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Breaking Transaction News 3/28/21: Cards Finalize 2021 Opening Day Roster

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Sosa over Rondon, Dean over Thomas, Nogowski makes it

St. Louis Cardinals v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

The Cardinals just announced a flurry of roster moves on Twitter, moves which have solidified the opening day roster. First, I’ll give those of you who have not closely followed the club in spring training a recap of the moves the Cards have made in camp to this point. Then I’ll outline the Cards’ opening day roster.

SPRING ROSTER MOVES

3/13/21: Optioned RHP Junior Fernandez and RHP Johan Quezada to minor league camp. Re-assigned RHP Connor Jones, RHP Griffin Roberts, LHP Austin Warner, LHP Garrett Williams, C Pedro Pages, C Carlos Soto, IF Luken Baker, IF Kramer Robertson, OF Lars Nootbaar and OF Justin Toerner to minor league camp. 55 players left in camp (37 40-man roster players + 18 NRIs).

3/20/21: Optioned RHP Seth Elledge, RHP Angel Rondon, C Ali Sanchez, and C Ivan Herrera to minor league camp. Re-assigned RHP Roel Ramirez, C Aaron Antonini, IF Evan Mendoza, IF Delvin Perez, OF Conner Capel and OF Scott Hurst to minor league camp. 45 players left in camp (33 40-man roster players + 12 NRIs).

3/25/21: Optioned RHP Johan Oviedo to minor league camp. Re-assigned RHP Jesus Cruz, RHP Tommy Parsons, LHP Evan Kruczynski, LHP Matthew Liberatore, LHP Zack Thompson, IF Nolan Gorman and OF Matt Szczur. 37 players left in camp (32 40-man roster players + 5 NRIs).

3/28/21: Optioned RHP Kodi Whitley and OF Lane Thomas to minor league camp. Re-assigned C Tyler Heineman, C Dennis Ortega, IF Max Moroff and IF Jose Rondon to minor league camp.

EXPLANATORY NOTES

*The opening day roster has not been officially announced and does not have to be officially announced and filed with the Commissioner’s Office until opening day, which is Thursday, April 1st. Days on option don’t count until opening day, so theoretically the club could change its mind. But barring something surprising like that, what you see below is what the roster will be.

*The Cards have announced that RHP Dakota Hudson, LHP Kwang Hyun Kim, RHP Miles Mikolas and OF Harrison Bader will open the season on the 10-day IL. That settles the question of whether Kim would be able to actually start the season with the Cards. The club is not allowed to make the injured list moves today, because the earliest a 10-day IL move can be made is 3 days before opening day, which would be tomorrow, March 29th. So either the Cards will officially announce those moves tomorrow, or wait until April 1st and make the IL moves retroactive to March 29th. It was decided prior to the 2020 season that there would be a 10-day IL for position players and a 15-day IL for pitchers, but that rule was suspended last year, and it will not be in place this year either. The 10-day IL will apply to everyone.

*Note also that Hudson will be placed on the 10-day IL, rather than the 60-day IL, even though we know that he will be out for the season. The reason is that a club is not permitted to use the 60-day IL unless the 40-man roster is full, and the Cards’ 40-man roster is only at 39 players. You won’t see Hudson transferred from the 10-day IL to the 60-day IL until the club needs to add two players to the 40-man. The 60-day IL was shortened to 45 days last season, but it is back to 60 this year.

*If you compare my running total of players left in camp, it deviates a bit from the Cardinals’ running total on Twitter. The reason is that I think the Cards didn’t include Dakota Hudson in the total because he never actually worked out in camp. I used the convention I did to be able to “balance the books” so to speak and keep a running track of people on the roster and their status to be able to know how many moves needed to be made at the end to get to the final 26.

*You’ll notice one anomaly in the re-assignments to minor league camp, and that concerns LHP Domingo Robles. The Cards traded international signing bonus pool money to the Pirates for the 22-year old Robles back on September 20th, 2020, and he was officially announced as being invited to spring training. But he never pitched in a spring game, and the Cards never made any further announcements about him on their Twitter page. It wouldn’t make any sense for the Cards to re-assign every other remaining NRI and leave him technically in camp. Either Robles never made it to camp because of visa or travel issues with the Dominican Republic, got hurt at some point, or the Cards re-assigned him at an earlier date and just forgot to announce it. I’m guessing he never made it for some reason.

*It was initially announced that the AAA season would start on time on April 4th. For that reason, the official transaction pages of some clubs initially described their options as options to their AAA team. Later on, it was determined that the AAA season would not start until May, and that the Alternate Training Site procedure that was in place for 2020 would be used for at least a month of 2021. You then saw official transaction pages described options as being to the ATS. The description on the official transaction pages were inconsistent across clubs, and sometimes among clubs. For example, Oviedo was described in the pages as being optioned to the ATS, but the other players were all described as being optioned to a specific club—Herrera to Springfield, and everyone else to Memphis. The Cardinals described the options on their Twitter page as being options to minor league camp, which is probably technically correct if the club didn’t know where those players would ultimately be assigned, whether to the ATS or left behind in the minor league camp that will start when the major league players leave. The convention I used is the one that the Cards used. Once the season starts, players will be officially optioned to and recalled from the ATS until the minor league seasons start, we hope in early May.

*There was actually no minor league camp in the traditional sense. Clubs were limited to having 75 players total at their Spring Training complexes, so there was no large, separate minor league camp to send players to like there usually is. What apparently happened was the Cards created some type of separate area within their complex to have those players work out that they ended up calling a “B camp.” In a lot of cases, there is no strict separation anyway, because players that have been optioned to the minors and re-assigned to minor league camp are permitted to play in major league spring games, as you saw today, when Tommy Parsons, Matthew Liberatore, Roel Ramirez and Scott Hurst all played, despite being re-assigned to minor league camp days ago. There differences are not ones which an ordinary fan would even notice, and are procedural in effect. Players that are in minor league camp but are in uniform for a major league spring game are entitled to receive the major league daily meal and tip allowance, and have been known in the trade as a “queen for a day.” The practical effect of optioning a player in camp is that if the player subsequently gets hurt, the club places him on the minor league injured list when the season starts instead of the major league injured list. Placement on the major league injured list carries with it major league salary and service time.

WOODFORD OVER WHITLEY

With Kim and Mikolas opening the season on the injured list, and the Cards’ announcement that the club would roster 13 pitchers, there was only one bullpen job available. John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon will be temporarily shifted from the bullpen to the rotation, and Genesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks, Andrew Miller, Alex Reyes, and Tyler Webb had secure jobs. After Seth Elledge, Junior Fernandez, Johan Oviedo, Johan Quezada and Angel Rondon were optioned, the choice for the 8th and final job came down to Kodi Whitley or Jake Woodford.

Whitley, a 27th round draft choice in 2017, was considered a rising star last year after he rocketed through three minor league levels in 2019, starting in High-A and ending in AAA Memphis. He cracked the 2020 opening day 30-man roster, and pitched in two games before the Cards’ season was delayed with the COVID outbreak on July 31st. In those two games, he pitched 2.2 innings, and allowed no hits, runs or walks and struck out 3 batters. He was part of the first wave of Cards to test positive for the virus, and was placed on the COVID-19 Related IL on August 4th, and wasn’t activated until September 22nd because he developed elbow inflammation. At that point there were only 7 games left in the Cards’ regular season, and Whitley pitched in 2 of them. In total, he faced 17 batters, struck out 5, walked 1, and allowed 2 hits, including a homer. Whitley made the Cards’ 28-man playoff roster. He came into Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Padres on 5 days of rest, with 2 outs in the bottom of the 8th, a man on 1st, and the Padres ahead 9-8. He promptly gave up a 2-run shot to Wil Myers to extend the Padres’ lead to 11-8, and the Cards would lose that game and the series.

I wrote about Woodford in this piece in 2019, when I discussed possible September callups. Woodford was drafted #39 overall by the Cards in the 2015 draft in Competitive Balance Round A, which took place after the regular first round and the compensatory round. At age 22 in 2019, he was one of 25 pitchers in the Pacific Coast League who pitched 100 innings, and one of only three pitchers who pitched at least 150 innings. He was basically the workhorse of the Memphis staff that year. His numbers did not look good on the surface, but almost everyone got rocked in the PCL that season. Of that 25-man, 100-inning group, only three pitchers had a FIP below 5.00, and the median xFIP was 5.60. Woodford’s 5.54 FIP was the 9th best of the group, and he was the youngest pitcher in the group. Although his 11.7% walk rate, was concerning and his 20.7% strikeout rate was not so hot, that strikeout rate was actually the 6th highest of the 25-man, 100-inning group.

The Cards opened the 2020 season with only 29 players instead of the allowable 30 because of a complicated situation surrounding the option rules and the placement of Giovanny Gallegos on the COVID-19 Related IL. Woodford was added to the roster before the 4th game, and although he was optioned for a bit, used as a 29th man for doubleheaders and returned to the ATS after the 2nd games, he didn’t ultimately burn an option. He started the 2nd game of the August 15th doubleheader, and made 11 other appearances out of the bullpen. His K/BB ratio was almost 4 to 1, but his overall strikeout rate of 18.2% wasn’t very good, and he had uncharacteristic trouble with the long ball, allowing 7 homers in only 21 IP. Over one stretch, he allowed homers in 6 straight appearances. He was also in the bottom 3% of the National League with a 14.1% barrel rate, and his xSLG allowed was .529, which was in the bottom 7% of the league. His actual slugging allowed on his fastball was a preposterous .711, and 5 out of his 7 homers allowed came off of that pitch.

Both pitchers have pitched outstanding this spring. Whitley didn’t allow a run in 7.1 IP over 8 games, struck out 10 and walked only 3. Woodford pitched 1 fewer game, but threw 4 more innings, and had an even better K/BB ratio. He gave up only 1 run on a solo homer.

They give different looks and have different roles. Whitley features an extreme overhand motion with a four-seamer that he likes to throw up in the zone, and pairs it with a changeup with about 8 miles per hour of separation that he especially likes to use against lefties. His slider that he mixes in generated the best whiff percentage of all of his pitches. Whitley is more of a high leverage 1-inning guy. According to Statcast, Woodford did throw a few changeups and sinkers, but his primary three pitchers were a four-seamer, slider and a curve, which he threw mostly to lefties.

The choice, I think, mostly came down to the situation the Cards are facing this year. Both Gant and Ponce de Leon are unexpectedly in the rotation. Gant isn’t used to it, and Ponce frequently runs high pitch counts and has to be removed early from his starts. The innings are going to be ramped up for everyone compared to last year. While Cabrera, Helsley and even Reyes have been multiple-inning pitchers, the Cards must have felt like the club needed someone who could go three or four innings at a time, if necessary, and Woodford fit that bill more than Whitley. Whitley will be in the majors this season. The Cards will probably carry 14 pitchers at some point, and you can expect that Woodford will be optioned at some point after a game in which he had to provide some length. Whitley will likely be the first man up in that situation. I would expect Whitley and Woodford to ride the ATS/Memphis shuttle all year.

SOSA OVER RONDON

Our own stlcardsfan4 covered this competition very well in this recent article. The Cards signed the 27-year old Jose Rondon, who had 290 career MLB appearances over the 2016, 2018 and 2019 seasons, to a minor league deal and invited him to camp. Rondon BABIPd his way to some decent offensive seasons early in his minor league career without either power or walks. By the time he reached the upper minors, he became known as an all-defense, no-offense guy, who was surehanded and had a good enough arm for short. He unexpectedly busted out the power in 2018, when he hit 18 homers for AAA Charlotte, and then another 6 for the White Sox that season. That amounted to a 5.4% homer rate, with a homer every 18.4 trips to the plate. In 2019, he hit 5 homers in 240 combined plate appearances across AAA and the majors, which meant he hit a homer in 2% of his plate appearances, with a homer every 48 trips. He played on a minor league deal with Baltimore in 2020, and didn’t see any major league action.

Edmundo Sosa, on the other hand, is an organizational soldier that was signed in 2012, and has played in the minor leagues for the Cards since his age-17 2013 season. Like Rondon, he had some contact-heavy above-average seasons at the plate, followed by some below average ones. He also turned on the power at AAA Memphis in 2019 with 17 homers, even if it was with the rabbit ball.

As far as the defense of the two players goes, the evidence is hard to find, and the information that is available runs in all directions. Rondon had a good defensive reputation in the minors. Baseball Prospectus gave him a +11 FRAA mark in AAA ball in 2018, but that was wildly out of line with his other marks, which included a high of +3.3 in his first minor league season, and several seasons which were negative. Everyone who has anything to say about Sosa, including the beat reports and prospect writers, claim that Sosa’s defense is excellent, and might be the best defender in the organization. Yet BP ranges his defense from highs of +5.0 and +3.6 to -5.1. Rondon has rated negative at least at shortstop in a small sample size in the majors, and Sosa doesn’t have enough major league time to be rated.

You have to give credit where credit is due and note that Rondon did have 7 hits in 27 at-bats this spring, including 2 triples and 1 homer. He walked 4 times against 7 strikeouts. One of the triples and the homer were in the same game, with 5 assorted hits scattered across the rest of the games. Sosa had only 3 hits, with 1 double, 1 walk and 2 strikeouts. He also showed his slick fielding in this play, where Josh Harrison was just barely safe:

I get that pinch hitting is more important this year with the DH not in play. But one can give credit to Rondon for outhitting Sosa this spring, and also conclude that those 4 extra hits do not automatically make Rondon the better option for the roster. Rondon did have the 6 homers in the majors in 2018, but in 290 career plate appearances in the majors, he’s slashed .201/.260/.336 with 19 walks and 72 strikeouts in 59 starts over 80 games. You’d think Sosa could at least do that well, given the time to do so. With Sosa being 2 years younger, maybe the better defender, and being in the organization for the past 8 years, I don’t have any truck with the Cards’ choice to give him the shot. Both Rondon and Sosa are out of options. The Cards might not have lost Sosa if they had put him on waivers, and I’m not saying it would have been a travesty had he been claimed. But Rondon isn’t going anywhere either, as he’s only on a minor league deal, they didn’t have to pay him a $100,000 retention bonus, and I doubt he had the leverage to negotiate an opt-out. This way allows the club to keep both. If Rondon is really this power-hitting, awesome defender, why hasn’t he been able to get a major league job for two years running? If Sosa falls flat, the club can easily bring Rondon up.

NOGOWSKI, DEAN AND THOMAS

I can’t speak for everyone else, but I think many assumed that Thomas was a lock to make the roster as the backup center fielder, and that the competition for the final bench job was between John Nogowski and Austin Dean. But in a stunning twist, both Nogowski and Dean have made the roster and the club has decided to option Lane Thomas. If the choice had come down to Dean and Nogowski, I would have gone with Dean, because of his more recent power showing in AAA, and because the Cards need another outfielder more than they need a first-base only guy. But I get the counterarguments that Dean isn’t good on defense anyway, that he hasn’t hit well in 311 career major league plate appearances, and that Nogowski, with his more mature approach at the plate, might give him a greater chance to get on base in a pinch hitting situation. And rostering Nogowski is even more defensible now that we know the club is going to have a 5-man bench instead of a 4-man bench.

It’s easy to get hyped over spring stats and sometimes it’s hard to remember that a couple of hits here and there can wildly skew the numbers in a small sample. Thomas had 3 fewer hits than both Nogowski and Dean in roughly the same amount of plate appearances. Comparing Dean and Thomas, Dean had 1 homer and 2 singles that represented the difference in the hits. They both struck out 13 times and Dean had 3 walks to Thomas’s 1 walk. Those small differences gave Dean a 274 point lead in OPS. Nogowski was all about the walks and had 2 homers and 1 extra single, but no doubles to Thomas’s 2 doubles.

Clubs make roster decisions that include factors that are outside of our purview. Whatever they are have led the club to option Thomas and leave the club with no real backup center fielder. Bader will be out 4-6 weeks after a platelet-rich plasma injection to his forearm. Neither Dean nor Justin Williams are center fielders. O’Neill has 6 career starts major league in center, with 43.2 career major league innings at the position. Maybe they feel either that Carlson is 22 years old and won’t need a break for over a month, or that if he does, O’Neill is solid enough to fill in, and doesn’t need any rest himself as the starting left fielder. Derrick Goold said in today’s article that Tommy Edman can back up center field in a pinch, and all I can say about that is I hope that is his personal inference and not something he gleaned from anything either John Mozeliak or Mike Shildt said. If it’s the latter, it’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard since I’ve been paying attention to the Cardinals.

As high as the organization has been on Thomas, this has to be a big blow. After a breakout 2018 season in AA, Thomas regressed in AAA in 2019, but performed very well in a short sample in the majors that year. He did look completely out of sorts in his major league time in 2020, but it has been noted that the COVID virus hit him very hard. I can understand the arguments for starting Dylan Carlson in center and Williams in right. I can understand walking back earlier rumblings that some may have had that Thomas could potentially unseat Bader in center field. But Thomas not making the roster at all? The DH is gone. Starters will get pulled from games early. We don’t know how long Gant and Ponce de Leon will last in their starts. Double-switching will be back in effect this season, and I can’t imagine that Thomas wouldn’t provide some late game value in a double-switch or late-game defensive replacement in center field. The club must have seen something in his approach this spring that led them to conclude that those considerations were outweighed by what Dean and Nogowski could theoretically provide.

NEXT ORDER OF BUSINESS

After making the injured list official, the next thing the club has to do is choose the 5-man taxi squad. With the season starting on the road, the club will have access to the taxi squad right away. It can consist of as many as five players, and if they use the full five, at least one must be a catcher. The next thing is to get the Alternate Training Site in Sauget, Illinois set up, and decide who is going to be on that 28-man roster and who is going to be left behind in Jupiter in minor league camp that is supposed to begin on March 31st. Fire away with any and all comments about the roster, as well as any storylines for the upcoming season.

OPENING DAY ROSTER

PITCHERS (13)

STARTERS (5): Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Daniel Ponce de Leon, John Gant

RELIEVERS (8): Genesis Cabrera (L), Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks, Andrew Miller (L), Alex Reyes, Tyler Webb (L), Jake Woodford

POSITION PLAYERS (13)

CATCHERS (2): Andrew Knizner, Yadier Molina

INFIELDERS (7): Nolan Arenado, Matt Carpenter (L), Paul DeJong, Tommy Edman (S), Paul Goldschmidt, John Nogowski, Edmundo Sosa

OUTFIELDERS (4): Dylan Carlson (S), Austin Dean, Tyler O’Neill, Justin Williams (L)

10-DAY IL (4)

RHP Dakota Hudson, LHP Kwang Hyun Kim, RHP Miles Mikolas, OF Harrison Bader

The bench on most days projects to be Knizner, Carpenter, Nogowski, Sosa and Dean