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Cardinals 2021 Spring Training Preview and Roster Analysis

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Are you ready for Cardinal baseball? Pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training in Jupiter, Florida on February 17th, and the full squad reported on February 22nd. The first exhibition game is scheduled for tomorrow, Sunday, at 12:05 p.m. Central time, where Jack Flaherty will take the hill for a couple of innings to open the contest against the Washington Nationals. The club has 67 players in 2021 camp, 66 of which are healthy. This is down from the 72 that opened Spring Training 1.0 last year, and more in line with the 65 the club had open camp in 2019 and 64 in 2018.

I’ll start off this preview with the club’s 40-man roster and non-roster invitees, and then get into specifics about job battles and particular issues of note for this year’s camp. If you’re unfamiliar with my roster analyses of the past, for pitchers I’ve included their handedness in parentheses. Also in parentheses for all players is a number, which represents the number of minor league options the player has remaining. If there is no number, that means the player is out of options. If N/A is in parentheses, that indicates that the player still technically has options remaining, but because the player has 5 or more years of major league service time, he may not be assigned to the minor leagues—whether by option or outright assignment—without his consent. In Kim’s case, he has N/A listed in parentheses because his contract allows him to block a minor league assignment. For the non-roster invitees, I’ve included the players’ last level played.

40-MAN ROSTER (39)

PITCHERS (22)

Genesis Cabrera (L, 2), Seth Elledge (R, 3), Junior Fernandez (R, 2), Jack Flaherty (R, 2), Giovanny Gallegos (R, 1), John Gant (R), Ryan Helsley (R, 2), Jordan Hicks (R, 3), Dakota Hudson (R, 3), Kwang Hyun Kim (L, N/A), Carlos Martinez (R, N/A), Miles Mikolas (R), Andrew Miller (L), Johan Oviedo (R, 3), Daniel Ponce de Leon (R), Johan Quezada (R, 3), Alex Reyes (R, 2), Angel Rondon (R, 3), Adam Wainwright (R, N/A), Tyler Webb (L), Jake Woodford (R, 3), Kodi Whitley (R, 3)

CATCHERS (4)

Ivan Herrera (3), Andrew Knizner (1), Yadier Molina (N/A), Ali Sanchez (2)

INFIELDERS (7)

Nolan Arenado (N/A), Matt Carpenter (N/A), Paul DeJong (3), Tommy Edman (3), Paul Goldschmidt (N/A), John Nogowski (2), Edmundo Sosa

OUTFIELDERS (6)

Harrison Bader (1), Dylan Carlson (3), Austin Dean (2), Tyler O’Neill (1), Lane Thomas (2), Justin Williams

40-MAN ROSTER NOTES

*RHP Dakota Hudson had Tommy John surgery this past September 28th, and figures to miss the entire season. He will be placed on at least the 10-day IL to start the season. A 60-day IL move will be available if the Cards’ 40-man roster is full and the club needs to clear a spot.

*The Cards are still awaiting a ruling on whether the 2020 season counted as a qualified season for the purpose of the 4th minor league option rule. If it does not, as I illustrated in this piece, Justin Williams will be eligible for a 4th option. I double-checked the record, and Daniel Ponce de Leon will not be eligible for a 4th option, even if the 2020 season doesn’t count. The key to his eligibility was whether his shortened 2017 season counted as a qualified season of service. In a May 9th game he pitched for AAA Memphis against the Iowa Cubs, he was tragically struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of Victor Caratini. He was placed on the Memphis 7-day injured list on May 11th, retroactive to May 10th, and missed the rest of the season recovering from emergency brain surgery. The problem is that although Ponce didn’t pitch his first game until April 11th that season for AAA Memphis, he actually started the year on the active list of AA Springfield, whose season started on April 6th. Because he spent 34 days on an active list before being placed on the injured list, all the time he spent on the injured list in 2017 counted towards the required 90 days to constitute a qualified season of service. He was a lot closer than I thought to being eligible, and it turns out that the 5 days he spent on the Springfield active list to start the 2017 season ended up costing him his eligibility for a 4th option.

NON-ROSTER INVITEES (28)

PITCHERS (11)

Jesus Cruz (R, MLB/ATS), Connor Jones (R, AA/AAA for 1 game), Evan Kruczynski (L, AA/AAA), Matthew Liberatore (L, ATS/A), Tommy Parsons (R, ATS/A/A+/AA), Roel Ramirez (R, MLB/ATS), Griffin Roberts (R, A+), Domingo Robles (L, A+/AA), Zack Thompson (L, ATS/GCL/A+), Austin Warner (L, ATS/AA/AAA), Garrett Williams (L, AA)

CATCHERS (5)

Aaron Antonini (Rookie), Tyler Heineman (MLB/ATS), Dennis Ortega (A+), Pedro Pages (ATS/Short-Season A), Carlos Soto (Short-Season A/A)

INFIELDERS (7)

Luken Baker (A+), Nolan Gorman (ATS/A/A+), Evan Mendoza (ATS/AA/AAA), Max Moroff (ATS/MLB/AAA), Delvin Perez (A), Kramer Robertson (ATS/AA/AAA), Jose Rondon (MLB/AAA)

OUTFIELDERS (5)

Conner Capel (AA/AAA), Scott Hurst (A+/AA), Lars Nootbaar (A/A+/AA), Matt Szczur (AAA), Justin Toerner (A+/AA)

NRI NOTES

*In last year’s camp, the Cardinals only had 1 NRI, catcher Oscar Hernandez, with prior MLB experience. This year, the club has 6 NRIs who have played in the majors, including Cruz and Ramirez, who briefly saw action out of the bullpen with the Cards last season.

*This is the 5th non-roster invite in a row for Ortega, the 3rd in a row for Kruczynski, the 2nd in a row for Cruz, Liberatore, Parsons, Ramirez, Roberts, Thompson, Antonini, Pages, Soto, Baker, Gorman, Mendoza and Robertson. Jones was invited to 2019 camp, but not 2020 camp. This is the first spring training for all others that have been in the Cardinal organization. Heineman, Moroff, Rondon and Szczur were all NRIs with other organizations last season.

*A notable absence from the NRI list is catcher Julio Rodriguez, who closed the 2019 season with AA Springfield, was invited to Spring Training in both 2019 and 2020 and was part of the Alternate Training Site last season. It turns out that he has a hand injury, and will likely have to have surgery to remove the hamate bone. His absence helps explain the acquisition of Sanchez.

*There should be about 6 names that most are unfamiliar with. The Cards traded international bonus pool money to the Pirates for Robles last September about a week before the regular season concluded. He was last in the AA rotation in the Pirates’ organization in 2019. The Cards selected Garrett Williams in the minor league phase of the December 2020 Rule 5 draft from the Los Angeles Angels organization. He spent most of 2019 in the AA rotation in the Giants’ organization. Heineman has 15 career starts at catcher in the majors, with 13 last year for the Giants. After being outrighted to AAA this past November 1st, he was an automatic Rule 55 minor league free agent. Moroff spent parts of 4 seasons in the majors, most recently with the 2019 Indians. He was a non-roster invitee to the Mets’ camp last season and was at their ATS, but was also declared a Rule 55 minor league free agent. Rondon also became a Rule 55 minor league free agent after being invited to Spring Training 1.0 with the Orioles last year, but not being part of their ATS. He spent parts of 3 seasons in the majors, most recently with the White Sox and Orioles in 2019. Szczur was invited to Spring Training 1.0 with the Phillies last season, but was released as the club put together its summer camp roster. Szczur saw major league action in parts of 5 seasons, most recently with the 2018 Padres.

JOB BATTLES

I think the most interesting, if not most real battle is who will be on the opening day bench. This will be determined by how many pitchers the Cards decide to carry on the opening day 26-man roster. This is the first year ever of an opening day roster that size. The rule was designed to go into effect last season before the pandemic happened and clubs were allowed to roster 30 players to open the 2020 season. The rule change was also designed to carry with it a limitation that clubs could only roster 13 pitchers. This year, we will have a 26-man opening day roster, but no pitcher limitation. As of right now, there is also no DH. Clubs are seriously concerned about preparing their pitching staff for the increased innings they will face this season, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Cards went with 14 pitchers to open the season. If the club does that, there will only be 4 bench jobs.

*One of the bench jobs will go to Matt Carpenter. With the signing of Nolan Arenado to play 3rd base and Tommy Edman being the presumptive starter at 2nd base, Carpenter will open the year as a bench bat. He isn’t conceding that he’s a bench player as of yet, and he will get time at second base in camp. It will be interesting to see how Mike Shildt uses Carpenter during the regular year, but I don’t think anything’s going to be resolved in spring training. He’s going to be on the roster.

*The second bench job will go to the backup catcher. Andrew Knizner has been waiting in the wings for a couple of years, but he is not highly regarded on defense, and he has a minor league option remaining. He also only has 75 career starts at the AAA level. Heineman has major league experience, is probably the better defender, and actually had a better AAA season at the plate in 2019 than Knizner. Sanchez, who also has a handful of career MLB starts, is light with the bat, but a strong defender. Lingering in the background of this decision is the re-signing of Yadier Molina. The Cards have said that they have an undisclosed plan for playing the backup, but I will believe it when I see it. If Yadi plays all the time, there is the ever-present question of whether Knizner will benefit the most from playing every day. In my opinion, what gives Knizner the edge is his familiarity with the pitching staff, and you would be surprised how much that matters.

*If the Cards open with 14 pitchers, that leaves two bench jobs. Edmundo Sosa is out of options, and he’s considered the strongest infield defender out of all the backup possibilities. Some may feel that there is no need for Sosa on the grounds that Carpenter can play 2nd or 3rd if Arenado or Edman needs a rest and Edman can move over to short when the club gives DeJong a day off. With there being no DH, the bench guys will have to pinch hit this year on a regular basis. A 4-man bench is really a 3-man bench on most days because clubs are loath to bring in the backup catcher to pinch hit. Sosa has shown a little power over the past couple of years, but hasn’t had an average season at the plate in the minors in years, and has no patience at the plate. Nonetheless, Shildt has said Sosa has what it takes to be a contributing major league player, but just hasn’t had a real opportunity until now. I see no reason to take Moroff or Rondon over Sosa, and I think Sosa will get the nod because he’s on the 40-man, he’s out of options and has the defensive chops and versatility.

*That makes the last bench job a competition between Lane Thomas, Austin Dean and Justin Williams. The answer to whether Williams will get a 4th option will go a long way to resolving this question. If he doesn’t get a 4th option, the Cards may not be ready to DFA Williams. He’s left-handed, and has raw power, even if it hasn’t shown up over the course of a full season. The Cards liked what they saw from him in spring training and at the ATS last season. Williams has played only one career game in the minors in center field, which reduces his attractiveness as an outfield bench option. Dean is not a center field candidate either, and he has two options remaining. Although he didn’t hit much in his 318 major league plate appearances, he does have the most major league experience out of the lot, and in 640 trips to the plate in AAA, has mashed to the tune of .331/.398/.546, better than anything Williams or Thomas did at that level. He might be the best bet for power off the bench. Finally, there’s Thomas, who the organization is high on, and who can play center. Thomas busted out in AA in 2018, and performed well in a small sample in 2019 in the majors, but a hand injury cut short opportunities he was going to get that season. In addition, COVID-19 hit him hard last season, and he wasn’t himself. He’s the best defender of the group, and may have the most overall ability. While I’d probably prefer Thomas, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Williams doesn’t get a 4th option and the club carries him because they’re not ready to expose him to waivers.

*While the Cards are advertising the 5th starter’s job as a competition, I feel like the rotation is basically set with Flaherty, Kim, Mikolas, Wainwright and Martinez. Not only does Martinez want to start, but he has the edge on the job because of his time in winter ball. Reyes still hasn’t pitched much in the majors and is on an innings limit. Gant will get a look, but I don’t see him beating out Martinez for the job if the matter is remotely close.

*That leaves the bullpen, for which I also don’t think there’s any real competition. Unless injuries strike, you’re looking at a 9-man pen with Cabrera, Gallegos, Gant, Helsley, Hicks, Miller, Ponce de Leon, Reyes and Webb. Ponce is out of options, and can be useful for long relief or piggy-backing, and that gives him the edge to keep a job. If the club goes with the 14-man staff like I think it will, it can carry Ponce, Webb and Helsley without having to option Helsley or DFA Ponce or Webb. The Cards will need to use the Memphis shuttle this year as the innings ramp up, and I think you can expect Helsley to be the guy that rides it, maybe along with Cabrera if he can’t get his control in order. Webb is also out of options, but he should be safe for now. There’s just no room right now for the others. Oviedo, Rondon and Woodford figure to anchor the AAA rotation.

OTHER SPRING TRAINING NOTES

PROBABLY NO CUTS UNTIL THE END

In a typical camp, clubs make various options and re-assignments to minor league camp as the shape of the roster becomes more clear. But this year, due to the COVID-19 protocols, a maximum of 75 players are allowed in the complex, and minor league camp will not begin until major league camp ends. Unless the Cards just send a player home, there’s nowhere to put him. This means that there will likely not be any cuts from camp along the way, and the Cards will have one glut of transactions to sort out the roster when camp is over.

AAA SEASON STARTING ON TIME

With the AAA Memphis season scheduled to open on April 6th, it stands to reason that every player that makes that club’s opening day roster is in camp right now. With 26 opening day major league spots and 25 opening day AAA spots (I think), that leaves 15 healthy players who are in camp now that will make neither club and be left for minor league camp/extended spring training to be re-assigned to another full-season club. The season for each of our full-season minor league clubs starts on May 4th.

THE SCHEDULE IS REDUCED

Not only is the schedule of the entire Grapefruit League reduced to 24 games, but the Cards are only going to play the Nationals, Mets, Astros and Marlins. This is because all those clubs are on the East Coast of Florida and they are being grouped together in a pod to limit travel. There are 24 games in 30 days, with 6 off-days. The Cards have March 6th and March 21st as scheduled days off from practice and workouts, as well.

THE NUMBER OF INNINGS IN SPRING MAY BE DIFFERENT

Games that occur through March 13th may be shortened to either five or seven innings by agreement of both managers. After March 14th, the managers can agree to shorten the game to seven innings. The Cards prefer nine-inning games to get all their pitchers the work they need, and had initially assumed that the other clubs were in agreement. They have since learned that may not be the case, and the length of the games will be a game-time decision.

OTHER SPRING TRAINING RULE QUIRKS

The manager of the club in the field will be permitted to call the half-inning over if a pitcher has thrown at least 20 pitches. Pitchers will also be permitted to re-enter games after being removed.

The 3-batter minimum rule will not apply to games before March 14th.

HOW TO CATCH THE ACTION

Fox Sports Midwest will televise 12 of the games. Dan McLaughlin will be on the play-by-play as usual, with Jim Edmonds, Ricky Horton and Brad Thompson rotating as the color commentators. The MLB Network slate of games has not been released, so it is possible that we will be able to see additional games on that network on either a live or delayed basis. If you want to have the possibility of seeing the maximum number of spring games, MLB.TV may be your best bet. Not only do the blackout restrictions not apply to spring training games, but you will be able to pick up an additional handful of games that are being broadcast as home games by the markets of the other clubs in the Cards’ pod. KMOX (1120 AM) will broadcast 18 games, most of which will also be available on the Cards’ affiliated stations throughout the country. The 6 games that are not carried on KMOX will be audio-streamed on the St. Louis Cardinals homepage at mlb.com/cardinals as well as the MLB app. Thanks to Dan Caesar of the Post-Dispatch for clarifying the situation in this article. He also reports that Tim McCarver is unlikely to be part of the broadcast lineup this year in any capacity. J.P. Hill included a tweet in his article this morning that outlines the schedule and the radio and TV availability. As far as direct streaming of FSMW, soon to be Bally Sports Midwest, Brian Walton of Cardinal Nation reports that Sinclair has said that won’t be an option this year like we had all thought it would.

CONCLUSION

I look forward to bringing you all the roster machinations once again. In this camp, we may not be able to figure out who is going to make the roster until the very end. That gives us plenty to discuss in the meantime. As always, feel free to lay out your predictions and roster questions in the comments.