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Whitley In, Carlson Out: Projecting the Roster 8 Days Out

Who is in? Who is out? I project the Opening Day roster will include 14 bats and 16 arms, with Kodi Whitley as the last pitcher added and Dylan Carlson as the last bat cut.

There is a dual purpose to this article. The first is to evaluate recent player news in order to better project the Cardinals’ Opening Day 30-man roster and establish a pecking order for when that roster shrinks to 28 and 26 players. The second is to evaluate these roster dynamics in light of the series of articles I wrote over the last two weeks – Playing to Win … in 2021 Part 1 and Part 2to determine how much (if any) of my plan for player development the team might implement themselves.

The following is my projected Opening Day 30-man offense for the Cardinals as of today (July 16, 2020).

Offense: 14

C (3): Yadier Molina, Matt Wieters, Andrew Knizner

1b (2): Paul Goldschmidt, Rangel Ravelo

2b (1): Kolten Wong, Brad Miller

SS (1): Paul DeJong

3b (2): Matt Carpenter (DH), Tommy Edman

OF (4): Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas

During Wednesday’s intrasquad simulcast, Dan McLaughlin had a long conversation with Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak that brought a surprising amount of clarity to offensive roster projections.

First, Mozeliak was asked about carrying three catchers and acknowledged that was all but certain. We can currently project Knizner to make the club. That tidbit sets the Cardinals offensive roster in ink (barring injury). The Cardinals will open the season with 14 bats.

Most of starters are likely to fall out as anticipated in the spring, with the DH adding space for both Matt Carpenter and Tommy Edman. When asked about whether or not Tyler O’Neill would be an everyday starter in left field, Mozeliak stated that O’Neill would get his chance, along with with Lane Thomas. If those two are in a time-share, that means Dexter Fowler is locked into right and Bader will get every chance to secure center.

This outfield arrangement is not surprising. It is also not satisfying. If the Cardinals’ goal for their 2020 outfield was to find out what they have in O’Neill and Thomas, a time-split weighted in O’Neill’s favor makes that impossible. 30-40 games floating between a starter and bench role will provide less clarity to O’Neill’s future production than the club saw in ‘18 (61 games, 142 PAs) and ‘19 (60 games, 151 PAs). The same is true for Thomas.

The club needs to play O’Neill everyday and let him sink or, as I suspect, swim. Thomas needs the opportunity to compete not just with O’Neill but with the enigmatic Bader and the declining Fowler.

What about the Designated Hitter? The best option is for the Cardinals to play Edman at 3b most games, allowing Carpenter to DH. I suspect, though, that Shildt will use the position to keep role players fresh. Expect plenty of Ravelo and Brad Miller to mix in with Carpenter a few times per week.

And Carlson? Find space for him. Go ahead and try!

It’s hard to do, at least not without making a sacrificial roster move that the club doesn’t want to make. There are four paths for Carlson to reach the majors that don’t involve an injury:

  1. Bench Fowler. The club has about $16.5M reasons not to do this.
  2. Cut Ravelo. This would cause them to lose a player they signed away from the KBO. Unlikely.
  3. Option Thomas or O’Neill. Both have seniority over Carlson, despite weaker skillsets.
  4. Option Knizner. The club would be sacrificing Knizner’s development in favor of Carlson’s.

I’ve argued from the beginning that Carlson’s development was the most important thing that can happen in this asterisk 2020 season. The Cardinals seem content to kick that development to the taxi squad. Mozeliak acknowledged that unless Carlson could get work every day there was no reason to have him on the club. This statement comes despite no minor league season. Apparently, the extended spring training environment of the taxi squad qualifies as everyday “work” but training with the major league staff, while facing major league quality pitchers and competing against the current outfielders does not?

It’s interesting that the club desires to carry Knizner – whose development might be as important as Carlson’s in 2020 – as their third catcher, even though he will see limited playing time. Mozeliak referred to this as an immersive learning experience for the young receiver.

The Cardinals need to see how critical both players are to the immediate future of the roster and recognize that the best environment for both players is to receive as much major league exposure as possible, regardless of seniority or roster status. For Knizner, that would mean either cutting the reliable veteran Wieters or cutting Molina’s playing time to get the young receiver ready if (when) Molina exits as a free agent. The club doesn’t appear motivated to make either move.

For Carlson, it means giving him a real shot now to prepare him for a likely starter’s role in 2021. I do think the team should hold Carlson out for 6 games to gain the extra year of control. After that, they run out of valid excuses. I do think it will take something bad – Fowler’s decline continuing, an injury, or extremely poor performance from another player – for Carlson to see the MLB roster this season. These situations, though, have a way of working themselves out. If circumstances don’t bring Carlson to the roster earlier, I would give the current arrangement no more than 30 games. At that point, Carlson has to be one of the 26 players in St. Louis and one of the 9 starters regardless of the sacrifice that will mean to a player with “seniority” over him.

On to the pitching staff. With a projected 14-man offensive club, the Cardinals would carry 16 pitchers to begin the season.

Pitching Staff: 16

SP (5): Flaherty, Wainwright, Martinez, Mikolas, Hudson.

Reserve Starters (3): Kwang-Hyun Kim, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber

Closer (1): Ryan Helsley

LHRP (3): Andrew Miller, Tyler Webb, Brett Cecil

RHRP (4): John Gant, Junior Fernandez, Jake Woodford, Kodi Whitley (non-roster)

This pitching arrangement represents a significant adjustment from the one I suggested just last week. As of today, neither Gallegos nor Alex Reyes has reached Summer Camp. Likewise, Genesis Cabrera remains in quarantine after two positive tests for COVID-19. The club has likely reached the point where they will have to move on without these players.

The implications are felt over the entire staff. Ryan Helsley seems to be the best candidate to step in as closer, though the club will likely consider Andrew Miller and potentially John Gant. Don’t rule out Ponce either later in the season.

Austin Gomber benefits the most from these absences. Mozeliak acknowledged that most of the rotation will be limited in their innings early in the season. KK, Ponce, or Gomber will likely have to fill 2-3 innings per game for the first weeks of the season. If an injury occurs, one of those three (likely in the order listed) will be bumped into the rotation

In the scenario above, I have non-roster arm Kodi Whitley making the roster over righty Alvaro Seijas and lefty Ricardo Sanchez (who has tested positive for COVID-19). This would be a fine move as Whitley has some upside and could compete with Junior Fernandez to fill the critical role occupied by the injured John Brebbia.

The 40-man roster stands at 39 today. With Brebbia’s impending transfer to the 60-day IL, the club should enter the season with 2 spots available and Whitley taking one of those. That could change depending on the final status of the other missing players (who are all currently on the 40-man).

How will the roster progress through the season?

Two-weeks after Opening Day, the club will have to trim their roster from 30 to 28 players. A month in and the club will have to settle on 26. Performance and usage will determine these cuts as much as anything. For now, I’ll base my projections on seniority (the word of the day) and Mozeliak’s statements:

The first two cut (2 weeks): Jake Woodford, Kodi Whitley.

Second two cuts (1 month): Andrew Knizner/Rangel Ravelo, Brett Cecil.

Next in line to be called up:

Offense: Dylan Carlson, Edmundo Sosa, Justin Williams

Pitching: Alvaro Seijas, Angel Rondon, Rob Kaminsky

Unknowns: Gio Gallegos, Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera