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Quietly Considering the Cardinals’ Return to Action

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The Cardinals have been quiet about their upcoming schedule. That’s a good sign. When might they play? What might the lineup and pitching staff look like when they do return? 

It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.

The last few days have brought silence from the Cardinals and MLB regarding schedules, plans, and roster updates.

In this case, quiet is good.

Noise means positive tests. It means delays. It means more time until the Cardinals take the field.

Quiet means that the Cardinals continue to test negative.

As long as that continues to happen, the league will continue to hold its breath and tiptoe around, as if the Cardinals return to action was some timid fawn that will startle and flee at the first hint of noise.

While it seems unlikely that the club will play games that count immediately, it’s reasonable to hope that the Cardinals might resume workouts today or tomorrow, eyeing a potential return to action as early as Saturday. This weekend the Cardinals are scheduled to play a three-game set against should-be-Cardinal Luis Robert and the White Sox. The time of the Saturday game was recently moved from the afternoon to the evening presumably to allow for one more round of test results. If the Cardinals do take the field Saturday, MLB could follow that up with a doubleheader on Sunday, salvaging the series.

It’s also possible that MLB gives the team the weekend to workout, reset and loosen up their cold pitching staff. That would also give just that much more time for more testing. Since the first round of isolation did not prove sufficient to contain the outbreak, patience would be wise.

On Monday the Cardinals are set to take on the Cubs in Chicago. While MLB surely wants the Cardinals to get in as many games as possible, it also makes sense for them to prioritize in-division matchups. If Saturday is too soon, Monday might be just right.

If when the Cardinals are going to play is wrapped in quiet uncertainty, so is who the Cardinals are going to play. I mean that literally. We know the Cardinals’ opponents. Do we know who can actually take the field for the club? Who can pitch?

Guessing at a Starting Lineup

Despite losing a host of players to the coronavirus, it does not require great imagination to create a plausible lineup. Subtract Yadi Molina and insert Wieters, with Andrew Knizner sharing a significant portion of that time. Tommy Edman slides easily into SS, a spot the club has wanted to see him play more. 3b and DH are likely to be some combination of Matt Carpenter and Brad Miller, as the roster currently aligns. An outfielder could also see time at DH, depending on who the Cardinals call up to replace Austin Dean (who was set to see time there) and Lane Thomas.

1. Kolten Wong, 2b
2. Tommy Edman, SS
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1b
4. Tyler O’Neill, LF
5. Matt Carpenter DH/3b
6. Brad Miller, 3b/DH
7. Dexter Fowler, RF
8. Matt Wieters/Andrew Knizner, C
9. Harrison Bader, CF

Simple enough.

Keep in mind that the club still needs to make a few roster moves. Skyricesq outlined the club’s convoluted roster issues in great detail here. The club will certainly make some announcements on additions a day or two before they resume play. That’s the noise to listen for as it will signal the club’s imminent return.

These type of periphery moves usually don’t impact the presumed starting lineup. However, Dylan Carlson might be among the players added to the roster and if he is, plan on the club playing him regularly. This could mean moving another outfielder to DH so Carlson can get experience in the field. With two outfielders out of action for at least a few weeks, this feels like the kind of window the club needed to get their best prospect some real-game action. Derrick Goold alluded to this fact in an article today in the Post-Dispatch, stopping just short of reporting that it will happen.

The challenge in adding Carlson remains the club’s 40-man roster issues and the unanswered questions around it, which we (as bloggers with no access to the Cardinals internal maneuverings) have no way of answering. When asked to explain their 40-man roster situation by Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat, the club stated that they were not ready at this time to update that information but news would be coming soon. It’s as if they’re saying, “quiet, please!”

One final caveat regarding the lineup. The longer this second delay in the Cardinals’ season goes, the closer the original COVID positive players are to returning. There are protocols – including a series of negative tests – that infected players will have to go through, but some may be inching closer to activation. The Cardinals may not have to go without Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong for very long. (Don’t say that aloud though or you might jinx it.)

Resetting the Rotation and Bullpen

When the Cardinals attempted their aborted return to action, the plan was to give the first start to Daniel Ponce de Leon. The coaching staff reasoned that Ponce’s layoff between outings was the shortest among the starters, so his arm would be the most fresh.

Throw that logic through a window, Joe Kelly. The internet has provided us with video of Jack Flaherty pitching to a mattress in Milwaukee. Adam Wainwright has long tossed across his driveway. That’s the type of work the Cardinals starters have received since July 31.

Even if the club has a couple of days of workouts to loosen up the joints it would be a mistake to rush the starters back to full-length outings. This season has already seen a disturbing number of injured pitchers.

A better approach would be to incrementally stretch the rotation out spring-training style, starting at around 60-75 pitches and progressing toward 100+ over the next few weeks. This will require extensive use of the bullpen, particularly Austin Gomber, Genesis Cabrera, Alex Reyes, and Jake Woodford in long relief, but those arms need time to loosen up as well.

That scenario might not create the most competitive environment, but, honestly, this club just isn’t in a position to focus worry about their competitiveness. For now. Their concern has to be getting healthy and working toward full game speed.

With that in mind, the Cardinals should just reset their rotation based around the original order, with the two replacement starters tacked on to the end: Flaherty, Wainwright, Hudson, Kim, and Ponce.

What about Carlos Martinez? When he returns – assuming he is able – will it be in the rotation? Much will depend on the health of the rest of the roster and the performance of current starters when he’s cleared. Assuming a starter’s regimen would be a lot to ask of Martinez, who didn’t look ready out of summer camp and has now suffered through a debilitating virus. With KK moving back to the rotation, Ryan Helsley among the newest COVID positive players, and Giovanny Gallegos still not having thrown a pitch this season, it would not be the worst idea to return Martinez to a late-inning bullpen role, perhaps even closer. That would mean another season where he isn’t starting, but it would fill a hole on the club and protect his arm.

In the meantime, closer by opportunity seems like the best plan. Gallegos should get most of the chances, if his arm is ready, but the Cardinals should not hesitate to go to Miller to face lefties. There just isn’t any reason to set someone in a role. Give it a few weeks. Once the club sees who is pitching well and who is returning to action, adjust as needed.

Check the comments section of this article for updates throughout the day as information comes down.

Sources for this article include: @C70, @jmjones, @dgoold
Thanks to all three of you for the content you consistently provide.