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When do the Cardinals' prospects have prospects?

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As the minor leagues begin to produce role players by the yard Dan Szymborski's annual St. Louis Cardinals ZiPS projections become more and more interesting to me. At this point it's finally no longer about just how terrible the Cardinals would be if any one player got hurt—it's about just how close to ready all the mid-grade prospects we've followed on Future Redbirds have become. At this point the replacement players have finally been replaced, in a lot of roles, by guys who could rapidly become more than that.

With ZiPS's OPS+ and ERA+ projections in hand, then, here's how the Cardinals' real, live replacement level types look as the calendar ticks to 2012.

3B: Zack Cox (92), Matt Carpenter (94). With Daniel Descalso (93) also a natural third baseman, the Cardinals figure to withstand a hit at third better than any other position—which is good, because they're also more likely to take a hit at third.

Cox's projection—.278/.327/.377—is one of the more pleasant surprises on the list, if only because I've been ceaselessly pessimistic about his prospects from the moment the Cardinals drafted him. Of course, the question hasn't really been whether he could be an average third baseman in the Major Leagues—it's what a star-caliber version of Zack Cox would look like, and I'm still not sure.

Matt Carpenter, meanwhile, is in the unenviable position of backing up an extremely fragile and nearly identically valuable regular. Given the way the Cardinals' bench appears to be firming up I think Matheny and Oquendo should bring the anyone-can-play-second meme back to life and throw him the relevant glove or mitt, because he has nothing else to do in AAA and might as well spot David Freese while his ankles are good.

OF: Erik Komatsu (86), Adron Chambers (83). Skip Schumaker was also 86, in case you haven't opened your Why Did The Cardinals Sign Skip Schumaker? Page-A-Day yet.

I can't exactly get excited about Erik Komatsu, since he seems to top out as a fourth-going-on-fifth outfielder, but the roster rules and the nebulous questions of upside—maybe he'll learn how to steal bases—surrounding Adron Chambers mean the Cardinals might as well keep Komatsu around if he's ready to put up a nearly identical line (.254/.328/.350) as the Rule 5 guy.

With Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran, and Lance Berkman all clustered around that right field/first base area it probably won't sting that the Cardinals' top minor league corner outfielder by ZiPS (which didn't project Oscar Taveras) is noted walk-taker and erstwhile second baseman Aaron Luna (.220/.330/.344.) With Carpenter, Mark Hamilton, and Matt Adams all looking for a place to stand and swing a bat for a while, and Schumaker around for the duration, there are plenty of unconventional temporary solutions to any outfield rotation problem.

1B: Matt Adams (98), Mark Hamilton (94). Adams is another guy whose nice ZiPS line surprised me. .264/.315/.415 isn't going to do it at first base, obviously, but going into his age-23 season and having hit at every level there's more room for improvement than those of us who were (perhaps unduly) skeptical of his Texas League romp might have anticipated. A big season in the Pacific Coast League will make me maybe 10% less skeptical than I am now, given the PCL's Coors-Field-in-2000 makeover, but it would probably be enough for the (more rational) braintrust to pencil him in somewhere.

As for Mark Hamilton, I remain convinced by something that can't be logic, observation, or his stats that he could do a good Ben Broussard impression somewhere for somebody. But at 27, and surrounded by both Matts, he probably won't do it in St. Louis.

C: Bryan Anderson (82), Tony Cruz (74). From the Why Did The Cardinals Sign Skip Schumaker? Page A Day Calendar for February 15, 2012: I'm a little—concerned isn't the right word, let me back up. I have an unsupported hunch that the Cardinals' remarkably thorough collection of left-handed bench bats who will remind you of Skip Schumaker could make a difference when it comes time for the Cardinals to choose between Bryan Anderson (.246/.306/.358) and right-handed, third-base-playing, admittedly better-on-defense Tony Cruz (.237/.287/.352).

MIF: Tyler Greene (84), Ryan Jackson (70), Pete Kozma (58). I was pleasantly surprised by Cox and Adams's lines; Ryan Jackson's .242/.297/.352 marks were both easier to anticipate and still a little disappointing. A 70 OPS+ gets you about a half-step better than Cesar Izturis—a useful guy on the bench, but not someone I'd be excited to start unless Jackson's defense is outstanding, instead of just very good.

Tyler Greene, Tenured Utility Infielder, though—that I'm kind of excited about. A left-handed second baseman and an injury prone shortstop means the Cardinals are in an ideal position to get something out of a shortstop they at least pretended they'd be interested in starting.

P: Shelby Miller (94), Lance Lynn (93), Maikel Cleto (77). Stop it! I see you there, eyeing Shelby Miller for 2012, staring with lascivious intent at those 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Lance Lynn is more boring, but he's also not 21. (Mike Matheny something something hunting knife.) I'm also hoping the Cardinals still see Marc Rzepczynski—projected here as a perfectly okay reliever—as a possible starter.

In the bullpen—well, I'm not sure there's such a thing as easily anticipated bullpen depth. Jason Motte (120) and Fernando Salas (117) project well, and Eduardo Sanchez's (116) mysterious shoulder aside he would make a great third-chair righty.

In case you've already scrolled past it: the link for the full 2012 Cardinals ZiPS Projections