The St. Louis Cardinals Run Out of Breathing Room

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 17: Matt Carpenter #13 of the St Louis Cardinals dives but can't make the catch that goes for an RBI single off the bat of Buster Posey #28 of the San Francisco Giants in the first inning at AT&T Park on May 17, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Here, so far as I can tell, is a list of positions for which the St. Louis Cardinals have lost their primary candidate in the last week or so, starting with the one that makes me least depressed:

Backup LOOGY. I actually am a little sad about this, and not just in the sad-for-Kyle-McClellan-as-a-person way, because having a right-handed second-lefty-specialist is kind of fun. But whether Kyle McClellan needs elbow surgery or not this sounds like the kind of injury that will keep him on the disabled list for a while.

Behind him the Cardinals will have to make a choice between effective right-handers and... also available left-handers. R.J. Swindle, owner of my favorite curveball ever and the current Memphis specialist, has allowed three home runs in 11 innings this year, which probably disqualifies him. The Cardinals have gotten more mileage out of another left-handed drifter, Barret Browning, who's never been especially exciting in a minor league career with Los Angeles. There's also the recently promoted Sam Freeman. (Dark horse candidate: crafty-lefty starter Nick Additon, who's been BAbip'd to date in 2012 but has gotten all the way to AAA through the Cardinals system without ever exciting anyone.)

But they should probably just call up Maikel Cleto, who they converted (prematurely, I think) to relief work for this very reason. (Late-breaking unverified Twitter reports suggest it will actually be Brandon Dickson, which, sure. Dickson's stuff was surprisingly lively in his 2011 cups of coffee, and he's stuck around in the Pacific Coast League without getting destroyed, which is a positive.)

Right Fielder. Carlos Beltran is not yet in the definitely-going-to-be-DL'd holding pattern, so he could move rapidly up this list, but it's already pretty bad: The whole point of the Carlos Beltran story so far was that he appeared to be healthy and, judging from the stolen bases, appeared to think he was healthy.

Now the doubt has set in—his knee is sore, and the Cardinals can no more pull the trigger to play him than they can to disable him.

Assistant to the Veteran Sluggers. Which is made worse by Allen Craig's hamstring injury—and worse still because it's become apparent that none of Allen Craig's understudies are actually outfielders. If he's going to the disabled list, the Cardinals will get Adron Chambers—a center fielder who can push their defense-and-offensively stretched center field backups to right.

I've loved watching Matt Carpenter break out as a kind of left-handed, third-base-playing Allen Craig, but he is no more a right fielder than I am, and it shows. (I actually was a right fielder, but that was in a league full of pull-happy right-handed nine-year-olds.) Moving Lance Berkman back would be ill-advised even if he didn't have a bad calf; his defense looked all right last year, against all odds, but his fielding numbers were anywhere from Bad to Really, Especially Bad.

In Memphis, the available sluggers are Matt Adams, who is first-baseman-shaped, Mark Hamilton, who is back recently from injury and playing left field because of Matt Adams, and—that's it. Adams, who's hitting .318/.357/.543, is the only Redbird with an OPS above Adron Chambers's .308/.377/.391. Thursday night they started Steven Hill in left field.

With defense I'd still rather have Chambers, but the terrible headache you're getting is a physical manifestation of your realization that Skip Schumaker is suddenly a plausible corner outfield option for this team. Except he's too busy starting in center.

I could be wrong—I've been puzzled by the pick from the beginning and am probably projecting that on this—but this is the space in the farm system that Zack Cox was supposed to fill perfectly, as a high-minors-ready, super-polished college bat. Unfortunately, he's hitting .189.

Has Jim Edmonds been medically cleared to make a comeback attempt yet? Can Oscar Taveras be rushed some more? Does Kolten Wong—.331/.400/.459 in AA Springfield—play right field?

Nick Stavinoha is hitting .246/.315/.492 in Hiroshima. (The Central League is collectively slugging .314 in year two of NPB's new dead-ball era, so he's actually nearing goofy-white-folk-hero status by now.)

Breathing room: Not in the division, where it's not yet worth getting too concerned, but on the roster. This team's about to call up its second Major League-ready reliever (out of two) and dip for a second time into the Memphis outfield. Chris Carpenter, who hasn't started throwing yet, is the last card this team has to play.

This is our first chance to see how Mike Matheny will behave under pressure, and so far the answer appears to be "cautiously." Beltran won't play until he's ready, Berkman will sit when he needs to, and Allen Craig won't be able to talk his way onto the active roster. Probably good in the long-term, but in the short term only Matt Holliday stands between us and an Adron Chambers-Shane Robinson-Skip Schumaker outfield.

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