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Cardinals’ NLDS Roster Musings—Preferences and Predictions

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MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On some point on Thursday October 3rd, at a time before the game to be designated by the Commissioner, the Cardinals will have to submit their roster for the NLDS. That roster will not be binding on the rest of the postseason, as the Cards can change it for the subsequent series. But that list of 25 will control who is eligible to play in the NLDS. John LaRue and I have broken down who our preferences for that roster are, as well as who Shildt is likely to select.

Automatic Inclusions

Pitchers

Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Giovanny Gallegos, John Brebbia, Ryan Helsley, Andrew Miller, Tyler Webb

Position Players

Yadier Molina, Matt Wieters, Paul Goldschmidt, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, Tommy Edman, Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler

Available Jobs and Assumptions

Based on a series of assumptions, we anticipate that there will be 5 available jobs, two in the bullpen, and three on the bench. The assumptions are these. First, Shildt will use a roster of 12 pitchers. With only a 5-game series, only 4 starters needed and two off days in the schedule, it would be absolutely preposterous to roster more than 12. Shildt could easily get by with 11 because everyone has 3 days of rest going into Game 1, and at no time during the series will it be possible to pitch more than 2 days in a row. We still suspect that Shildt will not be comfortable with less than 12. That assumption, in turn, requires a 5-man bench.

Another assumption is that Michael Wacha will be left off the NLDS roster due to his shoulder tightness. This has not come out officially from the team, but Derrick Goold said as much in his Post-Dispatch chat on September 30th. The other assumptions for automatic inclusions include obvious conclusions like including our starters and the relievers on whom Shildt has relied most heavily in recent weeks. Matt Wieters will be the backup catcher, just like he has been all year, and Andrew Knizner will be left off. Matt Carpenter will also be on the roster as a pinch hitter if he is not starting at 3B.

Thus the bullpen jobs will come down to a choice of two between John Gant, Junior Fernandez, Genesis Cabrera and Daniel Ponce de Leon. And the bench jobs will come down to a choice of three between Yairo Munoz, Rangel Ravelo, Jose Martinez, Randy Arozarena and Tyler O’Neill.

Skyric’s Take

Bench

Although it might be controversial, I feel like it is a foregone conclusion that Yairo Munoz will be on the bench. I understand that Munoz has one of the highest chase rates in the game for someone with as many plate appearances as he has. For that reason, he is not a good pinch-hitting option with his .194/.216/.222 line this year and .235/.264/.353 line for his career in the role. But with Edman most likely starting somewhere, they still need a backup at shortstop and second base, and while Edmundo Sosa would likely be a better option on defense, Sosa simply does not have a major league track record. While in a perfect world, I would leave him off the roster because I don’t think he has ever been a good hitter and is not a good pinch-hitting option, I just don’t see a universe in which Shildt leaves him off, especially with Kolten Wong’s shaky hamstring.

As for the other 2 bench jobs, I anticipate that Shildt will choose Jose Martinez and Rangel Ravelo. Martinez shouldn’t be considered automatic because he offers nothing on defense and has struggled mightily to hit right-handed pitching this year. But out of all the options, he has the most career plate appearances as a pinch hitter with 97, and has a .322/.392/.494 slash line in the role. Even with his struggles at the plate overall this year, he still mashes left-handed pitching to the tune of .322/.397/600 in 78 PA this year with a .271 ISO and a 160 wRC+. Although I don’t suspect that Shildt will limit him to hitting lefties, he really should, given his .254/.325/.360 line against righties this year in a much larger sample size. He has not been a good pinch hitter this year, however, slashing only .211/.286/.368 in 42 PA. For some reason this year, his hitting against righties has fallen off a cliff and he has been unable to hit sliders and cutters.

Rangel Ravelo also doesn’t offer much defensively, although he can stand at 1B 3B or the outfield. Although it’s a small sample, Ravelo has done a better job as a pinch hitter this year than anyone who has gotten a serious crack at the job other than Matt Carpenter. In 22 PA, Ravelo is 5 for 20 with 2 doubles and 1 home run, with a .250/.318/.500 slash line with 2 BB and 6 SO. I understand that we’re dealing with small sample sizes here, but that’s all that we have. Out of all of our options, only Munoz and Jose Martinez have 50 or more career PA as a pinch hitter. I think that Shildt will use Ravelo simply because he’s been one of the first options off of the bench in recent weeks.

For me, the tough case is Randy Arozarena. We all know about the stellar offensive year he had in the minor leagues. He’s got blazing speed, can play defense, he doesn’t strike out too much (only 17% in 283 PA for AAA Memphis), and is not allergic to taking a walk. But Shildt just hasn’t used him enough to justify an opinion that he will add him to the NLDS roster in my view. He’s only had 23 MLB PA this year, and that includes 2 starts when he was on the roster from August 12th through August 19th. Since his recall on September 3rd, he’s been available for 25 games, but with only 15 PA. He probably should be chosen because he would be a good pinch-running option, can be used as a late-inning defensive replacement for Fowler or Ozuna, and he’s a good hitter. But I don’t expect Shildt to make the choice.

Tyler O’Neill is the other option here, but I don’t see his addition. O’Neill is a controversial player because most see his unique combination of power and speed and his reduction in strikeout rate between 2017 and 2018 in AAA. O’Neill is just not a good pinch hitter. In 38 career pinch-hitting plate appearances, he’s struck out 19 times. This year, in only 17 tries, he is 2 for 16. Although he offers a lot, he’s just not someone that you can trust to not swing at a slider a foot outside. He seems to have been surpassed in the pinch-hitting pecking order by Ravelo.

To sum up, which 3 guys will Shildt use for the bench? Munoz, Martinez and Ravelo. Which should he use? Munoz, Martinez, Arozarena. As much I would like to leave Munoz off, I don’t see it happening. It’s tough to leave Ravelo off, but Arozarena offers more roster flexibility with pinch-running and defense.

Bullpen

Gant should be left off the roster. Some of his overall numbers don’t look bad: 3.73 FIP, 4.35 xFIP. But his walk rate has been atrocious since June, getting worse and worse, every month. Since June: 6.38 BB/9; Since July: 7.61 BB/9; Since August: 9.88 BB/9; Month of September: 15.43 BB/9! Gant just can’t be trusted in any kind of situation not to put runners on base. On the other hand, his “vulcan grip” changeup can be an out pitch when he can get his fastball over, he’s one of the best on the staff in preventing homers, and he’s probably the reliever who over a sufficient sample is the most likely to generate a ground ball if you need one. For those reasons, in addition to his major league track record, Shildt will add him to the roster. But I would not.

Cabrera offers another left-handed option Shildt can go to if he decides to trust Miller and his homer-happy ways less. There would be a decent argument to leave Miller off the roster, but we all know it won’t happen. Cabrera has started this year, pitched long relief, and for the past 2 weeks, Shildt has used him on an almost every-other-day basis pitching just 1 inning at a time. Based on that recent usage, his upper 90’s heat and sharp slider and his ability to throw multiple innings, I anticipate Shildt will add him.

Fernandez had a meteoric rise in the organization this year, ascending to the majors after starting at Class-A Advanced Palm Beach. He has a good slider and changeup, but in a couple of his outings, he had a hard time locating them. His two bad outings (allowing the grand slam to Ryan Braun on September 15th and allowing a HR and 4 ER on September 25th against Arizona) have overshadowed his other outings where he mostly did well. His preposterous 50% HR/FB rate drives his FIP up to over 5, which xFIP normalizes to 3.72. While he has good stuff, I think he’ll be left off in favor of Gant and Cabrera.

Daniel Ponce de Leon is the most confounding case, and has had an up-and-down season. While AAA numbers are tough to judge given the new ball in use this year, for the most part in Memphis, he was non-descript with a walk rate much higher than you’d like as a starter. He basically throws a high fastball the overwhelming majority of the time, with a little curveball and changeup thrown in occasionally. When he had a scheduled start he mostly pitched poorly for the Cards, but did well when he was asked to make a spot start on short notice. He pitched well for Memphis in a few games before being called up in September, then Shildt has barely used him since he was recalled when rosters expanded on September 1st. In his last appearance on September 24th, he was pitching on 17 days of rest, and he even admitted that he had nothing for secondary pitches because he was rusty. While Ponce wouldn’t be a bad choice for long relief, I don’t expect him to be added simply because Shildt has not used him. He is not an option for coming back on anything other than about 3 days of rest because he’s never had to do it.

What is interesting is, out of all the relievers that will be on the roster, Helsley has been the worst in terms of xFIP (5.11) and K/9 (7.85). His fastball is hard, but straight and he hangs his cutter frequently, which makes him hittable. At other times, he has been overpowering with his triple-digit heat. He’s a lock based on his usage and his raw stuff, but there is an argument to be made for leaving him off.

To sum up, which 2 guys will Shildt pick for the bullpen? Gant and Cabrera. Which 2 guys should he use? Cabrera and Fernandez.

John LaRue’s Take

Position Player Locks

The way I see it, the Cardinals have ten position player locks: Molina, Goldschmidt, Edman, Carpenter, DeJong, Wong, Wieters, Fowler, Bader, and Ozuna. I also think Jose Martinez is awfully close to a lock, so that’s eleven that we can reasonably book on the roster. I suspect they’ll carry thirteen position players overall.

Pitcher Locks

I see the following nine locks: Flaherty, Mikolas, Wainwright, Hudson, Gallegos, Carlos Martinez, Brebbia, Miller, and Webb. I expect they’ll carry twelve pitchers.

With that calculus out of the way, that leaves two position players for the bench and three pitchers left to be added to the bullpen. I’m not particularly sold that Gant at this stage of the season should be on the roster, and it sounds like he won’t be.

Bench

This is where Shildt could, theoretically, get cute and use Andrew Knizner, freeing Wieters up as a switch-hitting bench bat without the penalty of having to use him to catch for the remainder of the game, or flying blind without a backup for Molina. That’s a fun thought, but the benefit doesn’t come anywhere near enough to outweigh the costs of having a better player on the roster who can fill in elsewhere. It’s not as if either Knizner or Wieters can play any other position except first base in a reach. Handcuffing yourself with two roster spots who can only play one position is not advisable.

Rangel “Toasted” Ravelo is an interesting choice, but he’s limited in the same way you would be if you carried Knizner. He’s not a pinch runner, he’s not a defensive replacement, and the only place you would reasonably want to play him is first base. If you had to, you could force him to stand around in a corner, but it’s not optimal. It’s also not as if we’re talking about a thunderous bat, which I say with all due respect to Ravelo. He’s run up a 70 wRC+ in limited playing time in St. Louis this year on top of a 111 wRC+ in AAA. He’s a smart hitter, he takes a professional at-bat, but this isn’t some rehabbing former MVP. To compensate for his other shortcomings, he’d have to be awfully impressive at the plate. He’s not that. That being the case, Ravelo sure doesn’t seem like an option.

For the final two roster spots, it should come down to Arozarena, O’Neill, and Munoz. I’d prefer Arozarena and O’Neill. They can’t play the infield like Muñoz, but otherwise those two can do so much more for you off the bench. They’re faster, better base runners, and play average to above average defense. Those are all helpful assets to have, particularly in the pressure cooker of tight October games. The series in Arizona gave us all an intimate look at how Arozarena’s speed can change games. Their skill sets offer significant edges for the Cardinals over Muñoz. They’re also better hitters, full stop. If you strip away his ability to play the infield, there’s no reasonable logic behind keeping Munoz over the other two.

Wong’s health is the complicating factor. If they don’t feel like he can play multiple games, Munoz comes back in the equation. It’s painful to say, because it’s otherwise a very obvious choice here. However, if Wong’s health raises a red flag, that leave the Cardinals with Tommy Edman as the only option to play second base. That’s the only way Munoz should be on the playoff roster.

This is a case where I think what the Cardinals do and what I prefer they do will line up. The dwindling playing time for Munoz in September was a pretty good indication of how the Cardinals feel about the situation.

Bullpen

There are several contenders for the final three slots since Gant is likely out. In my mind, there are four: Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Junior Fernandez.

Helsley had quite a September audition (11 games, 13.2 IP, highest on the team). As much as Gant’s worthiness to lift the mjölnir of a post-season roster slot is in question, Helsley seems to offer a piggyback option. His multi-inning capacity and ability to dial up the queso in short bursts make him solid insurance if other pitchers struggle. In other words, even though I didn’t include him as a lock, Skyric’s initial thought that Helsley is a lock might as well be my thought too.

That leaves two slots on the roster. Ponce has been something of a forgotten man in September, which is probably an indication that they see him as a sixth starter more than a long reliever. He’s probably left off.

That leaves Fernandez and Cabrera, two young but highly unrefined fire-breathing dragons in the bullpen. A significant part of this equation- had Gant made it- was how much faith they have in Miller and Webb. Miller had an incredibly tough stretch run, fashioning the 22nd worst second half FIP amongst relievers with 20+ IP. Webb was perfectly ok- right around average. The other wild card is Gallegos, who is capable of squelching lefty brush fires as well as almost any other right-handed reliever in the game.

Putting the lefty situation aside for a moment, Fernandez and Cabrera offer quite a contrast. Fernandez racks up more strikeouts while Cabrera has done a better job of limiting walks. In their Major League stints this year, Cabrera has done a better job of limiting homeruns. Given the lefty need, that would seem to make him the obvious choice, right? Allow me to channel Lee Corso for a moment... not so fast, my friend! You see, Fernandez has quite a track record of keeping the ball in the ballpark. Even in his deepest, darkest, worst minor league seasons, the worst HR/FB% he had was 8.0%. Those two homeruns he’s allowed in St. Louis this September seem more fluke than anything else. For the Cardinals, the choice to omit Gant eliminates the question. Both Cabrera and Fernandez should be on the roster.