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Who Will Take the Final Roster Spot?

The signings of Pujols and Dickerson change things. Yepez is likely off the roster while Nootbaar may be fighting for his roster spot.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into Spring Training, I was fairly confident that Juan Yepez would be the St. Louis Cardinals DH this year. I’m sure I wasn’t alone either. After he raked in the minors last year and was added to the Wild Card roster, it seemed like a pretty good guess that the team would have a role for Yepez, and especially his bat. Now it looks like he may not even make the team.

The roster expansion won’t even help Yepez. The Cardinals can keep two extra players on the roster, but those players will almost certainly be pitchers. If this is the case, then Yepez will be left in the cold. Besides the eight starters, Albert Pujols and Corey Dickerson now seem like the starting DH platoon. That gives us ten players. Edmundo Sosa and Andrew Knizner are also guaranteed roster spots. That gives us 12. Who will take the last spot on the bench? It won’t be Yepez. Nor will it be Gorman. Both of those players will almost certainly go to Memphis where they can play every day.

A good initial guess may be Lars Nootbaar, but like Yepez, he is also hurt by the signings of Pujols and Dickerson. The 24-year-old may have lost his spot now, which is weird after he had a solid stretch as the fourth outfielder last year. Coming into the spring, I was confident that we would see a lot of Nootbaar this year. Now I don’t know for sure that he will be in St. Louis to begin the year. He still might make the roster, but the roster crunch caused by recent signings may leave him as the odd man out.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinals look for versatility with the final bench spot, because there isn’t much on the bench as currently constructed. Dickerson can be the fourth outfielder when he’s not the DH. Pujols provides depth at first base. Knizner is the backup catcher. This leaves Sosa as the only one who can play second, third, and short off the bench.

Versatility is not exactly a word that describes Yepez. It does describe Nootbaar, but only in the outfield, where the team now has Corey Dickerson, who has experience playing all three spots. It is a word that describes Brendan Donovan and recent signing Cory Spangenberg.

Before I go further, let me say that I am skeptical that the team will keep Donovan around. Not because he’s not a good player, quite the opposite in fact. He is a pretty highly regarded prospect in the organization so I am skeptical that he will stay in St. Louis if he isn’t going to receive regular at-bats. Still, the talk surrounding him, and his performance in Spring Training, make me think he could take the last spot.

Oli Marmol has expressed his appreciation of Donovan’s game on multiple occasions, calling him a gamer. The manager also praised his mentality and the way he carries himself while also saying simply “he just plays the game right”. These aren’t things that are typically said about players in their first major league camp. Marmol clearly thinks that Donovan has a major league mentality, and that may give him an edge on the final roster spot.

Contrast what is being said about Donovan with what has been said about Gorman. Marmol recently said that he felt like Gorman is pressing too much, which isn’t uncommon for somebody trying to make the Opening Day roster for the first time. This isn’t a negative comment. Marmol is simply saying that he feels Gorman is trying too hard. It’s not a slight on his ability, potential, mentality, or baseball IQ, rather it’s something that’s common for young players. Still, Donovan is not having these comments made about him. He is praised for being a baseball rat and a gamer. It’s nothing against Gorman, but the manager’s comments make it seem like Donovan has had a better camp.

Take comments with a grain of salt. Managers like to praise young players and saying that Gorman is pressing too hard is just a way of telling him to relax a little bit and let his talent shine through. Still, there has been nothing but overwhelmingly positive comments made about Donovan and his versatility.

While Donovan appears to have earned the respect of the coaching staff, his results still leave something to be desired. He is batting just .150 with a .577 OPS in 20 at-bats.

This is the part where I mention that a 20 at-bat sample size in Spring Training is not nearly enough to disqualify a player. That’s why no one should be worried about Yepez and Gorman struggling too, and it’s also why Yepez’s lack of spring production shouldn’t have taken him out of the DH race. If that is indeed why Yepez will not be DHing on Opening Day, then I won’t feel confident about Donovan making the roster.

However, I agree with the other writers here at VEB. Signing Pujols is about nostalgia and ticket sales. Stlcardsfan4 wrote about nostalgia after the signing broke and J.P. Hill has tweeted about the connection with ticket sales throughout the day.

I don’t think the Cardinals overlooked Yepez’ production last year based on a sample size of 19 at-bats in Spring Training. I think the team preferred to have experienced options to form a platoon, especially when one half of that platoon is a franchise icon.

This provides hope for Brendan Donovan. He may still be given a chance to break camp with the team despite his early struggles. If he heats up then he may leave no doubt that he is the right man for the job. It isn’t difficult to see Donovan playing a 2019 Tommy Edman kind of role if he makes the team.

The Cardinals may still want to put Donovan in Triple-A where he can get regular at-bats. If this is the case, then Cory Spangenberg may have the upper hand. He has played second, short, third, and all over the outfield in his career, which gives hm the versatility that usually belongs to the final roster spot. He is also another signing from Asia as he played in Japan for the last two seasons.

Yes. That means that Spangenberg is the third signing made from Asia this winter and there could be four former Asian league players on the roster on Opening Day in Aaron Brooks, Drew VerHagen, Miles Mikolas, and Spangenberg.

Spangenberg has never been much of a hitter. The utlityman was below average at the plate from 2016 through 2019 before heading to Japan, where he actually found some power. In the U.S. Spangenberg has never hit more than 13 home runs in a season and his best OPS is just .764 (he only played 20 games that year). In Spangenberg’s first year in Japan he crushed 15 homers en route to an .807 OPS. Unfortunately he didn’t repeat his success in 2021 as he finished with a .713 OPS.

That’s honestly not a super enticing option. If he makes the roster it’s not because he’s the best player available, it’s because the Cardinals want to give their young guys time in Memphis.

The left-handed hitting Spangenberg can at least hit righties (career 102 wRC+), so he won’t be a black hole at the plate. His value will still come from his versatility, though, and it will be up to manager Oli Marmol to optimize Spangenberg’s usage if he makes the roster.

None of this is to say that Nootbaar won’t make the roster. Quite frankly, I think Nootbaar has earned his spot in the majors and it would be a really bad break for him to end up in Memphis again. He hit at every level he reached last year (AAA, MLB, AFL) and came up big for the Cardinals when needed. He is also let-handed, which means that the team could play him in the outfield when Dickerson is DHing and add an extra platoon advantage against right-handed pitchers.

I still have my doubts that the Cardinals will go into the season with only one bench infielder not limited to first base. I would pencil Nootbaar onto the bench, but a utility infielder seems to be a bigger defensive need than a fifth outfielder, and Corey Dickerson and his $5 million are safely on the Opening Day roster.

On the other hand, with Dickerson taking most of the DH at-bats, Nootbaar could serve as a de facto fourth outfielder even though he may be fifth on the depth chart. This is why I think Nootbaar will get the edge, but I won’t be surprised if the Cardinals end up taking a more versatile option back to St. Louis for opening day.

The thing about Donovan and Spangenberg is that both are left-handed as well and both can play the outfield. They offer more versatility than Nootbaar, even if Nootbaar is a more natural fit in the outfield.

The final bench spot is still very much an open competition, but there are only six Spring Training games left. A lot has changed this spring and the final roster spot may go to someone that we didn’t expect it to at the beginning of camp. Don’t be surprised if Brendan Donovan or Cory Spangenberg open the year in St. Louis, though Nootbaar should still be the favorite.