We’re three weeks away from the earliest MLB Opening Day in history outside of international openers.
Twenty-one days may feel like a long time as we wait for regular season play to get underway, but it’s really very little when it comes to team preparation.
Though there may not be any battles brewing for starting roles as position players, Carlos Martínez’s shoulder struggles have made the rotation the main storyline at Cardinals camp.
The bullpen has also been a focal point, though that was expected. With so many young pitchers vying for a place on the active roster, the Memphis Redbirds’ initial roster was bound to be laced with a few major league-ready players waiting for their chance.
There’s even more uncertainty about who those players will be following Mike Maddux’s stated preference of carrying 12 pitchers instead of 13. Both Mike Shildt and John Mozeliak have spoken on the subject, noting that there’s an internal back-and-forth regarding how large the bullpen will be.
This has some implications for the bench, too—namely, that we don’t know what size it will be. That makes things a bit difficult when guessing who will be on it.
Tossing another name into the hat, Tyler O’Neill’s spring to-date has been so impressive that Derrick Goold reports the organization sees him as a bench bat on the Opening Day roster.
All of this leaves the roster looking like a round of musical chairs due for quite a few casualties. There are worse problems than needing to trim down a list of players who could earn a spot on other clubs, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
There are a few places where spots are determined by readiness and aptitude. But as we know, with baseball’s emphasis on team control and talent retention, minor league options are going to play a big role as well. Let’s look at both the absolutes and the muddier spots of both the pitching staff and the position player side. This week we’ll focus on pitchers and dig into position players next week—maybe with some added clarity.
There are four names you can likely etch in stone as rotation members to start the season: Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.
A few names are of the same caliber for the bullpen: Jordan Hicks, Andrew Miller and John Brebbia all have the pedigree and/or past performance to lock in as relievers.
Alex Reyes, who made his first spring appearance on Tuesday, is looking far enough along in his recovery that Shildt (via Goold) says he has a legitimate chance at the Opening Day roster.
The lack of clarity comes with Reyes’ role. He isn’t being ruled out as a member of the rotation to begin the year, but a relief role is still on the table, too. More murkiness in the pitching waters.
Brett Cecil makes his way onto this list as well, more by the weight of his hefty contract and the promise of his slimmed appearance. There have been some mechanical changes made by Cecil this spring that might prove fruitful headed into the season, but the certainty is that we’ll see them in action out of the major league bullpen.
More than likely
Two names come into play who will probably make the cut, more due to a lack of options than anything else: John Gant and Chasen Shreve.
If you’re rusty on the details of minor league options and their implications on roster flexibility, MLB.com’s glossary summarizes them well. In this case, we see two players who have a combined seven years of team control remaining.
Gant was serviceable last year filling in during starting pitcher injuries, but his peripherals weren’t very promising. A 4.5 BB/9 and a low .253 BABIP don’t speak well for his expected performance.
Shreve was worth -0.4 fWAR last season, and it wasn’t just due to his time as a Yankee. He had -0.2 fWAR for both teams, but pitched just 14.2 of his 52.2 innings wearing the birds on the bat.
They may be outperformed by others in camp, and the numbers may not be dazzling, but it doesn’t seem likely that the Cardinals would give away well over half a decade of team control on two players they feel could be serviceable.
Probably safe to pencil Gant and Shreve in, unless they take a risk and designate one (or both) of them for assignment. Although, if Shreve’s performance warrants a DFA, it’s hard to see him
Here rests a parade of names who could hold down a bullpen spot—or even take a chance at the rotation—for many teams across the league.
The problem is, we’re already at 11 names when totaling the previously-mentioned pitchers. If the Cardinals go with a 12-man staff, we probably see just one of these pitchers in St. Louis.
Dakota Hudson is definitely the standout, even being considered for the open rotation spot. Though he really seemed to outperform his peripherals at the end of last season, the sinkerballer is looking steady so far this spring.
Dominic Leone dealt with injuries for quite a bit last year, but was lights out in 2017 when he struck out 81 batters in just over 70 innings and pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA and FIP. He has one option left, which combines with his injury woes and struggles in his return last year to land him in this section.
Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon both put up solid work as fill-in starters last season. They have value in that they, like Hudson, can swing back and forth between the bullpen and rotation.
Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera are both candidates for bullpen work at some point in the season, but it’s hard to envision them cracking the Opening Day roster. There are already six names in this section competing for a role, and four of them really should be getting a shot at major league competition.
Outside of the usual candidates is the 34-year-old St. Louis native, Tommy Layne. A journeyman who’s struggled to crack major league rosters, Layne pitched to an extremely impressive 1.35 ERA and 2.10 FIP in 27 appearances for the Memphis Redbirds last season. He’s pitched well to this point in the spring and offers another intriguing lefty option.
Carlos Martínez obviously stands out as the biggest injury among Cardinal pitchers. Once healthy, he’s guaranteed a spot, as it should be. That would then make the “question marks” section above irrelevant, if the rest of the staff above that line went unchanged.
Luke Gregerson is another name that throws some more midseason uncertainty in the mix, though he definitely doesn’t have the weight of Martínez. Still, with Gregerson’s age and experience, he won’t be sitting in Memphis waiting on a call-up. The question becomes if his rehab goes well enough to warrant a spot, and when that rehab might be, as he’s still waiting to throw from a mound. Will the team choose to give him a shot at the expense of another pitcher or cut ties altogether?
If the team chooses to carry 12 pitchers instead of 13, this decision is much more difficult. Again, it’s a good problem to have, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Taking 13 allows for a bit more flexibility, but it doesn’t solve all of the problems. As we’ll look at next week, the Cardinals have just as many position players vying for spots on the bench, with cases to be made for each.