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Harrison Bader, Yairo Munoz, and the final roster spot

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How should the St. Louis Cardinals construct their bench entering the 2018 season?

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Fifty years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals used thirteen pitchers in their National League-winning campaign of 1968. Not “there were thirteen pitchers on the Cardinals roster throughout the season”—thirteen pitchers were used over the course of the entirety of the season.

The 2017 Cardinals used nearly twice as many pitchers, 25, throughout their (less successful) campaign. They used their 13th pitcher of the season during the seventh game of the season. It is probable that the 2018 Cardinals will use their 13th pitcher even more quickly.

The eight-man bullpen seems to be a foregone conclusion at this point. Heather Simon addressed the limitations of this roster construction last Wednesday, and the limitations of the bench when a majority of the roster are pitchers can be rather aggravating. But the Cardinals’ roster is tailored towards this ultimate conclusion. Of the top eight pitchers listed on the Cardinals depth chart, the one with the fewest MLB appearances in 2017 was Sam Tuivailala (37), who is also out of option years. The lowest-listed of the eight, John Brebbia, made 50 appearances last season and had a 2.44 ERA.

The Cardinals have an abundance of fine bullpen options—one could easily argue they don’t have enough good-to-great bullpen options, but which reliever would go? And that’s not even to mention Jack Flaherty or (eventually) Alex Reyes. A short bench is the practical option given the construction of the 2018 Cardinals.

Of course, this isn’t a uniquely Cardinals thing—bullpens have been expanding across baseball for decades. And with fewer slots for bench players, teams have placed higher priority on versatility. This was why the Cardinals tried to shoehorn first baseman Matt Adams into a backup left field role in 2017 and then were quick to trade him to the Atlanta Braves when the left field move didn’t work—a good bench bat like Adams was less valuable than a lesser bat who could play multiple positions.

Assuming the Cardinals use the four-man bench which would be necessary with an eight-man bullpen, three spots are virtually assured. Because of the attrition and the specialization of the catcher position, a committed catcher (because managers are so hesitant to use their backup catcher other than for spot starts, it’s almost a bad thing to have a versatile one) is necessary—despite the rise of Andrew Knizner as a prospect, Carson Kelly (oh, hey, actually it’s going to be Francisco Pena!) appears all but guaranteed of a spot on the Opening Day roster. Jose Martinez, a very good hitter by 2017 results and a behemoth by 2017 expected results, plays a competent first base, and while his defense in left and right field may not be great, it can be justified given his bat. And infielder Greg Garcia, who has a career .372 on-base percentage in 652 MLB plate appearances, has logged at least 371 13 innings at second base, third base, and shortstop.

These three players could, directly or indirectly, handle every position on the field—none can play center field, at least to an acceptable degree, but both Dexter Fowler and to a lesser degree Marcell Ozuna have played center field and could conceivably shift to center field while Jose Martinez moves to a corner position. But rather than give Mike Matheny a ninth reliever, a fourth bench spot will likely be handed out, likely to Harrison Bader or Yairo Munoz.

Bader, who will turn 24 in June, is the more prototypical candidate of the two because he is a center fielder. If the Cardinals are truly committed to Dexter Fowler as right fielder, keeping a focused center fielder on the bench is the best way to maintain this plan. Bader spent most of 2017 in AAA, where he was an above-average hitter (111 wRC+, including 20 home runs in 479 plate appearances), exhibited good speed (15 steals), and received favorable reviews for his defense. He has been frequently compared, to the point of it being a cliche, with former Cardinals outfielder Randal Grichuk, though in reviewing the top prospects in the Cardinals system, Aaron Schafer likened him to Michael Taylor of the Washington Nationals.

Of course, the Cardinals saw Bader at the MLB level, as well, for 92 plate appearances in 32 games. His offense was lackluster: a .235/.283/.376 triple-slash, good for a 70 wRC+. His defense, mediocre statistically but passing the eye test, was not quite good enough to justify his bat on a regular basis. Bader’s mystique as an outfielder was dulled—even those who champion Bader began to speak of him more as a high-floor guy who could contribute at the MLB level but was never going to be a star.

Unlike Bader, whom Cardinals fans have seen at the big-league level, Yairo Munoz is a bit of a mystery. Despite the Stephen Piscotty trade initially being touted as some purely charitable act, the Cardinals acquired Munoz and Max Schrock from the Oakland Athletics in December, and based on Munoz’s Spring, it appears the Cardinals at least attempted to get fair value for Piscotty. Currently, the infielder sports a .368/.415/.579 triple-slash in 41 plate appearances.

In 2017, splitting time between AA and AAA, Munoz started 34 games at third base, 43 games at shortstop, 19 games in center field, five games at right field, and two games each at second base and left field. He also showed a very good bat at AA (140 wRC+), although he struggled some at the plate in AAA (86 wRC+).

Munoz is a more interesting player than Bader because of his positional versatility, his potential to play premium defensive positions, and perhaps most importantly from a public perception perspective, the mystery that comes from never having played in Major League Baseball. But the marginal value Munoz can provide for the 2018 Cardinals is hampered by the presence of Greg Garcia.

Greg Garcia is both Yairo Munoz’s baseball clone and his complete opposite. Garcia bats left-handed; Munoz bats right-handed. Garcia’s greatest offensive skill is plate discipline; Munoz had a 4% walk rate in AAA last season. Garcia is a nondescript fielder without any particularly defining skills; Munoz is, as a complete package, not a particularly acclaimed defensive player, but his arm is very strong. Garcia has, stretched over the course of four years, a full MLB season’s worth of plate appearances and his lack of power is easy to degrade despite being an above-average hitter (his career wRC+ is 102); Munoz as an MLB player can be however inventive your imagination is.

“He’s done everything he can in AAA” is a cliche that was used to justify starting Randal Grichuk in St. Louis in 2015, and while that particular experiment working out spectacularly well shouldn’t necessarily be used as a point in Bader’s favor, a similar argument could be made for Harrison Bader in 2018. Perhaps he is never going to be a superstar, but as much as Cardinals fans eventually malign tweener outfielders like Jon Jay or the aforementioned Grichuk, a good fourth outfielder is a really nice thing to have.

Yairo Munoz has shown promise in Spring Training, but he has fewer than half of the AAA plate appearances of Bader, and is several months younger (Munoz turned 23 in January). He is going to get his opportunities, perhaps later in the season when injuries and fatigue inevitably chip away at the Cardinals roster. But for now, Harrison Bader, boring as it may seem, is probably the right choice for the final bench spot for the St. Louis Cardinals.