So here we are, the first week of September, and the Cardinals (and, by extension, their fans), find themselves in a very familiar position: the infamous, “If the playoffs started today,” position. As in, if the playoffs started today, the Cardinals would be in those playoffs, even if it’s only the Selig Memorial Game, aka the Pittsburgh Invitational.
For much of the year, the whole if the playoffs started today thing is mostly just a slightly dumb, moderately annoying trope trotted out by broadcasters struggling to think of something to say to fill up some of the 500+ hours of baseball they’re going to call over the course of a season. But once we start getting into September territory, the playoffs starting today begins to feel more and more relevant, particularly if the binary question actually switches back and forth from day to day, because, well, the playoffs might not actually be starting today, but relatively soon we’re going to run into the specific today on which the playoffs really do start, and you just hope that particular today is one of those todays when your team is, in fact, in.
As frustrating as this season has been, and as short on talent, execution, intestinal/testicular fortitude, and perhaps just plain old devil magic as this team has seemed to be for much of the year, the Redbirds are, once again, in pretty good standing in terms of making it into at least the one-game playoff.
But one-game playoffs are, to put it bluntly, boring. To write about, I mean. Sure, there’s high drama and white-knuckled whatever in the game itself, but trying to analyse a single baseball game? Blech. Baseball is not meant to be played, nor analysed, in single-game increments. Baseball requires huge blocks of individual contests over long stretches of time before we can really say anything concrete about a club one way or the other. The very notion of trying to construct meaningful analysis of one night, one game, beyond, “Well, that pitcher is probably better than that pitcher most nights, so...” is borderline farsical.
So what we’re going to do is just pretend the Cardinals are now in the actual playoffs, single-game heartbreak averted. They’ve managed to beat the Giants, finally overcoming that postseason hill, and are heading into a five-game series with (probably), the Cubs.
The reason we’re going to assume that is because, as a result of both the way this particular roster is constructed, and the various qualities of the performances by certain players, the Redbirds, as they prepare for the NLDS, are going to have a bit of a roster crunch on their hands, and some player who likely deserves to be on the inside is probably going to be on the outside, looking in.
See, here’s the thing: as the Cardinal broadcast team will literally never tire of telling you, el Birdos have a bunch of players getting healthy and coming back. Aledmys Diaz, Cuban defector-turned-suddenly-indispensable starting shortstop, is currently on a rehab assignment in the minors, and could be back with the big club within a week or so, depending on how well the playoffs go. (Minor league playoffs, that is.) Just as significantly, Matt Holliday is due to be reevaluated in the very near future, and could be on his way back as well. Cue the just-like-making-a-trade conversation in your mind.
Combine those two potential returns with the recently back off the DL (for however long that lasts), Matt Adams and Brayan Pena, and you could easily see a logjam developing as the Cards head into the postseason. September prevents these things from being a problem, of course; the 40-man roster solves these issues. But once the calendar turns to October and we drop back down to 25 for the sprint to the title, there’s no longer going to be any wiggle room.
For now, two of the three outfield spots seem relatively set. Stephen Piscotty starts everyday in right field, period. Randal Grichuk appears to have seized the center field job through some combination of stallion- and/or sports car-based magic, which is fine, because as frustrating as Randal can be from time to time, he has the potential to change any game in which he plays in a multitude of ways, and that kind of dynamic talent doesn’t just grow on trees. Also, it’s nice to finally have a Cardinal player comment here, and Grichuk has been a welcome addition to the VEB family.
Left field is, currently, a bit more up in the air. Brandon Moss is probably the most left field of the left field options, but you also have Tommy Pham and Jeremy Hazelbaker, both of whom are more athletically gifted, and have the potential to impact games in ways Moss can’t. (Particularly Pham, who has shown the ability to at least occasionally make some spectacular plays in the outfield, if not all the time.) Really, though, it’s no problem to carry those three to spread around the outfield a bit here and there as necessary.
The question is: what happens if Matt Holliday makes it back before the end of the season? I have a very, very hard time believing that Holliday could be back and healthy, ready to play, and yet left off the postseason roster. That just doesn’t seem to be the way this organisation does things, and the fact it might very well be the last we see of Holliday wearing the Birds on the Bat lends an extra layer of intrigue.
If it is the case that Holliday makes it back and is ready to go, then he either bumps Brandon Moss to first base full time, or pushes one of Hazelbaker/Pham off the roster. Now, personally, it doesn’t seem to me that losing Jeremy Hazelbaker would be a huge deal, but then when I look at he and Holliday’s offensive numbers this season, they’ve been basically the same exact hitter. Hazelbaker currently sports a 106 wRC+, to Holliday’s 105. Of the two, I would expect Holliday to be the better candidate for a big postseason, but then, there are reasons to believe the struggles we’ve seen from Matt this season are legitimate, and perhaps not getting better.
Pushing Moss to first base full-time wouldn’t seem to be a bad option, until one is forced to realise that Matt Adams also plays first base, only plays first base, and seems to currently be the player most likely to receive a middle of the night voicemail from Mike Matheny containing a plaintive, “Why can’t I quit you?” I’ve written plenty about my own skepticism toward Adams ever being more than a league average at best player, but even I have to admit he’s shown the kind of power this season I think many of us were hoping to see.
Speaking of the infield, things are even more complicated there. We have Matt Carpenter as a set-in-stone, play-every-day-come-hell-or-high-water lock for the lineup. He also happens to play three infield positions, at various levels of quality, but for now it looks like he’ll probably be the third baseman. (See above about the two first base options already on the roster.) Carpenter starting every day at third and either Moss or Adams starting at first base every day leaves us with the two middle infield slots, and a bevy of players to potentially fill them.
Of said bevy, Aledmys Diaz is likely the closest to a legitimate shorstop available to the club, even if he’s not a very good one in terms of the glove. Kolten Wong is the best defender at second base, and he’s swinging the bat well enough right now I, for one, have a hard time seeing him as anything but the best overall — or at least most dynamic overall — choice to start.
However, such a scenario leaves Jedd Gyorko, currently the 2016 Cardinals’ home run leader, either riding the pine or not on the roster at all. He has to be on the roster. Thus, Greg Garcia might find himself the odd man out. Which isn’t the end of the world, except for the fact Garcia possesses a .386 on-base percentage this season. That’s...tough to not want around.
Oh, and all of this talk has yet to even get around to Jhonny Peralta, who may not offer anything particularly unique at this point, but who is, on the other hand, versatile, an does a little bit of everything, and also has a bigger contract than the other infielders, which maybe shouldn’t matter, but almost certainly does all the same.
Defensively, I think the best infield alignment might be something like Carpenter at first, Wong at second, Diaz at shortstop, and....Jedd Gyorko at third? I don’t know, really. The best offensive alignment probably sees Adams switched in to first, Carpenter at second, Diaz manning shortstop, and Gyorko over at third again. That is a shaky middle infield, though.
Behind the plate, Yadier Molina is the only catcher who really matters on the roster, other than the fact the Cardinals will have to carry another one just in case. And even the backup catcher to the only catcher who matters doesn’t come without some intrigue this year, as Brayan Pena was brought in before the season to spell Yadi in a way he hasn’t been for most of his career, but has been one of the most massive disappointments in recent memory, failing to stay on the field whatsoever. One would be tempted to simply leave Pena off the postseason roster entirely, but then, how good do you feel about Alberto Rosario? Carrying three catchers would seem completely nonsensical, but we’ve seen crazier things.
If we consider Brandon Moss primarily an outfielder — which I think we probably should, considering Matt Adams is on the roster currently — then the Redbirds are looking at roughly six outfielders if Matt Holliday comes back, and something like seven infielders once Aledmys Diaz makes it back onto the major league roster. Combine those thirteen players with at least two catchers, and you have fifteen players.
Which leads us to another question: would the Cardinals consider going with a short pitching staff to keep extra bench bats on the roster? It’s rare that a club needs five starters in a playoff series, so we could easily see just four starters, namely Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, and Mike Leake.
However, even in a scenario such as that, I have a hard time seeing the club only carrying six relievers in addition to a short starting staff, considering the amount of trouble said staff has had this season eating up innings. Mike Matheny seems loathe to go with a short bullpen under ideal circumstances; the notion of him being comfortable abandoning the safety net of a big bullpen while simultaneously lacking backup starters is extremely hard to imagine.
We also have a similar situation in the ‘pen to what we see on the position player side, with the potential return of Trevor Rosenthal to the fold. Rosenthal has established himself already in his career as a potentially elite short reliever; if he comes back healthy and firing bullets, it’s hard to see him not making the postseason roster. Then again, a bullpen with Trevor Rosenthal newly returned to it can even less afford to go short on numbers, since it’s likely some caution in his usage will be required.
Seung-hwan Oh is a mortal lock for the postseason ‘pen. Zach Duke is as well. Kevin Siegrist has had a frustrating year, but he’s got the pedigree and the trust of the manager. Matt Bowman, recent (potentially fatigue-related), struggles aside, has been one of you best relievers for most of the year. Jonathan Broxton, like it or not, will be on the postseason roster.
That’s five relievers who would seem to be locked in for the playoffs, and not including a potentially returning Rosenthal. It would seem very hard to deny Alex Reyes a spot, considering what kind of potential dominance he’s shown at times already. Two lefties are probably enough, but I could also see the club wanting an extra lefty specialist and trying to find a way to get Dean Kiekhefer on to face, say, Anthony Rizzo in the seventh inning of a tied game.
If we assume the five relievers who seem locked in are, indeed, locked in, and that Reyes is too intriguing a weapon not to want around, we lack any spot for Luke Weaver to make the team if we need to keep the bullpen at six. That’s also assuming Rosenthal doesn’t come back, which, you know. If Rosenthal makes it back, he’ll be on the roster, I assume, pushing the ‘pen to seven without either the LOOGY or the skinny kid with the wicked changeup.
If the bullpen does, in fact, have seven pitchers in it — which, considering how young some of the options are, and how shaky the rotation has been this season, may not be the worst thing — then we are again cannibalising a spot from the positional side. And even with that seven-man bullpen containing Rosenthal and Reyes, it’s hard to see which pitcher would fulfill the long relief role, which we know is a big thing for this coaching staff. It would be very easy to see the Cards’ coaching staff convinced they need a guy on the roster who could potentially take a start if need be, or simply eat up innings 5-7 in a game where the starter has troubles with efficiency.
It’s kind of funny, really; we talk about how much depth this club possesses, and how that has been much of the foundation for what they’ve done well this year. The next man up philosophy may be cliched, but it keeps a team from ever truly bottoming out when injuries strike, but a club composed of so many nearly-interchangeable parts also creates other problems. The kinds of tough questions, without much in the way of good answers, potentially forced by a 25-man roster that needs to be roughly 28 strong to benefit the Cardinals fully, fall firmly into that category of problem.
Of course, it’s entirely possible health, or the lack thereof, could answer these questions for us. If Matt Holliday doesn’t come back, it’s easier to find Brandon Moss at-bats. (Or, conversely, Matt Adams at-bats.) If Trevor Rosenthal isn’t healthy, the numbers crunch in the ‘pen is somewhat averted.
Still, the fact is the Cardinals are going to have some very tough decisions to make when the rubber hits the road and they’re forced to pick 25 players they think will give them the best chance to win. It’s entirely possible the kind of roster one would like to see could be entirely informed by the style of baseball one enjoys, while presenting a nearly identical value and production level as a completely different style of roster.
So my question to all of you is this: if the playoffs started today (there’s that thing again), what would your roster look like? Who’s in? Who’s out? And what’s the balance of pitchers and hitters, and risk and reward, and experience and athleticism, going to look like?
Me? Well, I haven’t decided quite yet. Ask me when the playoffs start, and I’ll probably just decide to disagree with whatever the Cardinals do, simply to have something to complain about.