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A hazy look at roster composition: The hitters

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A mix of infielders and a breakout outfielder make filling out the bench a difficult task

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As we speed closer to Opening Day, some roster decisions become less muddled from performance, while others are determined by injury and circumstance. Carlos Martínez will start the season on the IL, which forcibly removes a piece from the pitching staff discussion.

On the position player side, some injuries make positional battles clearer, but there continues to be a fight to whittle down a list of players who, in a vacuum, have what it takes to make the 25-man roster. Still, the question looms of how many spots there are to fill.

Guarantees

The starting eight position players seem set, given the players available and offseason comments from the front office:

  1. Yadier Molina
  2. Paul Goldschmidt
  3. Kolten Wong
  4. Matt Carpenter
  5. Paul DeJong
  6. Marcell Ozuna
  7. Harrison Bader
  8. Dexter Fowler

The outfield has the most question marks, with Ozuna’s shoulder and Fowler’s bat both in question following a season where they weren’t at peak performance, but there’s no doubt at this point that they’ll be in the Opening Day lineup. Given their intended roles on the team and the ways they were each acquired, there’s no reason to do otherwise to start the year.

A bench spot will undoubtedly go to Jose Martínez, who inked a two-year deal earlier this spring which will carry him through the start of his arbitration years. It’s no secret that Martínez’s bat is the real selling point in his game, and defensively he looks to serve more as a backup right fielder than the OF/1B hybrid he was last season.

The only other guarantee is the backup catcher job, but to whom it will belong is still unofficial. The incumbent, Francisco Pena, looked ready to take on the role headed into the season before the Cardinals signed Matt Wieters to a minor league deal in late February.

Soon after, a side injury took Peña out of action. Though it seems he may be returning to the field soon, it greatly swung the momentum in Wieters’ favor. Wieters’ pedigree alone is enticing if he can bounce back—a former All-Star and Gold Glover, a switch hitter with a respectable offensive history, taking backup reps for Yadier Molina. Even with all the talk of Wieters’ collapse last season, he was still worth 0.9 fWAR in 271 PA, compared to Peña’s -0.7 fWAR in just over half the chances.

There’s no question Wieters has more offensive upside; his .704 OPS is more than the Cardinals have seen from a backup in a long time and the ability to switch hit isn’t seen often in a catcher. He was also better on defense last year per the Framing Runs Above Average (FRAA) metric from Baseball Prospectus, with -2.3 FRAA compared to Peña’s -5.2.

Even if it isn’t certain, Wieters seems much more likely to get the job out of the gate. Still, it makes things interesting either way, as both Wieters and Peña are signed to minor league contract with opt-outs; whoever is assigned to Memphis may opt to look elsewhere for jobs, even if the market doesn’t seem particularly friendly.

The final two—or three?—spots

The rest of the bench is made difficult to predict because of the same issue mentioned frequently in last week’s look at the pitching staff: The Cardinals haven’t publicly stated if they’ll carry 12 or 13 pitchers on the Opening Day roster.

We’ve seen a four-man bench for the last several years, but it’s interesting to think of the possibility of a fifth position player. With the new roster size agreements set to go into effect next season, we’ll see at least a five-man bench become the standard look for major league teams in 2020 and beyond. Until then, though, the Cardinals have four players competing for two or three spots.

The first to mention is Jedd Gyorko, and he’s also the hardest to envision not making the team. Last season was a down year compared to Gyorko’s first two seasons in St. Louis, but he still put up positive value on both offense and defense.

He’s logged at least 400 PA in all three seasons wearing the birds on the bat and has put up a wRC+ no smaller than 110 each time. Defensively, Gyorko has shown the flexibility to play everywhere across the infield, and even expressed an interest in taking outfield reps after the acquisition of Goldschmidt.

Moreover, Gyorko is out of minor league options. With a $13 million club option for 2020 and his consistent production, it’s extremely unlikely the Cardinals would exclude him from the Opening Day roster. Placing Gyorko on waivers is almost a guarantee to lose him, given his defensive versatility and offensive potential.

There are two knocks on Gyorko’s chances that have kept him out of the “guaranteed” space: his injury history and his handedness.

A calf injury has sidelined Gyorko since March 8. In his time in St. Louis, he’s experienced quite a few lower-body injuries, from calves to hamstrings to groin. If anything, I can see that being overlooked in these decisions. When healthy, he provides solid value. Any trips to the IL just makes way for some of the other bench contenders with options remaining to make the trip up from Memphis during that time.

His handedness is the real issue. The Cardinals seem to see Yairo Muñoz as the superior defender of the two and, given the positional overlap, it could be difficult to justify carrying both righties while also giving a spot to the newly-acquired left-hander Drew Robinson.

I talked about the differences between Muñoz and Robinson some weeks ago. Both have minor league options, which makes the choice between the two solely one of roster composition and production.

If Muñoz could continue to hit in the regular season like he does in Jupiter, there would be no question he should make the roster. He has a .348/.385/.435 slash line through nine games and 24 PA this spring, showing the bat that put him on the Cardinals’ radar last year. If he continues to hit as well as he did last season and his defense improves, Muñoz is a really valuable bench player given his versatility.

Robinson started the spring strong, but hasn’t really wowed with the bat, hitting .258/.242/.355 in 13 games/31 AB. Spring production isn’t something to freak out about by any means, but Robinson has been a below-average hitter in both of his professional seasons, including a 57 wRC+ last year. His key to locking up a place on the roster without much worry was contingent on showing a strong bat.

The upsides for Robinson come in the form of his defensive versatility and that he bats from the left side. Robinson is primarily an outfielder but has shown the capability to handle infield positions as well; he’s taken reps at shortstop this spring and can really make things harder for the team’s decision makers if he plays well there.

Additionally, the team consistently talked about the goal of adding a left-handed bench bat this offseason, and Robinson was the product of those efforts. John Mozeliak said that production was more important than handedness when asked about the bench competition, but it was obviously a priority of the team.

At this point, we’ve discussed three players whose primary function would be to play the infield. There are only two guaranteed roster spots, with possibly a third if the pitching staff is smaller. But there’s still a player who shouldn’t even be considered a possibility for a minor league roster at this point: Tyler O’Neill.

O’Neill showed his power potential and solid defensive work in his cup of coffee with the team last season, and he’s looked impressive this spring. Though he isn’t making a ton of contact, that was never his game—instead, he’s showing that he can flaunt his power when he does connect and, more importantly, has demonstrated a nice on-base ability.

O’Neill’s slash line through 12 games this spring is .206/.325/.588. In 40 PA, he’s mashed four home runs and collected six walks. If O’Neill’s offseason focus on pitch recognition and on-base ability carry over to the regular season, that type of player is one that has to be on the 25-man roster.

Derrick Goold reported earlier this month that the team sees O’Neill as a bench bat headed into the start of the season. There’s really no reason he shouldn’t be on the roster, given his ability to play across the outfield. He’s shown an ability to handle center field adequately, an advantage over nearly everyone in competition for a roster spot but Drew Robinson.