After a glorious four game series against the Cubs the Redbirds have finally clinched a spot in the playoffs. Three years without October baseball is something that Cardinals fans are not accustomed to. Fortunately that streak has come to an end. And to make it even sweeter it came at the cost of the Cubs, putting their playoff hopes on life support. The Brewers are now the only team in the division that the Cardinals need to be concerned about, but with a three game lead and six games left it appears that the Cardinals will win the division for the first time since 2015.
At this time, it appears that the first round matchup for the Cardinals will be the Atlanta Braves. Before this happens, however, the Cardinals must name their playoff roster. For the most part it should be pretty straightforward, but there could be a few interesting decisions.
Obviously the starting eight of Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, Tommy Edman, Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, and Dexter Fowler will make the roster, barring any sort of significant injury. Next the team must decide on a four-man bench or a five-man bench. This is a crucial decision and I would guess that a four man bench will be chosen in order to give the bullpen an extra reliever. This would allow Mike Shildt to be more aggressive with his bullpen and would give him the ability to deploy it earlier. This could be a signifcant advantage for the Cardinals as they have one of the better bullpens in the league.
However, on the flip side, if Shildt would rather have a five man bench then he can be more aggressive with his use of the pinch hitter. If he is confident that his pitching staff can cover the innings effectively, then this might be his preferred option in order to keep an extra bat on the bench for a big run-scoring situation.
The team’s decision on this will determine who gets spots on the bench. The top candidates for bench spots are Matt Carpenter, Jose Martinez, Tyler O’Neill, Yairo Munoz and Matt Wieters, However, other candidates could include Randy Arozarena, Rangel Ravelo, Andrew Knizner and Edmundo Sosa.
The first bench spot is almost guaranteed to belong to Matt Carpenter. Then, Wieters is also likely to make the squad as he has performed admirably as a backup catcher this season. Jose Martinez is probably penciled in to a bench spot as well. This leaves one or two spots depending on how the team wants to orient its roster. Among the three players already named, what is not present is a fourth outfielder as Jose Martinez is really ore of a pinch hitter than an outfielder. Tyler O’Neill likely has a hold on that spot. However, Yairo Munoz could also be seen as an option as Shildt has shown an affinity for playing him in the outfield. Randy Arozarena could also be seen as a dark horse candidate but he simply has not made enough appearances in the MLB this season, so it is unlikely that he will be chosen.
While these are likely the top four names on the list of bench options, there are a few players to look out for as they could be a surprise addition to the roster when the playoffs roll around. Most notably, Rangel Ravelo could be added in a late inning/key situation pinch hitting role in the mold of Jose Martinez. This is even more likely in the Cardinals decide to go with a five man bench. He has carved out a semi-regular pinch hitting role for the team in September and Shildt has shown a willingness to trust him in the late innings. While this is unlikely, another big hit or two in the next six games could put him squarely on the roster bubble. He has a .242 isolated power and as many extra base hits (4) as singles, including two home runs, in just 34 plate appearances. While this is not a lot, he has managed to come up with some clutch hits. The growing trust that he is seeing from his manager might also make him a dark horse candidate to make the roster.
Another name to keep an eye on is Yairo Munoz as he has been a regular member of the roster for the past two seasons. his positional flexibility could also make him an appealing option. However, his playing time has faded over the course of the season and he is probably not a top choice unless Shildt is willing to sacrifice hitting for positional flexibility.
Another interesting candidate is Andrew Knizner. Since he is heir apparent to Molina the organization might want him to gain some playoff experience. It would be surprising to see him take the place of Wieters, but if the team decides to go with a five man bench then the organization might entertain the thought of adding him to the roster.
The Cardinals will also need to figure out who will make the pitching staff for the playoffs. The starting rotation will drop down to four pitchers and that will likely include Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, and Adam Wainwright with Michael Wacha dropping into the bullpen. Flaherty has been red-hot since the all-star break so it would not be surprising to see him as the #1 starter in the playoffs. However, the rotation is a litle murky after that. Depending on how the organization views Dakota Hudson he could slot in anywhere between two and four, but I think that Adam Wainwright will probably find himself as the #2 starter. He has pitched very well as of late and has plenty of postseason experience and that can only help him when Shildt is penciling in the rotation. It is a toss up between Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas, but Mikolas’ ability to pitch deep into games and limit walks, as well as his experience, works in his favor. It would not be surprising to see Mikolas land at #3 with Hudson at #4.
The bullpen could also present an interesting conundrum because there are a lot of good pitchers and interesting young guys on the team right now and they cannot all make the roster. Carlos Martinez, Andrew Miller, John Brebbia, John Gant, and Giovanny Gallegos are all locks to make the team while Michael Wacha, Tyler Webb, and Ryan Helsley will all likely find themselves pitching in October as well. This gives the team 12 pitchers. If they keep a five man bench then this will likely be the pitching staff. However, if Shildt decides on a four man bench then who will fill the last spot becomes an interesting question. Daniel Ponce de Leon, Genesis Cabrera, and Junior Fernandez would all likely be in competition with each other if one more spot is needed. Junior Fernandez has performed well (2.89 ERA) in a limited amount of time (9.1 IP) but Ponce de Leon has also performed admirably (3.94 ERA) in a much larger sample (45.2 IP). Genesis Cabrera is more of a long shot, but he has tossed more than 18 innings and was the benficiary of an agressive promotion earlier in the season, demonstrating the organizations high opinion of him. If an extra pitcher is needed, Ponce de Leon is probably the favorite due to having more MLB experience and decent results this season and last season.
Mike Shildt will have some difficult choices to make in terms of roster orientation when the playoffs roll around. Whether he chooses to keep an extra hitter or an extra pitcher will give a lot of information of how he plans to utilize the roster in the postseason. It will also be intriguing to see which, if any, of the rookies or young players are given a shot in the postseason. Regardless of the decisions made it will simply be exciting to watch the Cardinals play October baseball once again. It is where they belong.