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Benched Birdos: On Utilizing Young Talent

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The 10-Day DL has created constant roster turnover; have the young players been truly getting their shot?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The top-heavy farm system is often referenced to be a “secret” strength by the front office. We have quite a few players at Memphis who would be getting consistent playing time on other teams — especially clubs early on in their rebuilding process. And, to the credit of the FO, we’ve seen quite the flurry of roster moves this season. It’s seemed like a revolving door between St. Louis and Memphis, with the 10-Day DL being actively utilized and fresh arms and bats cycling through the active roster.

Several times, however, most of the players who were brought up—especially in times of need—ended up riding the bench, at least at first. Some didn’t make the field at all. Roster spots have been occupied by players getting little-to-no playing time, essentially taking up space. I can understand being unsure of what a player might have to offer at the big league level. But often, these were players who had spent time at St. Louis before, have given a clear indicator of the value they have to offer, or have shown their mettle in the minors and need time to sink or swim with the big league club. Let’s start with the earliest and clearest example.

Mike Mayers

Mayers was added to the active roster out of spring training due to stellar performance and early injuries, particularly to Luke Gregerson. His first stint of play spanned Opening Day (March 29) to April 16. Mayers made his first relief appearance in the first game of the season. He threw one inning. He didn’t pitch again until ten days later, on April 8. Ten days of a bullpen spot taken by someone not being utilized. Four days after that appearance he pitched three innings mopping up the Cardinals’ trouncing of Cincinnati and was sent down on the 16th when Gregerson was reinstated. The three-inning mopup appearance inflates his already-low innings total, so let’s put it in terms of appearances: Mayers spent 18 days on the active roster and pitched three times — two of those appearances were one inning.

Mayers returned on April 28 to replace John Gant and pitched one (1.2 innings) before being sent back down on May 2. Obviously, Mayers has made the trip from Memphis several times since then and has since been utilized much more frequently, but why was someone who pitched such an excellent spring training sitting for ten days between appearances in the first place? If he’s going to hold one of the 25 available roster spots, shouldn’t he be featured more consistently?

Luke Voit

Voit is an easy transition, because his first recall was made in conjunction with one of Mayers’ options. When Mayers was sent down on May 2, Voit took his place in St. Louis. He was there for just three days, until—you guessed it—relief pitchers became available for reinstatement from the DL. During that three-day span, Voit didn’t see a single plate appearance. A bit of a head-scratcher; why send down a relief pitcher to call up a first basemen who will then be sent down for another relief pitcher in three days?

Voit’s second stint was longer than his first (12 days) and had him take Tyler O’Neill’s roster spot. During those 12 days, Voit made five appearances as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement. With just five PA in nearly two weeks, Voit was optioned again to Memphis, for just four days before he was recalled when José Martínez went on paternity leave. He was utilized consistently in that weekend series against the Cubs, but picked up five trips to the plate in his first 15 days on the active roster in 2018.

Austin Gomber

Austin Gomber is a shorter example, but is, to me, one of the most irritating. Gomber has been discussed for years by those following the Cardinals farm system. Some are in love with his curveball. Others think he’s a pretty average pitcher. Regardless, he ranked as St. Louis’ highest-rated left-handed pitcher in the minors for a while, and he was added to the active roster for the first time on April 29 when Flaherty was sent down after his spot start.

From April 29 to May 4, Gomber sat in the bullpen. He didn’t throw a single pitch. No debut. He just sat. From a fan perspective this isn’t fun, but from Gomber’s point of view it had to be much worse; so many players talk about “getting the first one out of the way.” He essentially got free game tickets for a few days. Clearly, Gomber has had opportunities to pitch since being recalled again, but the first move doesn’t seem to coincide with the philosophy of making sure young players “are getting reps, getting to play every day.” A left-handed reliever in the pen going untouched for five days when he could be working in Memphis doesn’t seem like efficient player development.

Carson Kelly

Oh, boy. There are many, many opinions on Kelly in the Cardinals fanbase. I’m not going to get into Kelly the player, but I do want to focus on how he’s portrayed by the front office and the lack of continuity in the way he’s utilized.

Yadier Molina going down for a month or so was rough. “But, hey! The Cardinals have one of the most highly-touted catching prospects in the game! Even if we eventually decide to move him, some steady playing time could help him get some footing and maybe establish more value.” That’s what I thought to myself after Yadi’s injury, at least. It seems the team didn’t agree. Excluding his 10-Day DL stint in the middle of the month, Kelly spent 23 days on the active roster. He started eight of those games (35%). Now, yes, we’ve been spoiled by Yadi’s durability and most catchers don’t start so consistently. But...35%. That’s different. That’s not so much a timeshare as Kelly serving as the clear backup to Pena. He was a pinch hitter or defensive replacement four times. In total, he had 29 PA before he returned to the minors after a month in St. Louis. If Kelly is going to be considered the heir apparent to Yadi’s backstop, and he historically hasn’t played due to Molina’s workload, what type of message does it send to him that he’s the backup to Francisco Pena? What message does it send to rival GMs?

Tyler O’Neill

I’ve made no attempt to hide that I’m high on O’Neill. I think he has the potential to do very well in the majors, despite the “Grichuk 2.0” comparisons. However, even from an objective viewpoint, his playing time in his brief stints with St. Louis has been questionable.

O’Neill got his first call-up on April 19. He was with St. Louis for 11 days. In that time, he got just one start. He was put in the game as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement five times. He averaged less than a plate appearance per day on the roster. He was sent down to open a spot for Gomber, who, as we’ve covered, didn’t even touch the field in that major league stint.

Yes, O’Neill played in his next cycle, and, for a time, it was wonderful. Three home runs in three days. Multiple starts. It was great. He was sent down to make room for Voit (who only pinch hit in that time).

Now we come to O’Neill’s current recall. He started Monday’s game, but was then only featured as a pinch hitter in the next two games. It’s understandable starting Bader over O’Neill against the left-handed Corbin yesterday, and it worked out well. But, against Greinke on Tuesday, José Martínez draws a start in right field. Regardless of the resulting lineup, one of the highest-performing minor league players in 2018 is on the active roster and Martínez is chosen for outfield duty instead, in what should be a very brief stint with the big club for O’Neill. Is that utilizing your assets in the best way?

It’s not that calling young players up is a bad thing — quite the contrary. It’s that a team that has struggled to a 44-41 record with inconsistent relief pitching and offense hasn’t given several of the young players occupying their roster spots the chance to make a difference. If the front office and coaching staff truly believe they have an asset in the young talent available in the system, it’s time to start using it more efficiently.