Yesterday's action illustrated the odd mechanics of the fifth starter competition—both Kyle McClellan and Rich Hill impressed, but no matter what McClellan does, he's a right-handed relief candidate and Rich Hill is a lefty in a bullpen with two of them under contract. If Rich Hill becomes the fifth starter they'll both break camp as Cardinals; if McClellan does it will be interesting. (Pete Parise, at least, has not yet wilted under my suggestion that he might be future-McClellan.)
The first cuts came in yesterday, and there were no surprises. Some 2011 options (Daniel Descalso, Tyler Henley); two young shortstops who are in over their heads (Donovan Solano, Pete Kozma); Memphis depth and an elbow surgery victim (Charlie Zink, Sam Freeman); and various catchers, most pressingly 2009 sleeper Charles Cutler and 2009 draftee Robert Stock.
For those of us trying to divine the makeup of the bench, it was not a particularly helpful cut. But with the minor league camp due to open soon, and our windows on watching long-term guys closing—it was good to see (well, hear) Stock single in his Spring Training debut, however meaningless it was—that's about to be the most interesting story coming out of these increasingly recognizable box scores.
What follows is almost certainly wrong. When I write the same post in 2011 I will no doubt link back to this one and say: Ha! What was I thinking, saying that 2010 Charlie Zink award winner Charlie Zink was Memphis depth! But it's Spring Training and we must try. So here's my best March 8 attempt at handicapping the remaining contestants in the St. Louis bench derby.
Assuming they bring twelve pitchers to St. Louis—and I don't want to talk about it if they don't:
Tier Zero: Jason LaRue
Jason LaRue: I realize the team has to have a backup catcher, but as someone who would love to see more weird platoons and pinch hitting specialists, having to spend a scarce roster spot on one replacement-level catcher a year is infuriating. The backup catcher can never hit, because if he could he'd be the starting catcher; he can't pinch-hit, because there is no calamity more terrifying to managers than the idea that the starter might get hurt after his backup grounded out for the pitcher three innings earlier; and he probably can't play other positions, because backup catchers who can play other positions probably don't hit enough to make it worthwhile.
Jason LaRue stayed on a bench that was no more than five players deep all year; he received fewer plate appearances than Tyler Greene and Brian Barden, and had just 21 more than Nick Stavinoha.
Tier One: Felipe Lopez
Felipe Lopez: His ability to play all over the place (and his Major League contract) closes some doors for other would-be bench players. He duplicates Lugo's functionality; he makes it less relevant that Joe Mather and Allen Craig can kind of play third base. And his ability to play shortstop keeps Tyler Greene from looking like a wizard, if not The Wizard, against a stationary backdrop of Julio Lugo. By playing both the third base and middle infield roles, he leaves the remaining three spots on the eventual Cardinals bench relatively flexible; he also makes the players who are on it less valuable.
Tier Two: Good Bets
Joe Mather: As was pointed out in yesterday's comments, Rotoworld considers Mather a long shot to make the Cardinals' bench, but I'm not sure they realize quite how strong the notion that Mather is a legitimate center fielder became during his 2008 stint. I hadn't heard anything about it before he joined the Major League club—I knew him best as a guy who'd had to move off third base and into the outfield, which doesn't often portend great things.
But we were all in thrall to his athleticism, his graceful, non-Duncan way of moving around the outfield and running the bases, and the way the Spring Training roster materialized he has little competition as Colby Rasmus's caddy. Jon Jay is left-handed and has no MLB experience, Shane Robinson can't hit, and after that... well, the only other guys mentioned regularly as possible center fielders spend most of their time in the middle infield. If the Cardinals end up with a fourth outfielder who can play center—and I think La Russa would already have talked about it if he'd planned on, say, sending Ryan Ludwick out there once a week—it almost has to be Joe Mather right now. And if his wrist isn't a wreck, that's probably a good thing.
Julio Lugo: Lugo does most of the same things Felipe Lopez does, and he doesn't do them as well. But he's got a big league contract, and the Cardinals haven't yet dumped him, either on someone else or into the dump. If his knees are better he might be able to hold off Tyler Greene for another year.
Tier Three: Fair Bets
Allen Craig: I hate to see Craig's camp start like this, hampered by nagging injuries, but on the post-Matt Holliday Cardinals Craig has a difficult road to extended playing time. Holliday will play as much as he can, which will probably be a lot; Ludwick will play as much as he can while he's healthy. And in the meantime Craig is second on the third base depth chart among right-handed outfielders with slugging credentials. Craig is probably a Major League hitter, and there are teams out there who are paying more to get less; the Giants, after all, are looking for a boost from Aubrey Huff.
The situation will continue to change until the season starts, and after the Opening Day festivities they'll change some more. But on the ideal version of the Cardinals here in March, his role would be smaller than it ought to be. (If Mather's wrist comes undone and Jay becomes the backup center fielder, of course, Craig looks much better as a fourth outfielder/third third baseman.)
Tyler Greene: Certainly the best defensive shortstop who didn't have wrist surgery recently, but the simple fact that he can go back to Memphis makes it likely that he will. That's probably not the best set-up for the Cardinals-minus-Brendan-Ryan, because of the way Lugo and Lopez duplicate one-another, but right now Greene has 89 excellent Memphis games to his name; there are, I guess, worse fates than giving him another few months to play every day.
Tier Four: So You're Saying There's a Chance?
Jon Jay: I nearly put Jay in tier three—I hope he'll forgive me. He had something of a tweener reputation when he was drafted, but in the interim he's turned into an excellent defensive center fielder, which is good, because he hits like one.
At 25 he's nearly a finished product, and he's already a fair approximation, value-wise, of outfielder Skip Schumaker and So Taguchi and every other fourth outfielder of this stripe. But as another left-handed hitter on a team that's still a little wary of Colby Rasmus's platoon splits, he'll probably spend 2010 trying to replicate his excellent 2008 in AAA.
Nick Stavinoha: Stav probably gets a bad rap from us, given how stupendously badly his MLB career has begun. OPSs of .884 and .853 in Memphis should not really translate to MLB lines of .193/.217/.211 and .230/.242/.379 (wow—did he really get his SLG all the way up to .379?), but it happened, and given his total lack of secondary skills—the Fat Aaron Miles thing is a fair description of his playing style, and he plays the outfield like someone who would, right now, be trying to learn catcher—it's no wonder he's become a game thread pariah.
He's got Craig and Mather ahead of him, and his starting spot at DH will probably not outlive Allen Craig's various maladies. But I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up with another 50 at-bats as the seventh(?) outfielder, and another big year in the middle of the order in Memphis.
Shane Robinson: The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced the weird second base thing is an excuse to get him regular at-bats in Memphis. Jay will likely start in center, with Stavinoha and one of Craig or Mather in left and right, but with Jarrett Hoffpauir gone the Cardinals need another non-prospect with which to bilk Daniel Descalso out of some much-needed at-bats.
Given the Cardinals' weird fourth outfielder arrangement, Robinson is probably another fair bet to accrue 25 more at-bats in St. Louis this year.
Ruben Gotay: Maybe the most eagerly sought-after minor league free agent at the close of the season, Ruben and his agents no doubt looked at the Cardinals and thought: this team could use a guy who plays a lot like Felipe Lopez.