Last year, one month and a mere 29 plate appearances after he was called up to fill a bench role, I complained that the Cardinals were wasting Carson Kelly’s time by using him that way. Kelly was (I argued) too young and simply too good a prospect to hide away on the MLB bench. It didn’t matter that he was in all likelihood the second-best catcher in the Cardinals’ organization, to me — at 22 years old his development as a player was not complete, and it wouldn’t be completed by sitting and watching baseball instead of playing it.
Although it looked for a period of time like the Cardinals were going to go ahead and do the same thing this year, they changed course at the end of spring training and opted to send Kelly down to Memphis again. It appeared to be a case of Mike Matheny — who was the driving force behind the 2017 call-up — coming to grips with the fact that it’s just not a good developmental practice to make legitimate prospects sit on the bench:
“He’s not going to get a lot of opportunities here, with the way things are looking,” Matheny added. “So, for him to come up and do exactly what he did last year, we saw how that worked. He couldn’t stay sharp. He didn’t stay sharp. So, he needs to go prepare to be an everyday catcher. ...
“Last year, I was the one bullish about getting him to us, and pushing hard on the organization, only because every game means so much,” Matheny continued. “...I’m still going to say we want to take advantage of every start we have at every position we have there. But, it’s also a big piece of the puzzle, to have somebody ready to go, and to help them develop. Does he still have things he needs to work on? One hundred percent. He didn’t have Triple-A conquered.”
Fast-forward a month, and the Cardinals have called up Tyler O’Neill, to fill a bench role. O’Neill’s only 22, and despite a blazing hot start to the year in Memphis, it’s likely he’s not a finished product. Playing once a week and otherwise pinch-hitting is going to raise the same concerns for O’Neill staying sharp that Matheny alluded to with Kelly. If sending Kelly down was smart (and in my opinion, it was), then the same should be said of keeping O’Neill in AAA even if he’s actually the fourth- or fifth-best outfielder in the organization. And the same should go for the other legitimate prospects we’ve already seen collecting bench time this year, like Yairo Munoz and Harrison Bader.
But this time, I’m fine with it. It’s not that it’s ideal — it isn’t. In an ideal world, the Cards would have an outfield version or two of Greg Garcia: a finished product who is perfectly fine to take spot starts, and doesn’t have the kind of ceiling as a player that demands regular playing time, somewhere, so that the team can see what it has. But it’s not an ideal world, and unlike with Kelly last year, the Cardinals really don’t have a better choice than to put real prospects on their bench right now. It’s a necessary consequence of a very good problem to have: a farm system that is stuffed full of quality prospects at the upper levels.
The thing about bench players is that they have to come from your 40-man roster. And the thing about having a ton of quality prospects at the upper levels is that a bunch of them have to be on the 40-man roster, to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. That’s the situation St. Louis is in with O’Neill, Bader, and Munoz — along with other guys like Oscar Mercado, Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, and Conner Greene. Flaherty aside, that’s a list of guys who probably aren’t actually ready for MLB, but are on the 40-man roster anyway because if they weren’t, they’d be Padres.
So the Cardinals have an usual 40-man roster, in that it’s jammed full of prospects. In years past, maybe a guy like Nick Martini would have been added to it last year and then used this year on the MLB bench. But this year, the Cardinals just didn’t have room for that, so now Martini is in Oakland’s organization, and even when the Cardinals inevitably go back to eight relief pitchers, either O’Neill or Bader will remain on the big-league bench.
There’s just no way around it. The bench (when carrying 13 pitchers) will be Garcia, Jedd Gyorko (or Kolten Wong), Francisco Pena, and one other guy. That other guy was Munoz for a while, then Bader, and at times it will be O’Neill. The team has hinted that it intends to basically cycle through those guys — and probably Oscar Mercado, who is also on the 40-man, and I bet we’ll see some Luke Voit in there — over the course of the season, sending each of them back down to get regular playing time before coming back up for a turn on the bench. I don’t love this, from a developmental standpoint, but if they do it well it seems fine. Each guy gets big-league paychecks for a couple weeks at a time, a chance to be around the vets and get to know the coaching staff, and a window into MLB life. Maybe a little rust builds up, but not too much, as long as the team sticks to that plan.
Of course, sticking to a plan for more than a couple weeks at a time hasn’t exactly been a theme during the Matheny era. It’s entirely possible that O’Neill could run into a couple homers in his first week, or Bader could make enough sliding catches to inspire a managerial crush, or whatever. Matheny picking a favorite and thereby dooming him to wasting away on the bench for all of 2018 is a live possibility. Still, we can put off complaining about that until it actually happens. For now, I’m just going to enjoy getting a quick peek at a different Cardinal prospect every couple weeks, and roll with it.