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Depth and the Memphis Juggernaut

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This might be the best Memphis squad yet

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

A familiar narrative swirling around the Cardinals in recent years is that the team consistently fields remarkably deep teams, but the depth has lacked the necessary star power to create a real contender. From 2016-2018, this was certainly the case. 2019 is already a different animal. This team is still deep, but the acquisition and subsequent extension of Paul Goldschmidt has provided a roster starved of high-end talent with legitimate punch. That’s not to say that the 2019 version isn’t without glaring weaknesses. A combination of payroll politics and veteran loyalty means we’ll see the shells of Dexter Fowler, Adam Wainwright, and Marcell Ozuna trotted out at the expense of younger options, at least in the short-term. It’s a maddeningly high-risk, low reward gamble - one made possible by the remarkable depth stashed at AAA this year.

Depth, in a vacuum, is an overwhelming positive. Having a pipeline of potentially league-average replacements just a phone call away is always preferable to the alternative. But when that depth becomes an enabler to not field the best possible 25-man roster, you’ve got a problem. In the short term, we’ll continue to see some combination of Fowler, Wainwright and Ozuna decay before our eyes. How long each experiment lasts remains to be seen.

The good news is that the 2019 Memphis Redbirds roster is packed with talent ready for trial at the major league level. The Redbirds, who open the season tonight at 7:15 PM CST against Omaha, have taken home the last two PCL crowns and have designs on the third. PCL opponents be warned - this may be the best incarnation of Memphis Redbirds yet. Wherever the major league club should need reinforcements in 2019, there’s a deep pool to draw from down south.

Rotation Reinforcements

The starting rotation, with the exception of Michael Wacha, has been abysmal the first time through. It’s far too early to overreact, of course, and both Mikolas and Flaherty look like above-average if not better options to lead the rotation over the long run. Dakota Hudson will suffer the ebbs and flows typical of most rookie starters, but his stuff is undeniable. Wacha has been sharp, but history tells us that it’s impossible to rely on him to eat a significant amount of innings. Wainwright, meanwhile, might be able to cobble together a handful of quality outings but just simply isn’t a gamebreaker at this point in his career. Bottomline, there are too many question marks swirling around the starting rotation.

Should injuries strike or someone in the rotation falter, the Redbrids staff will be able to pick up the slack. Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedeleon both looked effective in short major league looks last year, and appear to be the first men up in the event of rotational needs. Will they light the world on fire? No. But it’s a good bet that one of the two will be able to clear the Wainwright performance bar.

Beyond Gomber and Poncedeleon, there’s a pool of arms that are a tweak or two away from being major league ready. Jake Woodford needs a bit more seasoning, but his sinker-slider combo points favorably to a back-end starter role. Ryan Helsley has the stuff to be a legtitimate #3, if he can stay healthy over the long-haul. Genesis Cabrera is the wildcard of the group after looking overmatched in spring training. He’ll likely spend the majority of 2019 honing his craft at AAA, but there’s big league stuff in his arm.

Outfield Options

To say it’s tough watching Fowler and Ozuna occupy corner outfield spots would be an understatement. Both look impotent at the plate, with no real fielding or baserunning value being added outside of the box. In the event they get the axe or fall to injury, Tyler O’Neill and Jose Martinez are poised to step in.

Beyond O’Neill and Martinez, there are a host of outfielders in Memphis that flash strong tools but haven’t put everything together yet. The ceiling of Adolis Garcia is particularly high, with plus raw power, plus speed, and a plus-plus arm all in his toolbox. His free swinging approach has limited him to a reserve projection thus far, but even incremental improvements in his discipline and selectiveness could pay huge dividends in terms of his overall value. Randy Arozarena is another tooled up outfielder with the ability to play all three spots, but there’s no way of knowing which Arozarena we’ll see in 2019. Will he be the free swinging power threat from Springfield last year, or the patient gap hitter that moonlighted at Memphis? Lane Thomas also figures to be in the mix, looking to build off a strong full-season debut in the Cardinals system.

Two Utility Men

With the major question marks residing in the rotation and at the corner outfield spots, it’s hard to see a scenario where Memphis’s infield is called upon much this year. Ramon Urias and Tommy Edman look like early favorites to fill in at bench infielder roles, should the need arise. Urias in particular might be cut out for more than just a bench role. His relative age and small stature have made him an under the radar player, but his extreme bat-to-ball skills hint towards an enticing middle-infield profile. It looks like he’ll get looks all over the diamond in 2019, likely in preparation for a utility role farther down the line.

Edman’s ceiling is somewhat lower, but he makes up for the lack of carrying tool with a well rounded and mature skillset. He was impactful in a small sample throughout the spring, slashing .333/.392/.511 across 45 AB’s. Now his bat is most definitely less potent than that slash line would suggest, but he comes with the added bonus of being a switch hitter. Defensively, he’s a bit stretched at short but can handle both up the middle spots effectively.

Bullpen Arms

Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera both garnered a look in the rotation overview, but their realistic big league roles in 2019 likely rest in the bullpen. In the event of natural bullpen churn and attrition, Helsley’s fastball-curve-cutter combo would be nasty in short stints. In the case of Cabrera, his presence on the 40-man may have contributed to the club carrying only one lefty in the early going. If he shows strongly out of the gate this year, it’s likely we’ll see his high-octane fastball coming from the left side in St. Louis sooner rather than later.

Beyond the potential set-up men, Memphis flaunts a grab-bag of middle relief arms. Giovanny Gallegos in particular is a man simply waiting for his shot after being blocked by the monster Yankees bullpen for so long. His mid-90’s fastball and plus curve point favorably to a 6th or 7th inning role down the line. Ryan Meisinger and Tyler Webb both look like high-strikeout options, with Webb being the more likely one to see major league action of the two.

It should be noted that I did not include Andrew Knizner in this preview, as I felt his situation didn’t need to be retold here at VEB. He’s going hit, quite a lot possibly, and provide fringe-average defense behind the dish. How his career develops is simply a factor of Yadier Molina’s longterm durability.

As a unit, this Memphis Redbirds team should beat up on PCL competition this season. The squad is simply too deep for most other AAA affiliates to match up, regardless of their prospect pedigree. How soon the major league club will utilize that depth might prove to be the difference between October baseball and another long winter.