I’ll keep the intro short because I have a lot to discuss. This is normally when I would be writing my observations from the past week of spring games, but we’ve seen most of the storylines by now so it’s time to take a shot at what the final roster will look like.
There are a lot of spots up for grabs and since the rest of spring will be spent determining who should take the last few spots on the team, I want to dive into my thoughts on what the Opening Day roster will look like as we are just 9 days from Opening Day.
I’ll start with my guess at the roster as a whole before diving into the surprises and the individual decisions that need to be made in order to fill out the St. Louis Cardinals 26-man roster.
Catchers (2) - Willson Contreras, Tres Barrera
Infielders (6) - Paul Goldscmidt, Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman, Nolan Arenado, Nolan Gorman, Taylor Motter
Outfielders (5) - Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Jordan Walker, Juan Yepez
Rotation (5) - Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, Jordan Montgomery, Steven Matz
Bullpen (8) - Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Jordan Hicks, Chris Stratton, Wilking Rodriguez, Drew VerHagen, Zack Thompson, Jake Woodford
Just Missed - Alec Burleson, Andrew Knizner, Dakota Hudson, Andre Pallante, Genesis Cabrera, Anthony Misiewicz
Surprise - Jordan Walker Makes the Cut
I’ll address this first because I know it’s been the hot topic all spring and because I’ve dragged my feet on Walker long enough. I think Jordan Walker will make the roster.
He’s been such an impressive player this spring, hitting home runs, recording high exit velocities, beating out infield singles, and even stealing bases, and I think he’s impressed the Cardinals enough to skip Triple-A entirely.
I will say that I still have some concerns about his ability to handle good MLB-caliber breaking pitches (especially sliders) and he’s probably average at best in the outfield right now, but he’s such a dynamic player that those quibbles may not matter that much.
With Walker making the roster, there’s the question of playing time. Who does Jordan Walker replace? Not Lars Nootbaar. Is it Tyler O’Neill, the guy who had 5.6 fWAR just two seasons ago? Or how about Dylan Carlson, who was on a 3WAR/600 PA pace last season while being hurt for a while? The same Dylan Carlson who has as many homers as Jordan Walker this spring and a comparable OPS (.906 vs .956)?
I don’t think so.
The most likely solution is that all 4 outfielders will play about equally. Theoretically, every outfielder could play 3 games in a row and then sit for a game and that would allow each outfielder to rotate equally, but the more likely solution is some sort of a platoon.
Either way, if Walker makes the team, the Cardinals will essentially have 4 starting outfielders and it will be up to Oli Marmol to figure out a way to get them all on the field.
Full disclosure - I’m still up in the air on this one but with 9 days until Opening Day, I am leaning in the direction of Jordan Walker.
Disappointment - Alec Burleson Returns to Memphis
With Walker making the team, there’s one less roster spot to go around. There’s also no leftover playing time for a 5th outfielder. Returning Burleson to Memphis allows him to play everyday while keeping Yepez on the team gives the Cardinals a DH against lefties.
It’s quite possible that the Cardinals would prefer Burleson’s left-handed bat over Yepez’s right-handed bat, but Gorman and Donovan will likely be playing everyday, whether at second base or DH, so I don’t see how Burleson gets himself into the lineup.
It will be tough for Yepez to get at-bats too since the Cardinals could simply play one of their 4 outfielders in the DH spot when Gorman isn’t there but I simply think it will be easier for Yepez to find time than it will be for Burleson and that’s why I have Yepez taking the bench spot and Burleson back in Triple-A.
I also think that the Cardinals likely see Yepez as a bench player long term so they won’t mind putting him in a bench role this year. Burleson, on the other hand, still has starting potential (even if he doesn’t have a path to a starting job) and may be better served playing everyday even if he demolished Memphis last year.
It’s a tough break for Burleson to not be on the roster but the Cardinals simply have so much depth that a deserving MLB player will be in Triple-A.
Surprise - Taylor Motter Makes the Team
...and does nothing. That’s the unfortunate reality of being the last man on the bench. Between the hair, the fashion, the bombs, and the versatility, Taylor Motter has been a fun player to watch and one of the best stories of the spring. Despite that, I don’t think his performance would have been enough to put him on the roster without something else happening. And that something else is a setback for Paul DeJong.
Paul DeJong said setback with lower back pain came today while fielding grounder. He hoped to DH Tuesday before it but now doubts he will be able to play before camp breaks. Can’t flex and rotate spine without pain. Looks likely he will head to injured list. #STLCards— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) March 20, 2023
The injury to Paul Dejong leaves the Cardinals with very little infield depth. In fact, it leaves them with just Tommy Edman, Brendan Donovan, and Nolan Gorman which leaves just one middle infielder on the bench in any given game.
Enter Taylor Motter.
The 33-year-old isn’t exactly a gold glover at short. Nor will he be one at second. Nor at third either. Or at first base. Or in the outfield. But the point is that he can play everywhere. And that’s exactly what you want in a last-man-on-the-bench.
The added benefit is that he can hit. Or he maybe can hit. Or, at least, he has hit in Spring Training. At the very least, I feel confident in saying that he can hit the ball hard.
The utilityman has 3 homers so far this spring. And that’s after he hit 44 in his last 600 Triple-A plate appearances. Oh, and he also hit a ball at 113.6 mph this spring. Do you know how many Cardinals hit a ball that hard last year? One. Juan Yepez, who had a max exit velocity of 114.4.
Motter hasn’t been much of a hitter in his major league career but between his resurgence in Triple-A and his exit velocities this spring, there’s a chance that the 33-year-old is a completely different hitter.
Maybe he provides value off the bench and maybe he doesn’t, but his versatility and power give him the chance to add value and his age (33) and non-prospect status mean the Cardinals won’t be disappointed if he doesn’t see the field very often.
The last thing to mention is that the Cardinals will need to clear a 40-man spot for Motter if he is going to make the team. There’s only one open spot and I have that getting filled by Jordan Walker. If the team doesn’t want to clear a spot, they could always keep Burleson over Motter but that would leave the team short-handed in the middle infield.
Surprise - A New Backup Catcher
I’ll be honest here, I don’t think Tres Barrera has earned the backup job, I think Andrew Knizner has lost it. And he didn’t just lose it in a Spring Training where he’s batted .111. he’s lost it in his last two seasons, in which he has combined for -1.3 fWAR.
The Cardinals say they like how Andrew Knizner handles the pitching staff, and that’s a valuable, if unquantifiable, trait of a backup catcher. But the Cardinals have also said there’s a competition for the backup role, and if they were indeed being honest, it’s hard to see how Knizner has won that role.
Tres Barrera hasn’t seen a ton of time this spring but he does have a home run and 6 walks in 16 plate appearances. That’s about it, but it’s more than Knizner has done, and Barrera also has received high marks for his defense throughout his career.
That may give him the edge in the battle of two players, who, to be frank, haven’t been great players at the major league level. Knizner has been worth -1.7 fWAR in his career. Barrera has been worth 0.2 but was worth -0.4 last year. Barrera also has an average exit velocity of just 81.7 mph in his career and has never hit a ball harder than 102.9 at the major league level. Knizner may have struggled with the bat throughout his career, but it’s tough to expect a whole lot more from Barrera.
Maybe his defense can provide an upgrade, but, man, I really wish Taylor Motter could play catcher (or that the Cardinals invested in a better backup).
Surprise - The Cardinals Will Only Keep 1 Left-Handed Reliever
It has taken me a while to come to this conclusion but here I am. I’m still not completely convinced, but after the following tweet from Ben Frederickson, I don’t know what else to do.
No formal announcement but Oli Marmol is singing Jake Woodford’s praises and absolutely loved what he saw today. He’s all but locked into opening-day roster spot as whatever you want to call the #STLCards sixth starter.— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) March 20, 2023
If Jake Woodford is all but locked into an Opening Day roster spot, then who’s out? Well, the second lefty, that’s who.
I’ve made this argument before, but the Cardinals are going to keep Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks, and Chris Stratton on the roster. They also have to keep Drew VerHagen and Wilking Rodriguez on the roster or else risk losing them completely. That’s 6 spots. I honestly don’t see a world in which any of those 6 arms don’t make the roster. The Cardinals simply aren’t going to surrender their depth for free.
Throw Jake Woodford into the mix, and there’s 7, which only leaves room for one lefty. That lefty will be Zack Thompson as he’s simply been the best of the bunch this spring and is coming off a solid year as the most reliable southpaw in the bullpen down the stretch.
Entering the spring, the bullpen had the most questions marks while the group of 13 position players felt practically set in stone. Now I see things the other way around. I simply don’t think there’s another combination of arms that strikes the right balance between roster flexibility (keeping all your arms in the organization) and talent (keeping your best arms on the big league roster).
So, the real question then becomes - is it a problem that the Cardinals will only have one lefty? And my answer is...maybe. I don’t know. It certainly is a bit risky because every right-handed reliever on the team has pretty standard L/R splits. The only one who doesn’t is Andre Pallante, who actually pitched better against lefties than he did against righties last year, but I don’t think he’ll make the team. So that leaves the bullpen in a bind. Who takes the ball against a lefty if Zack Thompson has already been used or is taking a rest day?
My answer - Wilking Rodriguez. And, specifically, Wilking Rodriguez’s cutter. The cutter is generally regarded as a platoon neutral pitch (which is why, as you may remember, Connor Thomas recently learned the pitch), and Wilking Rodriguez is a right-hander with a 94 mph cutter.
He still needs to prove that he can be effective against any hitters at the major league level but I wouldn’t be shocked if he served as the de facto second left-hander, at least for now. If the Cardinals need more lefties, expect to see one called up as soon as someone gets hurt or if VerHagen or Rodriguez find themselves off the roster due to under-performance.
Disappointment - Andre Pallante Returns to Memphis
If I’m right about the bullpen situation, it would be a really tough break for Andre Pallante. I mean, all he’s done is pitch effectively in the majors in 2022, pitch well this spring, and increase his velocity even further, touching 98.8 mph. It feels like a pitcher’s roster spot would be secure after that. But that’s not the case for Pallante as the Cardinals will try to preserve their depth (Rodriguez and VerHagen must be on the roster) and that’s okay even if it will be disappointing for him.
He will see the major leagues this year, even if he doesn’t on Opening Day, and a return to Memphis could (and should) spell a return to the rotation for Pallante. That’s crucial because it could put him in line for a rotation spot in 2024.
Disappointment - 40-man roster lefties
The Cardinals have Zack Thompson, JoJo Romero, Packy Naughton, Anthony Misiewicz, and Genesis Cabrera are all on the 40-man roster, yet my prediction has only one member of that group making the team.
If another one does make the team, I expect it to be at the expense of Jake Woodford, but honestly, the Cardinals right-handed relievers are simply better than their left-handed relievers. With Thompson on the roster, who else from the names I listed above would really be a good #2 lefty in the bullpen?
I don’t think there is one. Genesis Cabrera is inconsistent and his velocity is down this spring (sat 93.8 mph is his last outing), JoJo Romero still hasn’t really established himself due to control issues (14.9% walk rate in 2022), Packy Naughton had some big performances last year but his stuff is resoundingly pedestrian (81.4 stuff+), and Anthony Misiewicz came to St. Louis for cash considerations, which isn’t exactly a glorious return, and has had a decidedly average spring training performace.
Any of them might be good, but it’s tough to really feel confident in any of them.
(Now, before I go any further, I want to put some respect on Anthony Misiewicz’s name. I actually think he could be a solid reliever, and, if I had to choose a second lefty right now, I would choose Misiewicz. I like his cutter and it’s been a little sweepier this spring which is a great sign. I do think he’ll end up being the best of the group sans Thompson in 2023).
So, as I said above, the Cardinals right-handed options are simply better. You can tell I’m not lying because Andre Pallante may not even make the roster and I would take him over any of the lefties I listed earlier. Jake Woodford has earned the last spot because his excellent performance this spring has been even more impressive below the surface. He’s increased his velocity, revamped his slider, and improved his stuff across the board (96.4 spring training Stuff+, up from 89.7 in 2022).
The decision to keep one lefty may be weird, but in this case, if it happens, it seems to be a matter of keeping the best arm regardless of handedness.
This is my first go at trying to predict the roster and I expect that I may have some revisions come next week. You can expect to see (or hear) those next week, but, for now, if I’m wrong about anything (and I’m probably wrong about a lot), I expect to be wrong about Jordan Walker, Jake Woodford, Taylor Motter, and Tres Barrera.
It’s still completely possible that Walker doesn’t make the team and Burleson does. In that case, Motter would get added to the 40-man and no one else, meaning the Cardinals wouldn’t have to DFA anyone. Walker missing the roster also gives the Cardinals 3 sure outfield starters with Walker coming up whenever one gets hurt.
The other scenario is that Walker fills the 40-man spot and Motter goes to Memphis if the Cardinals don’t want to DFA anyone. That would mean a lot of bench bats and not a lot of infield depth but it’s still possible.
I also think the team is still up in the air on the backup catcher situation. I am too and another week of games may help with that determination. Finally, I wouldn’t be shocked if Woodford was dropped for another lefty or for Andre Pallante. I still feel pretty solid about my bullpen choices but I think that’s the most likely mistake I made.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments! There are a lot of interesting roster decisions to be made and the Paul DeJong injury only adds to that. This final week of spring games will be interesting as the lineup decisions should give us a clearer idea of what the Cardinals are thinking as they head towards Opening Day.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Tuesday.