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Spring Training competitions are fair

The Cardinals want every player to come in and compete for a roster spot. Competitions are set up that the public often sees as between players, but often the player is competing to meet expectations to secure a spot on the team.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

As Ben wrote earlier this morning, the Cardinals roster is just about set. With Carlos Martinez winning the fifth starter spot, Kevin Siegrist showing enough to win a spot in the bullpen, and Carlos Villanueva nailing down the final bullpen spot, the pitching staff is set. With Randal Grichuk doing more to change his profile within the organization than any other player (I recommended listening to Will Leitch's podcast with Derrick Goold), and Pete Kozma out of options and the only backup shortstop left in camp, unless the Cardinals trade Peter Bourjos, the 25-man roster is set. It is essentially the roster that could have been predicted in February.

There are competitions every spring, and the last few bench and bullpen spots get some attention, but the last two years the major focus has been on the fifth starter. That Jaime Garcia was going to win the competition if he proved his health, or that Carlos Martinez had to show a different level of success than Marco Gonzales this spring does not make the battle any less of a competition. Every single Cardinals player was competing for a role for the 2015 team from Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday to Ty Kelly and Marco Gonzales. Spring is the first time of the year that management gets to take a look at players, and those impressions will help shape their views throughout the season.

Yadier Molina does not have to compete for a roster spot, but he came to camp in shape ready to compete for 135 starts at catcher as opposed to 120. Adam Wainwright wants to show that he can take on 220 innings as opposed to some reduced number. The role a player competes for is based on expectations, and what the player has to do in camp to win comes from years and years of evaluations. It is only fair for the Cardinals to rely on Lance Lynn's last three seasons when evaluating him this spring. Call the competition rigged if you want, but really we are at the final stages of a competition that began well before February when pitchers and catchers first reported. We see just the finish line in spring, but the many miles that happened before are out of our view at the moment.

Last season, Carlos Martinez vastly outpitched Joe Kelly in spring, but Kelly's slightly longer track record as a starter and the need for a setup man put Martinez in the bullpen. Kelly started with a big lead, and did just enough to hold off Martinez given the extra weight Martinez had to carry by being needed in the bullpen. This season, there was a very clear competition for the fifth starter job. Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia, and Marco Gonzales came to camp fighting for a role. Each player had different expectations from the organization that would need to be met in order to win that competition.

Garcia came to camp with a long injury history, but with a track record for pitching very well when healthy. As a result, if he could prove his health and pitch like he always had, he was going to win that spot. Because Martinez and Gonzales could not simply prove their health to win the competition does not make the competition unfair or a sham. It would be pretty easy to argue, especially given the past week, that the competition was harder for Garcia to win than any other pitcher with the tasks he had to prove. That does not make the competition unfair to Garcia, either.

Perhaps the race analogy above was not particularly apt in this case. Let's take another race, with a flag on top of a mountain. Each player starts from different parts of the mountain. Each is asked to navigate different terrains depending on their skills. None of the routes are the same. Garcia's journey to the top comes with pitfalls just like the routes for Martinez and Gonzales. Garcia could not quite make it to the top this spring. If he rests some, goes through rehab and makes a few starts in the minor leagues, the Cardinals (and I) would be happy to see him return to the rotation in St. Louis and contribute on the major league team.

But was the competition unfair to Gonzales? Not really. Martinez could have pitched poorly, but he has not. Martinez has thrown 16 innings and struck out 16 while walking five. In his last start he was efficient, needing 76 pitches to get through five innings and pitching through misplays in the field. Martinez has had essentially one bad inning his entire spring. Gonzales has pitched well this spring, but not well enough to make him the no doubt starter in 2015. He has given up just two runs in 17 2/3 innings, but has struck out only 9 and given up seven walks. Gonzales competed for a role, and he got one. With Siegrist as another lefty in the bullpen, Gonzales gets to go down to Triple-A and be the automatic sixth starter. Absent a return from Garcia, Gonzales will be the guy the Cardinals call upon when there is a need at the major league level, and there is always a need at the major league level.

To wrap this up with another convoluted, likely unnecessary analogy, Gonzales is playing a video game, and at the end of the level, he has to beat the bad guy, but sometimes after the bad guy dies, another bigger, badder boss appears, and that guy is basically impossible to defeat on the first try. Carlos Martinez experienced it last year. This year for Marco Gonzales, Carlos Martinez is the guy who is nearly impossible to beat. Marco Gonzales was in a competition with him, but that competition was going to be a tough one. Carlos Martinez has pitched 117 2/3 innings to Gonzales' 34 2/3. El Gallo has the higher strikeout rate, the lower walk rate, the higher profile as a prospect, the longer track record in the playoffs. Carlos Martinez used about 15 pitches per inning last season while Gonzales used 18. Martinez has the FIP close to three while Gonzales is closer to five. Martinez was the guy the Cardinals refused to give up for Jason Heyward, for Cole Hamels. Martinez was the only guy in the National League under the age of 23 to throw more than 60 innings last year (89 2/3). He was the player the Cardinals cleared a role for by trading Shelby Miller. Martinez has perhaps the top arsenal in all of baseball: the high-90s two seam fastball, the 100 mile per hour four seam fastball, the unfair slider, and the still developing, potentially great changeup.

Gonzales will have another shot at the rotation, probably soon, and if he develops like he should and avoids major injury, he will likely be on the other side of the competition. He will allow his track record to spring him to a starting role, but just because the competition was difficult to win, that does not mean it does not exist. Nobody has said, and nobody wants, a system where we look at spring training statistics and decide roles based solely on those outcomes. That players compete is the important part. Management determines roles based on how those players compete and what they believe a player can do to help the team win. That the Cardinals roster is nearly identical to the predicted one in February is a very good thing. That means the spring has gone as planned, and the team is ready for the season.