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Cardinals bench has questions leading to the playoffs

The Cardinals have used September to bring back injured players and provide some exposure to some players without previous major league experience. As October comes close, the Cardinals will be forced to trim the roster and refine the bench.

Dilip Vishwanat

On most days in September, the Cardinals have had ten players on the bench. They have had the benefit of three extra outfielders, two extra catchers, and five extra infielders. Eighteen position players have taken at bats for a team in the midst of a pennant race and sixteen of those players have made starts in September (sorry Tommy Pham and Greg Garcia). In one week, the Cardinals will have to trim down the roster and they have several important decisions to make.

One of the more difficult decisions the Cardinals will make for the playoffs is the dynamic between pitchers and position players on a 25-man roster. On Saturday, Eric Johnson made the case for an eight-man pen with Wacha and Miller piggybacking each other. As Eric mentioned, that alignment would allow for an aggressive approach resembling Tony La Russa's strategy in 2011, but it would leave the bench dangerously thin. The Cardinals have a very interesting decision ahead them for their five starters vying for rotation spots, but regardless of the four starters the Cardinals choose, teams do not typically have more than twelve pitchers on the postseason roster.

With likely thirteen position players to choose from, the Cardinals will most likely carry one catcher, two outfielders, and two infielders to fill out the bench. The outfield is the easiest position to decipher. Matt Holliday is the left fielder. Jon Jay, with as many plate appearances in September as Peter Bourjos and Oscar Taveras combined, has been an everyday player this month. Peter Bourjos, Oscar Taveras, and Randal Grichuk are all but assured of their roster spots at this time (again, sorry Tommy Pham). Bourjos plays incredible defense, Grichuk has been Matheny's go-to hitter against lefties, and Taveras is a dangerous hitter who has shown flashes of what he has been throughout his minor league career.

A few days ago, the backup catcher position appeared to be sewn up. When Yadier Molina went down, Tony Cruz stepped in as the backup catcher, but the Cardinals eventually brought in A.J. Pierzynski to take over that role. In August, Pierzynski played in 18 games, getting 62 plate appearances while Cruz got in 12 games with 41 plate appearances. Neither player hit particularly well in limited time, and on Yadi's return each player has received just eight plate appearances in September. In August, the team preferred Pierzynski's experience. Against lefty David Holmberg the other night, the Cardinals went with Tony Cruz behind the plate, but how much the platoon advantage played into that decision is unclear.

If the Cardinals go with recency at catcher, the walkoff hit and big 3-run homer by Cruz will stick with the decisionmakers. As Ben noted on the most recent podcast, this is likely not a major issue for the Cardinals. Yadier Molina is going to get every inning at catcher, the backup is unlikely to pinch hit, and if Yadi were to get injured, they would both end up on the roster anyway. Cruz's experience with the rotation and recent heroics may well give him an edge that he did not have as recently as a few days ago.

The real decision the Cardinals will have comes in the infield, where multiple players with postseason experience are playing for just two spots. Greg Garcia could very well find him competing for Daniel Descalso's role on the team next season, but given the lack of playing time this September (one plate appearance), he will not factor into October. After Garcia, that leaves Daniel Descalso, Mark Ellis, Pete Kozma, and Xavier Scruggs.

Daniel Descalso has been on the bench all season long and has made starts at all four infield positions. Despite his season line of .237/.329/.296 this season, numbers not out of line for his career, Descalso has a spot on Matheny's bench. Mark Ellis is an interesting case. Signed in the offseason for over $5 million, Ellis would seem to be an easy choice for the postseason roster, but as discussed in the PD by Rick Hummel, Ellis may be on the outside come October.

"Personally, it's been a horrible year," he said. "There's no getting around it. Not playing the way I want to play and then not being out there. But that goes hand in hand. If you play well, you're on the field. If you don't, you're not playing.

Mike Matheny has given Ellis the occasional pinch hit, but given what the Cardinals need in the playoffs, Ellis might not make the roster, leaving an opening for Scruggs or Kozma, who have played sparingly for the Cardinals this season.

Choosing between Scruggs and Kozma presents several problems. Choosing Kozma over Scruggs leaves no infielder who can reliably come off the bench and provide a favorable matchup pinch hitting and leaves a very weak hitter backing Matt Adams at first base. Alternatively, choosing Scruggs over Kozma means the only backup at second, shortstop, and third base is Daniel Descalso.

While it might be fun to toy with benches that do not include Daniel Descalso, given that we know he will be in there, the choice is really between Scruggs and Kozma. The most likely choice is Kozma, providing a positive defensive versatility, but I would prefer Scruggs, despite his inexperience. Given how steady Carpenter, Peralta, and Wong have been during the year, a second utility player seems extravagant. None of those three players are likely to be benched or taken out, lessening the need for another middle infielder when the postseason provides more days off than the regular season. Adams has been dealing with injuries and struggled in the second half. Bringing a right-handed component for first base should be more valuable than another middle infielder as the Cardinals try to get back to the World Series.