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Tommy Pham's return raises roster questions

Tommy Pham is currently on a rehab assignment. What will the team do when he is ready to return.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Acting as though Tommy Pham will make it through his rehab assignment incident free might be a bit of an assumption for an injury-riddled player who could not make it through the first game of the season. However, Pham is now playing games again, and it is at least more likely than it was a week ago that the Cardinals will need to make a move on the 25-man roster. The Cardinals have options, but with the bench generally full of contributing members of the team, the choice could be difficult.

When Pham went down with oblique tightness the very first game of the season. With Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and Matt Holliday as starters in the outfield, spring (and now) April sensation Jeremy Hazelbaker making the roster when Ruben Tejada was injured in Spring Training, and Brandon Moss also available to play in the outfield, the team opted not to call up an outfielder to replace Pham. Instead the team called up shortstop Aledmys Diaz.

Diaz has been ablaze since making his debut, earning the everyday shortstop role with his hot bat with defense that might or might not be improving depending on your observations. In any event, DIaz has played well enough to make his spot on the 25-man roster safe for quite some time. That leads to questions about Diaz's backup, Ruben Tejada.

Tejada was signed by the Cardinals after the Mets let him go for a relatively paltry sum of $1.5 million. After he was injured in Spring Training, he had a relatively brief stay on the disabled list and came to the Cardinals at the expense of Greg Garcia, who also fell on the ladder due to Diaz's great play. Tejada has not done much with the Cardinals, nor has he been given a lot of opportunities. His play in the field has not been sterling.

The Cardinals could decide with Diaz's solid play and Jhonny Peralta due back that the insurance Tejada provided at the time of his signing is no longer needed. Tejada passed through waivers with the Mets, but he was making more than twice as much as he was now, and it's possible a team might claim him and the rest of his salary or that after passing through, the Cardinals might find a trade partner. Assuming some team wants him even if the Cardinals release him, they will probably only end up paying him around one million dollars.

Matt Adams left yesterday's game with a bruised thigh, but that injury is not likely serious. The team could decide Adams needs a couple weeks off to create space for Pham, or they could decide, like they did at the beginning of the year, that Matt Holliday is a viable option at first, and along with Brandon Moss (7 HR, 124 wRC+), that the team only needs two first basemen with four other outfielders in the fold. Given Adams' recent mini-run and his favored status, a forced disabled list stay or a straight move to Triple-A seems unlikely.

Jeremey Hazelbaker has a great .309/.355/.647 overall line with a 158 wRC+ and he's 8 for his last 25 with 3 walks and four extra base hits, but he has had trouble getting into the lineup. He has had just four starts in the last 15 games. Randal Grichuk's struggles might open up more playing time for Hazelbaker, but that has not yet come to pass with even Stephen Piscotty starting in center. Pham might be a slightly better fit in the outfield as a right-hander as the team can go with their Opening Day lineup against left-handers with Holliday at first base, but Pham might struggle for playing time as well.

One option could be to send Grichuk down for a bit. Hazelbaker and Pham can handle center field and Grichuk, promoted aggressively by the Cardinals, spending only a partial season in Triple-A before reaching the majors in St. Louis. How much that would help Grichuk at this stage of his development is unclear. He likely needs to sink or swim at the major league level to determine if he can keep his walks up and manage his strikeouts at an acceptable level (around 25%) without losing his power.

The only other option is go with 11 pitchers for a time and send Seth Maness down to the minors to get more work and see if he can get a little of his velocity back and keep him fresh. With just two off days between now and June 2 and the first one coming on Monday, that seems an unlikely scenario.

Depending on their confidence in Peralta, putting Tejada on waivers seems like the best solution. The team still has Greg Garcia in the minors as well. Signing Tejada was a fine, if underwhelming move, in case the Cardinals internal options could not make it until Peralta was ready to return. While we do not exactly know what the future holds for DIaz, he has at least risen to the level of stopgap until Peralta returns.

Diaz on the roster is a no-brainer. Hazelbaker has earned his spot. Adams and Grichuk are unlikely to be sent down, and the bullpen is unlikely to play a man down. Rehab assignments can go a full 20 days, and unless the Cardinals feel Pham is needed immediately, they might wait to see how Peralta's rehab develops before pulling the plug on Tejada.