The Cardinals, like all major league baseball teams, are allowed to have 25 players on the active roster at a given time. They've said they plan to carry eight relief pitchers, and with five starting pitchers and eight positional starters, that leaves four bench spots.
But what this post pre-supposes is... what if it doesn't?
A few weeks back, I argued that the Cardinals should manage their pitching staff more like the Dodgers, who last season used 10 starting pitchers - seven of whom started at least nine games. This was not some catastrophe brought on by injury. This was by design. The Dodgers made savvy use of the 10-day DL and other roster machinations to shuttle guys into and out of the rotation through the season.
The Late Craig Edwards wrote a piece at Fangraphs recently about the Rays stated plan to employ a 4-man rotation. At first glance, the Rays 4-man rotation and the Dodgers spreading starts around 7+ guys sound like opposites... but they're really not. And they both provide a template the Cardinals should follow.
As Craig points out in his piece, the new CBA adds three extra off-days, for a total of 24 off-days throughout the season. Those off-days, coupled with a willingness to shuttle players between St. Louis, Memphis and the 10-day DL could provide the Cardinals a lot of flexibility and help maximize the quality of their starters and occasionally get them that fifth bench bat, while still carrying the eight relievers they seem hell-bent on.
I think picking up that extra bench bat could be important, whenever they can squeeze it in for a few days. Not only will the team barely be carrying players to cover every position in the event of an in-game injury, but if they are going to use all these relievers, they will presumably be giving starters a quicker hook... and that means extra pinch-hitting at-bats.
Let's take a look at April as an example. (I'm having some problems with the editor this morning, so apologies that I can't drop the schedule in here. But you know, look at your phone or something.)
That stretch from April 7-18 is the only place where the Cardinals would even need a 5th starter in order to keep their top four on regular rest. And that's one of only two times before the All-Star break they will need to go more than two turns (ten games) through a five-man rotation without an off-day.
During those shorter stretches, the Cardinals could use a 4-man rotation, send the 5th guy to Memphis (or more likely the 10-day DL), and call-up an extra position player to bolster their thin bench.
Over those longer strings of games, the team could recall a pitcher like Jack Flaherty, slot him into something like the 6th spot in the rotation, earn an extra rest day for all the other starters, and send down or DL whoever needs a rest at that moment.
So again, using April as an example, here's one way this might reasonably work out. The Cardinals have already announced that Adam Wainwright will start the club's 2nd game of the season, which puts him in line to start the home opener April 5. (With the early off-days, they could actually make it to April 5 with a 4-man rotation and everyone would still be on regular rest. But given what they've already announced, let's work with those parameters.)
After the home opener, Waino could suddenly find himself just a little injured and be put on the 10-day DL. Flaherty will be the guy to "take his spot," but we won't need him for five more days, so let's recall Harrison Bader. (Unlike John, I would probably keep Munoz with just a 4-man bench for his positional flexibility.) Now we get a few games of a five-man bench without sacrificing the court-ordered eight-man bullpen.
Flaherty takes a couple turns in the rotation and voila, Wainwright's arm is feeling much better and he's ready to return. Maybe Flaherty goes back down, or maybe he stays and another member of the rotation takes a trip to the minors or the DL. With two off-days in a span of just five days, there's a lot of ways to organize that last week-and-a-half of April.
This is just one loose, hypothetical framework for one month of the season, but the point is: If the Cardinals are managing their roster and pitching staff well, we should see moves that look like this. We should see Flaherty, and perhaps another starter or two, shuttling back-and-forth into the rotation, and ending the year with a total number of starts not too far behind whoever you want to call your fifth starter.
Is it better to give guys an EXTRA day of rest more often within the rotation, or give them ten days off once or twice per season? From everything I read, the jury is still out on this. But however it comes, more rest is better, and teams now have more tools to provide that rest.
Legitimate injuries will of course dictate some moves, and at times could dampen the opportunities to be flexible. But in general, this is the kind of dynamic template the club should be following.
So will they? Eh... I'm not so sure.
Perhaps Matheny's greatest flaw as a manger is a lack of imagination when it comes to managing his roster. No matter what kind of club the front office has constructed for him, he tends to fall into ruts where players get locked into roles. This calls for creativity we have not often seen from him.
I suspect a plan like this could also run into a bit of a Wainwright problem. He's a Cardinal legend, but he's probably my #5 in this rotation, and especially when you also factor in his age and recent injury history, he's the guy I'd most be looking to limit innings/starts from. And he strikes me as the kind of guy who wouldn't take too kindly to that.
However the Cardinals plan to take advantage of these extra off-days, the 10-day DL, and frankly, the fact that they have a number of very good players on their 40-man roster who they can't squeeze into an Opening Day 25, I hope to see the club be intentional and strategic with these moves.