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Grapefruit League Week 1: Ups & Downs

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Let’s overreact to largely meaningless Spring Training performances, lineups, and usage. In the first week of Spring Training games, who is trending up and down? What do the roster and lineup look like right now?

St. Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

There’s been one full week of Grapefruit League games. That’s just enough time to get some good overreactions going! I’m here to feed those; to look deep into the insignificant and crystal-ball some future lineup and roster decisions. Really, this article format is just a fun way to talk about what happened this week and show some of my favorite highlights.

Who is trending up and down after Grapefruit League week 1?

WHO IS ON THEIR WAY UP

Matt Carpenter
Two significant and correlated things happened this week relating to the Cardinals opening at second base. The first is the news that MLB considers the DH in the NL dead for 2021. NL purists can rest easy. But Tommy Edman cannot. With no DH coming, John Mozeliak stated on MLB Radio the club’s “best case scenario” was Carpenter winning the second base job. He has already seen some time during Grapefruit League games at 2b and looked fine, by reports. Don’t take this too far. At most, this would be a platoon at the keystone, with Carpenter seeing action there against some righties. With no defensive upside, Carpenter is going to have to hit for that “best case scenario” to play out as reality. Carpenter is 0-for the spring so far. Tommy Edman, meanwhile, has hit well.

Backup Catchers
Skyricesq and I have had an ongoing debate about whether Andrew Knizner, with the lively bat, or Tyler Heineman, with the excellent glove, was likely to be the backup catcher. Let that debate continue! On Wednesday, Knizner gave Cardinals fans a taste of the kind of offensive production he could provide. He waited on a breaking ball to hit a soft liner for a single. Then he did this, which is an exceptional piece of hitting:

As of Friday night, Knizner was hitting .500 on the spring.

On Tuesday, Heineman displayed the value he can bring to the club, gunning down two baserunners with perfect throws. This one is worth watching a few times:

Who has the edge right now? Probably Knizner because of his position on the 40-man roster and the recently announced news that the AAA season will not start until May. Knizner should break camp with the club no matter what Heineman does just so he can see action. Heineman seems headed for the Alternate Training Site and Taxi Squad. Once AAA gets going, there could be a shift if Knizner isn’t seeing the field.

Jose Rondon
The backup infield spot is another point of intrigue this spring. Rondon and Max Morroff are competing with Edmundo Sosa for the presumed MI role on the club. So far both players have performed well. Moroff, a switch-hitter, is valued for his versatility. Rondon has an elite glove at short-stop and has displayed, at times, sneaky-good power. In 2018, Rondon crushed 18 AAA HRs in 226 PAs and another 6 in the majors in 107 PAs. That’s 24 HR total in 334 PAs. He had 19 HRs in his lengthy professional career leading up to ’18. If that brief display of power proves real, then he could easily pass Sosa or Moroff on the depth chart. On Wednesday, Rondon did this:

Keep your eye on Rondon. Moroff too, who is getting a lot of playing time. Sosa experienced the unfortunate timing of fatherhood, so he’s a little behind the others with plenty of time to catch up. The second base position also factors in here. With Carpenter edging his way into the competition at second and Edman potentially trending toward a UT role, will the club even carry a backup SS? Right now, I’m projecting they won’t, as I’m anticipating Shildt will want 14 pitchers and just 12 bats to begin the season.

Also trending up: Lane Thomas. Thomas has quietly had an excellent spring. He’s probably a roster lock.

WHO IS ON THEIR WAY DOWN

Expanded Playoffs
As with the DH, expanded playoffs are a no-go this season, according to The Athletic. This issue, along with the National League DH, is expected to be a significant part of negotiations in the new CBA, which expires after the season. It seems the players don’t want to make any concessions to the owners or establish any precedents heading into contentious offseason negotiations. Some commentators argue that expanded playoffs are bad for the players, claiming that they lower the motivation for teams to pay for talent since they could reach the playoffs at a lower win floor. I don’t see the logic of that argument, since the current system provides little incentive for 2/3’rds of the league to spend up to push the larger-market, championship-caliber contenders. The Cardinals, perennial division contenders, don’t even do that now. With expanded playoffs, more mid-tier teams (in the 75-82 win range) would be more likely to spend instead of tanking to climb into wildcard range and get the financial windfall of a guaranteed playoff series. More money in the system should lead to more money spent. Regardless, the PA is smart to use things the owners want as a leverage tactic to gain significant concessions for themselves. I’m pretty ambivalent toward expanded playoffs myself but I’m very much in support of more significant player-friendly changes, like altering the archaic arbitration system.

Washington Nationals v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Rotation
Just take a look at these box score lines from the Cardinals starters as of Friday morning:

Jack Flaherty – 1.0 IP, 4 hits, 3 ER, 3 BB, 1 K
Kwang Hyun Kim – .2 IP, 4 hits, 3 ER, 2 BB, 2 K
Carlos Martinez – 1.2 IP, 4 hits, 6 ER, 3 BB, 0 K
Adam Wainwright – 2.0 IP, 0 hits, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K

That’s a lot of bad, with Wainwright’s excellent first performance lumped in. Should Cardinals fans be concerned? No. It’s the first week of Spring Training games. I realize that I sold this article as “permission to overreact” but this stretch of terrible doesn’t mean the Cardinals’ starters are going to be terrible all season. More interesting to me is how the Cards will handle that final spot. Alex Reyes has been brilliant so far. He would have made my “trending up” section except that I (and many others) expected him to be brilliant. Shildt threw a little cold water on the club’s willingness to move Reyes to the rotation, citing his lack of innings over the last few years. That mindset, though, assumes Mikolas is healthy and claiming a rotation spot, a fact that the Cardinals won’t publicly budge from this early. Reyes should be the first choice to slip into the rotation for a brief stretch if Mikolas lands on the IL.

Junior Fernandez
Fernandez seemed like a virtual lock for a bullpen role following exceptional minor league performances at three levels in 2019 and a lengthy stint on the MLB roster. Instead, Fernandez never really looked in sync in 2020 and, despite the pitching crisis the club faced, he only saw 3 innings with an 18.00 ERA. Heading into this spring, it seemed like Fernandez had work to do to rehabilitate his place in the bullpen pecking order and fend off rising bullpen arms like Kodi Whitely and Seth Elledge. His first appearance this spring did not go well. He allowed 3 runs on 4 hits in one inning of work as of Friday morning. One outing is just one outing, but it’s hard not to see his trend as anything but down.

Also trending down: Austin Dean. His defense has been pretty brutal so far in the outfield. He looks destined for the Alternative Training Squad as a do-whatever veteran.

My 26-Man Lineup/Roster Predictions as of today:

Offense (12):
1. Matt Carpenter (2b)
2. Dylan Carlson (RF)
3. Paul Goldschmidt (1b)
4. Nolan Arenado (3b)
5. Paul DeJong (SS)
6. Yadi Molina (C)
7. Tyler O’Neill (LF)
8. Harrison Bader (CF)
Bench: Andrew Knizner, Tommy Edman, Lane Thomas, Justin Williams

Pitching (14):
1. Jack Flaherty
2. Adam Wainwright
3. Kwang-Hyun Kim
4. Carlos Martinez
5. Alex Reyes
Bullpen: Hicks, Gallegos, Gant, Miller, Cabrera, Webb, Helsley, Ponce de Leon, Elledge

Just Missed:
Offense: Jose Rondon, Tyler Hieneman, Max Moroff, Edmundo Sosa
Pitching: Miles Mikolas (IL), Kodi Whitely, Jose Quezada, Jake Woodford

Special thanks to @cardinalsgifs for the highlights!