We spent most of the past week talking about minor league infielders and assistant-to-the-backup catchers, which is one way that a blog that is required to produce new content every day nevertheless signals that the St. Louis Cardinals are a boring and pretty well-set team. Most of the players who would replace injured starters are players we secretly wouldn't mind seeing.
But every team has pressure points; even deep ones can be sabotaged by two or three awkward concurrent injuries. What combination, then, will push the Cardinals out of Future Redbirds territory and into minor-league-free-agent territory? How likely are we to be surprised, as we have by other ostensibly deep Cardinals teams, by what's sitting at the bottom of the pool?
Here are my guesses, in rough order of likelihood.
1. Rafael Furcal or Daniel Descalso
Pass. Every day they fail to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima I grow more concerned as to to the possibility that I'm really not the General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. It would explain how little I'm being paid, I guess.
There's a chance, of course, that this depth problem won't last into the season. Greg Garcia and Kolten Wong are both interesting offense-first infield prospects, but they're exactly the kind of high-minors prospects who need to play a half-season in AAA.
2. Yadier Molina
Obviously. The awkward thing about a catcher leading your team in wins above a replacement player is that backup catchers—completely constrained by position, bound to play less than the rest of the bench, mostly league-minimum types—are more likely to be replacement players than any other member of the roster. You can't guarantee a good backup catcher at-bats unless your starting catcher isn't very good, so you can't really have a good backup catcher, except on accident.
They're an awkward allocation of resources, and I've wondered for a while whether it might just be that too few Steven Hill types—minor league mashers who don't fit as long-term solutions on the masher side of the defensive spectrum—are given a chance at the job.
In any case, the Cardinals' depth at catcher amounts to Tony Cruz, a strange player to get a handle on. He hits .250, which seems competent for a backup catcher, but he's not a very good hitter; he's got a good arm, but he plays the position a little like a guy who was converted to catcher because he has a good arm. And since he's the backup catcher his season is as studded with small-sample-size artifacts as the average relief pitcher; he walked just three times all last season.
Unless you've got a David Ross type, who should be starting somewhere but just isn't, the only real catching depth is catching prospects. The Cardinals' best catching prospect, Cody Stanley, is left-handed and showed some power in the punchless Midwest and Florida State Leagues. That means he'll probably slug .600 in a brief stint at AA next year, but he'll basically have to build his prospect status back up from scratch in the high minors after missing much of last year on a drug suspension.
3. Jon Jay
Please be Oscar Taveras. Shane Robinson is a useful backup, but his above-replacement-level numbers are based on exceptional baserunning and above-average fielding across 180 plate appearances.
Most of the Cardinals' weak points are set up like that—one guy playing a position far out along the defensive spectrum, with little behind them. At catcher that's difficult to avoid, but at short, in particular, the Cardinals are unnecessarily thin; they're lacking that bench widget that's designed to help out at second base, hit reasonably well, and kind-of-play shortstop. That is, they're lacking a version of Daniel Descalso who can hit.
Where the Cardinals are stronger—where it's difficult to muster enough hands to activate the pressure points and summon Andrew Brown—it's because they've managed to find players that fill multiple roles in a satisfying way, either because they're unfortunate enough to have developed behind David Freese or because they don't fill one particular role satisfyingly enough. The real victory of the Jeff Luhnow farm system was its ability to generate these players almost on demand, and we're still earning that dividend.
1. The four corners
The Cardinals' depth at the four corners—third base, first base, left and right field—is weirdly rat's-nesty, which is probably its biggest strength. Allen Craig will play the outfield if-and-only-if Matt Adams replaces an outfielder; Matt Carpenter will jump ahead of Adams if-and-only-if David Freese's ankles are both at 80 percent.
Behind them lurks Oscar Taveras, who'll start the season in Memphis and is probably the Cardinals' first backup in center field whether he's a real fit there or not.
2. The pitching staff
When your top prospects are all big hard-throwing right-handers staffing the back of the rotation and the middle of the bullpen suddenly and transiently becomes much easier to do. Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez are all long-term rotation prospects who could, in the short term, push guys like Victor Marte out the back of the bullpen and into Memphis's closer role.
It's kind of an outlier, compared to the Cardinals' depth elsewhere. Where the Cardinals' farm machine has been the most successful, it's churned out players who have been a little difficult to value—Allen Craig getting moved off of third base, Matt Carpenter being old for his leagues, even Skip Schumaker moving to second base. It's players who are easy to underrate but who can be utilized in ways that aren't immediately apparent. Poor men's Ben Zobrists.
There are more of these on the way—Garcia in the middle infield, recent picks like Stephen Piscotty, Patrick Wisdom, and James Ramsey on the corners—and the way they develop in aggregate is nearly as important to the Cardinals' ability to compete after Beltran and Holliday and Molina as the more highly touted prospects as individuals.
The way the Cardinals have solved the depth problem in 2011 and 2012 hasn't been signing a great backup outfielder or developing the right backup shortstop. It's been developing players who solve multiple problems, and whose roles are contingent not just on what they do best but what they can kind of do, when pushed.