and where there’s a lack.  So, mainly just for myself, I wanted to go over what the 40-man looked like and see how that would shake out if the season started tomorrow, which would be really cool and I’m completely in favor of that.

Let’s break it down by position.  I’ll list out who is on the 40-man, who is a lock for the 25-man, and where we might see some questions or some crunches.

On the 40-man (1): Yadier Molina
Definitely on the opening roster (1): Molina
Likely on the opening roster (1): Francisco Pena
Decisions: None

And already, we run into an issue.  With the trade of Carson Kelly, the only catcher on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster is the redoubtable Yadier Molina.  And while Yadi would probably like to and tell you that he can play every day, you aren’t going into a season with just one catcher.  Andrew Knizner takes over Kelly’s spot as top catching prospect but the Cardinals have been clear about him playing all season at Memphis and that’s completely fair.  I’m not Kyle Reis by any means but it would seem Knizner would be served well developing a bit more at the AAA level.

Which is good for Knizner (and it keeps him from picking splinters out of his backside) but not great for the Cardinals, at least in this situation.  While something could surprise, maybe one of Joe Hudson or Jose Godoy could have a strong spring and surprise folks enough to get that backup spot, it seems pretty unlikely and Pena does come with the Yadier Molina Seal of Approval, which goes a long, long way.  Pena probably won’t make it to the 40-man until the final roster cuts are made, especially if there is going to be someone eligible for the 60-day DL, but eventually he’ll be drawing a big league paycheck.

On the 40-man (9): Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong, Paul Goldschmidt, Jedd Gyorko, Jose Martinez, Yairo Munoz, Edmundo Sosa, Ramon Urias, Kolten Wong
Definitely on the 25-man (4): Carpenter, DeJong, Goldschmidt, Wong
No options (1): Gyorko
Technically has options (1): Martinez
Definitely optioned (2): Sosa, Urias
Decisions (1): Munoz

Here’s where it starts to get interesting.  With the addition of Goldschmidt, the starting infield is set.  There’s no time shares, no rotations, just these four guys out there hopefully 150 or so days during the season.  So we know those guys are locks.

The bench is a different matter.  We’ll get into more of this when we talk about the outfield, but it seems likely that the Cardinals are going to go with the 12 hitters/13 pitchers split for much of the season.  Unlike in past year, this actually makes sense assuming that Mike Shildt is going to be more pro-active with his bullpen usage (and that he’s not going to have someone sitting around for just the right opportunity two weeks from now).  That means there will be four bench spots.  Pena gets one of them.  What happens with the other three is up for debate.  (By the way, we discuss Martinez here because that’s where he shows up on the 40-man roster, but I think we all know that if we see Jose in the field, 99% of the time or more it’s going to be in the outfield.)

Assuming nothing changes between now and Opening Day, Gyorko and Martinez will get two of those three spots with Munoz battling it out with an outfielder for the last spot on the roster.  However, if that happens, there’s no real backup for DeJong at short.  Gyorko can cover it in a pinch, so maybe you could say that it’s fine, but if DeJong hits the 15 day DL, I don’t think many would be excited about Gyorko then.  (Of course, then the club could promote Sosa and it would be moot.)

It would seem a shame to send Munoz, who more than held his own in the major leagues last season, down to Memphis for any length of time.  This feels like a situation where John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch would need to trade to free up resources or to relieve a crunch, but I can’t tell you how many times over the past few offseason I’ve said something like, “Well, obviously they have to trade somebody” and they don’t.  Mo does like his depth.

Still, it really feels like some trade will come, even if it is in spring training.  The Cardinals have apparently backed off of their marketing of Martinez after the Miller signing.  There’s been a lot more written about how the Cardinals could really benefit from Martinez’s bat off the bench.  (He was just four for 17 in that role last year, but he’s 20-49–or .408–in his career.)  Which would seem to put the writing on the wall for Gyorko.

Gyorko is due $13 million this season, $5 million of which is picked up by the Padres.  There’s an option for 2020 which would pay him another $13 million if it is picked up (and none of which would be offset) or a $1 million buyout to make him a free agent.  The Cardinals aren’t going to pay Gyorko $13 million next year to ride the bench but there seems little chance he’d be starting, either because they’ve extended Goldschmidt (keeping Carpenter at third) or they’ve gone and done something like Nolan Arenado in the 2019 offseason.

I had this discussion on Twitter recently and you wonder just what Gyorko’s market it.  Sure, he’s a great addition to a club, but he’s probably only going to start on a second division club and teams like that could be hesitant to take on the salary, even discounted as it is by the San Diego money.  It’s unlikely a contending team would be excited about paying him to be their bench bat.  Could Gyorko be in some sort of baseball purgatory given his salary?

Most likely this doesn’t get resolved until Jupiter, as the Cards wait to see who will be healthy and who will be producing.  With no changes, though, I could see Gyorko sent off for a couple of prospects with the Cards eating a little salary to improve the return.  I don’t think they’ll necessarily get what he’s worth but they will be backed into a corner.

On the 40-man (8): Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, Adolis Garcia, Tyler O’Neill, Marcell Ozuna, Drew Robinson, Lane Thomas, Justin Williams
Definitely on the 25-man (3): Bader, Fowler, Ozuna
Definitely optioned (2): Thomas, Williams
Decisions (2): O’Neill, Robinson

While many of us still cling to that faint hope of Bryce Harper, it seems that ship–well, it’s not sailed because it never left port.  Maybe dry-rotted?  I don’t know.  Anyway, Harper is very unlikely to be wearing the birds on the bat when the club reports to Jupiter the middle of next month.  Which means that the starting outfield is pretty much set.  You have Marcell Ozuna, coming off of the shoulder surgery and going into his free agent year; Harrison Bader, who became the marketing face of the Cardinals in the offseason, it seemed; and Dexter Fowler, who the club is banking on rebounding with a healthier foot and a stronger positive mindset.  Your mileage may vary there on whether that’s a risk worth taking, but when you have a player with three years left on a contract, it’s not surprising they’ll give him another shot.

As with the infield, the decisions are on the bench.  Remember, there’s only three spots available and we have noted that, barring a trade, Gyorko and Martinez have two of them.  That right there means that one of O’Neill or Robinson is going to be starting in Memphis.  Truthfully, it’s really hard to see a way that Robinson makes it on this squad for me.  The only reason I didn’t put him in the definitely optioned category is because he’s a left-handed bat and the Cardinals dealt Patrick Wisdom for him during the winter meetings.  There’s a need there and a strong spring could, I guess, give the front office food for thought, but it feels like Robinson gets to go eat Memphis BBQ for a while, perhaps riding the shuttle back and forth depending on roster needs and injuries.

Which leaves us with Prospects After Dark mascot O’Neill.  As noted above, with no changes it would seem that either he or Munoz would wind up drawing the short straw.  However, O’Neill has to be on the roster, doesn’t he?  Without him, the only backup outfielder is Jose Martinez and we know what issues that brings with it.  Martinez also can’t play center field which leaves Bader unprotected.  I mean, you could shift Fowler to center and let Martinez play right every once in a while, but does anyone want to see that?  Even if Fowler bounces back defensively, he had already shown that he wasn’t really a center fielder any more even before last season.

That’s not even talking about the fact that O’Neill put up a 1.4 bWAR in less than 150 major league plate appearances last year.  He’s obviously able to hold his own in the big leagues so why would you want to see him play Memphis yet again?  He proved last year that, well, he had nothing left to prove at AAA.  If it does come down to O’Neill and Munoz, even as strong as Munoz’s season was, I think O’Neill wins that battle.

On the 40-man (22): John Brebbia, Genesis Cabrera, Brett Cecil, Jack Flaherty, Giovanny Gallegos, John Gant, Austin Gomber, Luke Gregerson, Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks, Dakota Hudson, Dominic Leone, Carlos Martinez, Mike Mayers, Miles Mikolas, Andrew Miller, Daniel Poncedeleon, Alex Reyes, Chasen Shreve, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Tyler Webb
Definitely in the starting rotation (3): Flaherty, Martinez, Mikolas
Probably in the rotation (2): Wacha, Wainwright
Bullpen pitchers with no options (6): Cecil, Gant, Gregerson, Mayers, Miller, Shreve
Probably optioned (4): Cabrera, Helsley, Poncedeleon, Webb
Probably in the bullpen (1): Hicks
Decisions (6): Brebbia, Gallegos, Gomber, Hudson, Leone, Reyes

Now we turn to the pitchers.  There are way too many qualified arms to fit into these thirteen slots.  It becomes even more dicey when you look at the ones that are locked in.

As Tara and Alex recently discussed on Chirps, this rotation is fairly locked in assuming no outside additions.  Obviously, if the price got to the Cardinals’ liking, bringing in someone like Dallas Keuchel would be of a benefit to St. Louis, but we’re assuming we don’t get that lucky.  (And, honestly, that’d also accentuate the headache that we are looking at, though that’s no reason to shy away from someone like that.)

The five starters are pretty obvious.  I guess you could see a situation where someone in Jupiter outshone Wacha or Wainwright, pushing them to the bullpen, but it’s hard to imagine that happening.  Would the Cards turn to Gomber instead of Waino?  That doesn’t seem likely, does it, at least as we sit a month before pitchers and catchers?  So I ask you to stipulate that these five are going on the roster.

That leaves us eight slots.  While some might wish they were, as Kyle Reis likes to say, Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson are Cardinals until they are not.  You have to plan for them to take up spots on the roster, even if their health and performance has been less than inspiring.  There’s obviously a path to cutting Cecil now that Miller has signed and Shreve is under contract and it well may come to that, but until they do so you have to plan for him to be on the roster.

We’re down to six.  Obviously, the new acquisition takes one of those.  Then we have John Gant, Mike Mayers, and Shreve.  While there’s a path to cutting Cecil, there’s just as easy a path to dropping Shreve, even though the Cards went ahead and extended him a contract this winter.  It’s less than $1 million for them to eat versus the $15 million over two years for Cecil.  It would seem strange to have three lefties on the roster, but if Cecil and Shreve are both effective, you could carry those and use Miller more as an eighth/ninth guy and less a specialist.  Again, until the Cards do something different, Shreve has a spot.

The same is true for Gant and Mayers.  Gant was very valuable to the club last season and even without options I think he’d have a strong chance to make the club outright.  Mayers was effective early, but writing up the Exit Interview for him made me realize that we got a good early impression but I don’t think he was that great otherwise.  I mean, better than his history, sure, but is he worth keeping on?  So far the Cardinals think so and they’ve stuck with him a long time.  So might as well plan for him on the Opening Day roster right now as well.

So with all those folks we are at two spots available.  However, even though he has options, there’s really no chance at all that Jordan Hicks is going to not make the roster.  A terrible spring probably wouldn’t even get him demoted.  I’m not saying that Hicks will never see the minors again, but he’s certainly not going to start the season out there.

That leaves one final spot for a lot of arms to battle over.  Most likely, Alex Reyes starts on the disabled list, working his way back to an early May return, but there’s no guarantee that he doesn’t come into camp strong and vie for that spot.  Let’s assume the Cards are cautious with him, though, whether because they have to be or because it helps them make this decision.  Dominic Leone still does have one option available, but it would be weird to see the Cards take it.  He’s another one that battled injury last year, but if he’s healthy you’d expect him to be on this team.

Of course, you’d expect John Brebbia to be on it as well.  One of the most effective relievers last year overall, Brebbia got the short end of the stick a couple of times last year because he had options.  He still does and you could easily see that not playing in his favor yet again this season.

Leone vs. Brebbia is probably how that last spot plays out, but you can’t completely rule out some others.  Dakota Hudson and Austin Gomber probably again go back to Memphis to be starters with an eye on moving up anytime there is a need in either the rotation or the bullpen.  Daniel Poncedeleon is probably in the same boat.  Giovanny Gallegos probably starts in Memphis as well, but a good spring could put him right in the think of the conversation.  Tyler Webb got hurt by the Miller signing.  If he outpitches both Cecil and Shreve, he might get the nod but that’s a lot of ifs and there’s not a ton of spring training time to differentiate these folks.

If you are looking for a wildcard, though, I’d keep an eye on Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera.  I think it would take a lot to get Cabrera into a major league uniform to start the year, but he’s got the stuff to make that a possibility and I think a lot of folks are going to keep a close eye on him in Jupiter.  It would be better if he could stay on the starter development path and spend the summer doing that in Memphis.  The Cards have turned a lot of starters into relievers–which is fine, but there comes a time when you need a few of them to stay in their initial role.  That said, we saw how quickly Hicks made an impression last year, basically taking one appearance and turning it into a bullpen role.  If Cabrera can do something like that and get Yadi on his side, all bets are off.

If you remember at last year’s Winter Warmup, John Mozeliak talked about the three Hs making an impression in 2018.  At the time, most of us thought that Hicks was a longshot and Hudson might be a stretch, but Helsley made a lot of sense.  Injuries kept him from making his debut last year, but if anyone was going to make a Hicks-like jump to the roster, I think it’d be him.  (Though, unlike Hicks, he’s already on the 40-man, which makes it a little easier.)

Could someone not on this list do what Hicks did and force themselves not only onto the 40-man roster but the 25-man roster as well?  It’s possible, but I’m not really sure who it could be.  There’s nobody with the lights-out ability of Hicks, but then again we didn’t think this time last year that Hicks was anywhere close to the big leagues.  So someone might surprise, might make a push, but with the roster as crowded as it already is, that’s going to make for a real issue.  There’s no Breyvic Valera or Josh Lucas to push off the roster.  The Cards already got rid of their easiest weight by waiving Ryan Messinger (though he cleared and will be pitching for the Redbirds this season) and they could possibly bump Justin Williams, but the roster is packed and it would take a really special talent for the Cards to go through the hoops to get them on the club, especially when they are already going to have to do something to add Pena to the roster.

There are some tough choices here and you can see why the roster feels like a move is required.  How do you keep Gyorko and Martinez when that means Munoz or O’Neill isn’t in the bigs?  Can Cecil, Shreve, and Miller all coexist if it means Brebbia spends more time in Memphis?  And that’s not even taking into account perhaps getting a better left-handed bench bat or a veteran starter to help with the questions in the rotation.

The hot stove may have been cool for a while but as we get closer to Jupiter some of these questions are going to have to be answered.  It’s going to be really interesting to see what those answers are.

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