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TA 4/11/21: O’Neill to IL, Woodford Optioned, Thomas and Oviedo Recalled

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Is Ponce at risk of a DFA?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cards made the following transactions this morning:

4/11/21: Placed OF Tyler O’Neill on the 10-day IL (right groin strain). Optioned RHP Jake Woodford to the ATS. Recalled OF Lane Thomas and RHP Johan Oviedo from the ATS.

Tyler O’Neill had to come out of yesterday’s game with the Brewers because his groin acted up on him when he swung the bat in the bottom of the 2nd inning. Manager Mike Shildt said the imaging looked okay, but that O’Neill would need to rest for three or four days and the club did not want to play a man short on the bench in the meantime. It was a mild surprise that Lane Thomas did not make the club out of spring training to start with, and he’s the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster, so he got the call.

O’Neill could have probably used a break, as his plate discipline and contact numbers have been atrocious so far this season. He’s got 14 strikeouts in 29 trips to the plate, with no walks, and his 48.3% strikeout rate is tied for 2nd worst in the game for all batters with at least 20 plate appearances. His swinging strike percentage (swings and misses divided by pitches seen) of 26.9% is the 2nd worst in the game, and he’s whiffing (swings and misses divided by swings) 45% of the time, which is in the bottom 4 percentile. His 58.3% contact percentage is tied for 7th worst in the game, and he’s in the bottom 6 in O-Swing%. He’s actually swung at 64.5% of all pitches, which is the highest rate in the game. When O’Neill does make contact, he’s hitting the ball harder than ever, as his average exit velocity of 94.1 mph and his 57.1% Hard Hit percentage are the highest they’ve ever been in his career. He’s just not making enough contact for it to matter, and he’s not making up for it with patience.

Although O’Neill was healthy for all of 2020, he has a significant injury history that has come at times when it cost him the ability to get the necessary looks. He went down with a mysterious groin ailment in August of 2018 when he could have received a bit of time as a fourth outfielder. He got a couple of starts in center field in mid-April of 2019 when Bader was out with a hamstring injury, but he went down himself with an elbow injury, which cost him more looks. After a June injury in AAA Memphis, O’Neill did get recalled in late July when Marcell Ozuna went on the shelf for about a month. But when Ozuna was re-instated from the IL, and we thought the Cards would be forced to decide whether O’Neill would continue to get starts in the outfield instead of the likes of Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez, Tommy Edman and Yairo Munoz, what was the corresponding roster move? O’Neill back to the IL with a wrist strain.

With O’Neill out until at least April 21st, I would expect the club to not let Justin Williams start against a lefty, and start Austin Dean in left, Lane Thomas in center and Dylan Carlson in right. The question is what the Cards will do against a right-handed starter when they insert Williams. Will Thomas be Williams’s platoon partner so that we will see Dean in left every day with Carlson back in center? Or will it be Thomas that plays every day, and if he does, will Carlson switch to left when Williams plays right? Dean won the bench job in spring based on his offense, but if the ball is hit anywhere near the wall, Dean has demonstrated that he can’t handle it. Maybe they will mix it around over the 10 days and see what happens.

Woodford was optioned and Oviedo recalled on the first day that players could be recalled from the minor leagues without an injury. Woodford pitched yesterday on 6 days of rest and issued 2 walks, including a walk with the bases loaded. His other appearance was on April 3rd in the game with the Nick Castellanos bench-clearing brawl incident, where he walked two batters, hit two batters and threw a wild pitch. Against 4 walks and 2 HBP, he only had 5 strikeouts in 4.1 IP. This wasn’t necessarily a demotion, but the Cards must have felt they needed additional long relief protection since Woodford pitched last night and Daniel Ponce de Leon was pitching today.

If that was the calculation of the Cards, it proved correct, because Ponce had a disaster start, exiting the game after only getting 5 outs and giving up 7 earned runs, 6 hits, 3 unintentional walks and 2 homers in the process. Oviedo went in there and pitched 4.2 innings of scoreless relief, which was the longest relief outing for the Cards since Tyler Lyons pitched 4.2 innings in a 16-inning victory over the Dodgers on July 22nd, 2016.

Kwang-Hyun Kim was scheduled to be in the rotation to start the season, but was placed on the injured list with a back issue. He just threw 90 pitches in a sim game today at the ATS, and the club is waiting to see how he recovers tomorrow from that outing. Ponce’s next turn in the rotation would be Saturday April 17th at Philadelphia. If Kim is deemed to be healthy, I think we can expect that he will take that start, and Ponce will be moved back to the bullpen at a minimum. If Kim comes back next week, will the Cards just option Oviedo and keep Ponce as the long man, or will they seriously think about whether Ponce’s days might be numbered?

Ponce is a player that’s easy to root for personally, as he had to overcome long odds to just survive, let alone pitch again, after he was hit in the head with a line drive in May of 2017 while pitching for AAA Memphis. But this wouldn’t be the first time that Ponce lost a pitching job. Last season, Ponce lost his rotation job and got sent to the minors after a start in which he couldn’t get out of the first inning because he walked four out of the eight batters he faced. He came back to start the 2nd games of doubleheaders a handful of times and performed a little better.

I’m usually one of the first to caution about overreacting to an early, one-time thing in the season, but Ponce has been inconsistent throughout his Cardinal career. He’ll have very fine starts where he looks dominating with that fastball up in the zone, especially when the other team chases it. But he’ll have others where not only can he not get the fastball over, but he doesn’t have his secondary pitches either. It may be a little bit too early in the season to talk about trimming Ponce from the roster. Although there are two more off days in the month of April, the Cards will probably look to bring a 14th pitcher on board if the starters continue to pitch five innings or less, and it wouldn’t hurt to have two long men in that case. At times in the past, Ponce has actually done better when he doesn’t have a scheduled day to pitch, so the club might want to continue to give him chances out of the bullpen. It’s also early in the season, before the inevitable additional pitching injuries that usually come up. But if the club sticks with 13 pitchers, who would you feel more comfortable using as the long man on the day of Kim’s planned start and beyond, or for John Gant’s starts until Mikolas comes back? Oviedo or Ponce? The club might just have to make a difficult decision soon.

A final thing to consider is whether Oviedo might be optioned tomorrow. In the past when a pitcher has stepped up in that fashion and pitched significant innings in relief like Oviedo just did, he is optioned the next day so the club can get another available reliever. With his performance today, Oviedo might have made the club rethink that possibility and make him available if Kim comes back to start next Saturday.

BENCH

Knizner, Carpenter, Nogowski, Sosa, Dean/Williams/Thomas

BULLPEN

Cabrera (L), Gallegos, Helsley, Hicks, Miller (L), Oviedo, Reyes, Webb (L)