At the joint press conference St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny held after the club's season-ending loss in NLCS Game 5, one topic of discussion was the bench and how it might look in 2015. Per a tweet from High Socks Sunday (another Cards-focused blog) Mozeliak remarked, "Historically, we've always gone with a younger bench, trying to get guys chances. Maybe this offseason we look at it differently."
Bench composition has been a discussion around these parts for some time. In recent years, the Cardinals' postseason bench was rather underwhelming. Not that this distinguishes St. Louis from the majority of MLB teams—most have an unimpressive bench. And there's a good argument to be made that the Cardinals' bench would've looked a lot better had injury or ineffectiveness not hit the club. Then again, such problems hit most teams in a given season so perhaps we shouldn't excuse away the bench composition so offhandedly.
The Cardinals bench has been at its strongest when Mozeliak has layered depth. When Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman pushed Allen Craig to a utility role playing second base, center field, and pinch-hitting or, in 2012, when David Freese hit .293/.372/.467 (.365 wOBA, 132 wRC+) as the primary third baseman while Matt Carpenter served in a super-utility role, getting playing time at third base, first base, the outfield, and occasionally the keystone. It's also worth remembering that Craig didn't have a starting job entering the 2012 season, either—he was blocked by Carlos Beltran in right field and Berkman at first. It was only after Berkman suffered a knee injury while Craig was also on the disabled list and rookie Matt Adams scuffled after his promotion that Craig emerged as the Cards' primary first baseman that season. In 2013, Adams played the role of bench bat and backup first baseman with Craig shifting between first and right until his regular-season-ending Lisfranc injury made Adams the primary first baseman down the home stretch and in October.
In recent years, the Cardinals have had success filling their major-league bench with prospects who had little or nothing left to prove in the minors. These players have gotten a taste of the major-league routine before eventually becoming everyday big-leaguers. This development process has allowed St. Louis to transition top prospects into primary roles with impressive results.
The Cardinals have also had their bench failures, though.
Last Hot Stove, Mozeliak worked from the depth page of his GM playbook, adding for $5.5 million second baseman Mark Ellis, a righthanded-hitting veteran who at once complemented top prospect Kolten Wong and provided insurance. The Cardinals' 2014 second-base eggs were no longer all in the Wong basket. But Ellis started the season on the DL, the Cardinals rushed him back after a one-game rehab stint, and Matheny relegated Wong to the bench while giving Ellis a string of starts against righty starters, which didn't fit his skill set. At season's end, the Ellis signing was unqualified failure—the Cards left the veteran off each of their postseason rosters.
Another veteran free-agent signing that was excluded from every St. Louis postseason roster during the term of his contract with the Cardinals is Ty Wigginton. After the 2012 season the Cardinals made it a priority to upgrade their bench. Mozeliak wound up signing Wigginton to a two-year contract worth $5 million. To Matheny's credit, he didn't play Wigginton much. The WIG signing's absurdity was laid bare when the media asked Matheny about the positives Wigginton brought to the club and the manager responded that he does a great job talking hitting with the other players. After 63 plate appearances over 47 games produced a .158/.238/.193 (.197 wOBA, 18 wRC+) line, the Cardinals released the veteran, effectively paying him to not play for the team. Wigginton's contract just came off the St. Louis books with the 2014 season's end.
As the 40-man roster is currently filled, the Cardinals bench will likely be populated by five of the following players:
- Tony Cruz
- Daniel Descalso
- Peter Bourjos
- Shane Robinson
- Pete Kozma
- Greg Garcia
- Tommy Pham
- Xavier Scruggs
Such a bench would be less than ideal, so it's no wonder the Cardinals are entertaining the addition of a player or players from outside the organization. In the wake of Oscar Taveras's tragic passing, this makes even more sense. It wouldn't be surprising to see Mozeliak ink a veteran outfielder as the primary starter in right, in effect pushing Randal Grichuk to a bench role similar to that filled by Craig in 2011 (and set for him entering 2012), Carpenter in 2012, or Adams in 2013. The Cardinals have the payroll flexibility for such a move and could perhaps even add a free-agent bench player as well. It will be interesting to see how St. Louis approaches right field and the bench as the Hot Stove heats up.