Depth is a tricky thing. Teams never know when, where or who the injury bug is going to strike. It may never strike over the course of a season or it may take out several key components of a team. No team has backup players that are of the same caliber as their starters. Resources are allocated to the players that will enjoy the bulk of the playing time and then backups are filled in from the free agent pool or the minor league system to minimize the risk.
The Cardinals in recent years have been criticized for not having sufficient depth. Most recently, the local media took issue with the starting pitching depth in 2010 after the loss of Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse in the span of weeks. Adam Ottavino and PJ Walters were insufficient reserves in the eyes of many (including some of the coaching staff) and the pressure mounted to acquire another pitcher toward the end of the year resulting in the Ryan Ludwick-Jake Westbrook swap.
Do the Cardinals have the necessary depth on their roster and in their farm system for 2011?Let's start with the assumption that the position players look like this:
C: Yadier Molina, 1B: Albert Pujols, 2B: Skip Schumaker, 3B: David Freese, SS: Ryan Theriot, LF: Matt Holliday, CF: Colby Rasmus, RF: Lance Berkman
Major League Catcher Depth: Gerald Laird
Minor League Catcher Depth: Bryan Anderson
The hallowed tradition of backup catcher is even more inconsequential on a Tony La Russa team where the manager prefers his primary catcher play as many games as possible. Still the Cardinals have acquired a servicable if declining backup in Gerald Laird. Beyond that is the oft discussed, rarely used Bryan Anderson. The amount of playing time Anderson sees will be directly related to 1) Yadier's health and 2) reports from the starting pitchers Anderson catches in Spring Training.
Major League 1B/3B Depth: Nick Punto, Allen Craig
Minor League 1B/3B Depth: Matt Carpenter, Mark Hamilton
The Cardinals will be faced with an interesting choice should either their peg-legged third baseman go down or, gods of baseball forfend, Albert were to be injured. Nick Punto will be the defensive choice and, I suspect, the first option at 3rd. Allen Craig would be the choice should offense be needed and he would likely find his way on the field if Albert were to be injured -- right field most likely with Berkman shifting to first. In the minors, there's Matt Carpenter who has emerged as a stat favorite despite some tepid scouting reports. Alternately, the lefty Mark Hamilton who has battled injuries since his 2006 draft. Hamilton posted good but not great offensive numbers in Memphis for 2010 and is an all bat type of first baseman.
Major League 2B Depth: Nick Punto
Minor League 2B Depth: Daniel Descalso
Punto is the obvious choice to step in at 2B should schumaker go down. Indeed, he'll likely see time there when Schumaker needs to be spelled anyway. Daniel Descalso is the first resort in the minors. He had an excellent 2009 campaign in Springfield but his 2010 work in Memphis was slightly below average relative to the Pacific Coast League.
Major League SS Depth: Tyler Greene, Nick Punto
Minor League SS Depth: ?
If there's an area of concern, it almost has to be focused on how thin the Cardinals are at SS. I really hope that Tyler Greene is given every opportunity to prove himself a viable backup candidate at SS. Should he prove insufficient then Nick Punto is likely to step in if he's not needed elsewhere. Beyond those two, the Cardinals have little to offer in the minors. Freddy Bynum and/or Ramon Vasquez should not be considered options. Pete Kozma has yet to show he can handle Springfield so it would seem premature to pencil him in as a possible MLB SS in any capacity.
Major League RF/LF Depth: Allen Craig, Jon Jay
Minor League RF/LF Depth: Nick Stavinoha
It's even odds on whether the Cardinals turn to Allen Craig or Jon Jay to fill in for Holliday and Berkman. The decision, as it would with third base, would likely be dependent on their day to day needs for offense or defense given the specific circumstances of a game. Beyond those two players, the team is remarkably thin in Memphis for corner outfielders. The most likely candidate to move up would be Nick Stavinoha. Potentially, there's room for Amaury Cazana Marti to make his way to the majors here.
Major League CF Depth: Jon Jay
Minor League CF Depth: Adron Chambers
Jon Jay is a capable centerfielder and Adron Chambers has made his way up prospect lists in the last two offseasons. Both players are defense first players with good speed and little power. They'll hit for average and draw a moderate number of walks. If there's any weakness to the depth at this position, it's that the entire roster (barring the inanity of Tyler Greene in CF) is left handed at this position.
I'm mostly comforted after going through this process. I don't see an egregious holes on the roster. Shortstop would require a couple of failures to reach critical mass though it is probably the weakest position in terms of depth. The minor league crop of corner outfielders is troubling though part of that is the result of graduating two players (Craig, Jay) to the majors in 2010. You could see a player like Tommy Pham or Aaron Luna emerge as a mid year possibility depending on where they're assigned and how well they play to start the season.
The Cardinals have positioned themselves reasonably well to survive minor injuries and potentially even some larger ones among their position players. There are some starters that are obviously more vital than others -- would we even notice a Ryan Theriot injury in terms of on the field performance? Unlikely. -- but that is the nature of modern baseball.