Spring Training games are in full swing with two in the books and more on the way – and already, a roster conundrum is beginning to take shape. For a team that won a World Series – and with a fairly young roster compared to the 2006 team – the 2012 Cardinals came into camp with a surprising number of roster puzzles to resolve. Will Matt Carpenter finally make the squad that goes north? Does Matheny prefer a seven or eight man bullpen? When will Allen Craig be ready? And what do we do with Alex Cora? All of these and more will be answered in one way or the other – either through competition or just tough decisions by the rookie manager.
But one significant benefit to writing about the team as opposed to managing it…we get to speculate without consequences! So let’s get into a series of questions, assumptions, and conundrums and what they could all lead to in the end…
The first decision facing Matheny is how many pitchers to take north. If he takes 13 (the TLR special), no problems in the ‘pen and no significant decisions to be made surrounding pitching. However, if he goes with the more standard 12, then a man must be left out. It would seem the list of vulnerable arms includes the following: Mitchell Boggs, Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, and Eduardo Sanchez. None of those options sound appealing.
If Lynn can repeat his 2011 effectiveness in 2012 Spring Training, then he’s close to a no-brainer. Salas, as effective as he was in 2011, makes the list of exposed arms simply because of the talent level against him. Boggs was so erratic last season that he seemed to lose all sense of direction after his first blown save. It is true he’s highly motivated and arguably positioned to carve out a spot in this ‘pen, but the more consistent Salas/Lynn could elbow him right out of the team photo. Finally, the injured Sanchez from 2011 seems to be healthy and impressive in camp – but perhaps the most appealing aspect of a bullpen that includes Eduardo Sanchez is the number of options available to him. Apparently the team is intrigued by the mobility of the young right-hander (think Memphis Express). Placing him on the roster on Opening Day sets up a potentially simple move when Craig is activated or the ‘pen needs refreshed and shuffled.
Unfortunately for Matheny, resolving the bullpen question only sets up the next roster riddle. Deciding to either take all available right-handers or leave one behind simply defines the list of left-over players eligible for bench/back-up roles. Removing Allen Craig from the equation for a moment – and assuming Tyler Greene takes the starting second baseman job – the list of “guys” includes Schumaker, Cora, Descalso, and Carpenter. Schumaker’s experience, flexibility, and contract make him an automatic. That leaves a veteran shortstop, a World Series winning (and Gold Glove finalist at 3B) infielder, and a promising AAA third baseman who hits without gloves. This is where it gets interesting.
With Tyler Greene at 2B, the club is in need of a back-up shortstop. The team is leery of flip-flopping Tyler back and forth across second base once he gets comfortable, so that eliminates any time he might see at his old position. Based on the 2011 roster, that leaves Daniel Descalso – the man who actually finished that epic Game 6 of the World Series at short. But here’s the problem…
Descalso is not a shortstop . Sure, he learned the position out of necessity on the fly last season, but I don’t think any of us were entirely comfortable with the scrappy Italian roaming the largest stretch of dirt in the infield. Of course, we have Rafael Furcal at short, so what’s the big deal…right? The “big deal” is Furcal’s injury history. The aging infielder hasn’t put together a full season of work in years, and the club is already showing caution with his aches and pains in camp. All of that means Rafi might be counted on for approximately 130 games at short, but someone else will have to step in for up to 32 games as well. Is the club really willing to hand those games to Dirty Dan when it counts?
So let’s stop here and check in a bit. If the club opts to take 12 pitchers north, then one man is left out in the ‘pen. Let’s assume the Cardinals like the options available to Sanchez and the time Boggs would have at the AAA level to refine his consistency. Sanchez on, Boggs off. There are now three roster spots for three players: Descalso, Cora, Carpenter. No problem.
But what if the team goes with all thirteen pitchers? With Craig coming back around May, the club could position themselves for a simple roster decision to make room for him if they take the bullpen competition into the regular season. They could easily carry Sanchez and Boggs through April and then send Sanchez down (assuming Boggs performs) as the arm with the most mobility. That creates a problem for the Opening Day roster. Suddenly, three spots for three guys becomes two spots for three guys. Someone is going to be left out.
Alex Cora, a career utility man perhaps most accustomed to shortstop, boasts a career slash line of .295/.358/.376…in just 237 at-bats. Considered a veteran after only seven seasons of sparing work, Cora was signed to create depth at a vulnerable position for the Cardinals. As one colleague on Twitter put it, he’s “never shown much with the bat,” but he’s a solid, versatile player with experience. He could play his way into being the best option at short for about 20 to 30 games.
Of course, if Cora makes the squad, that leaves the team with two SS options (Furcal and Cora), two 2B options (Greene and Schumaker), and no 3B options. It also leaves them with one outfield slot open, but only one roster spot left to fill it and the back-up third base position. To fill those spots, the Cardinals would be left with their choice of Descalso or Carpenter.
With Dirty Dan, Matheny gets a well-liked, versatile infielder who learned SS and 3B on the fly last season. He handled 3B so well he ended up a finalist for the Gold Glove award. He also earned the respect of other players for his late-in-game contributions and gritty play. But Descalso also comes with a couple down sides.
Cora’s inclusion on the squad would strengthen the team’s SS position – especially when a possible 30 starts may need covering – while all but eliminating Descalso’s value at the position. That leaves second base and third base for DD. At second, Skip and Greene more than cover the position. At third…well, Matt Carpenter may simply be the better option.
Ultimately, it comes down to this…if the team breaks camp with 13 pitchers, Furcal’s shaky health could lead to bringing a more experienced shortstop along. That screams Cora. But Cora’s inclusion on the team devalues Danny’s inclusion on the roster. With multiple potential starts up for grabs at third base with Freese’s durability concerns, the team may be better served having a more offensive, true third baseman ready to step in like Matt Carpenter. Gone are the days where a high-powered, Pujols-led lineup could make up for offensive deficiencies so easily.
As much as I hate to admit it, Daniel Descalso’s roster spot may be in jeopardy. It may be time for Matt Carpenter to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Oh…and about that fifth outfield spot on the roster…? Matt Carpenter has been working in the outfield during Spring games as well. Hmmmm…
Of course, Matheny could opt to put Descalso on the roster over Cora – effectively making Descalso the back-up SS and third baseman – and then fill the final roster spot with an outfielder. The only problems with that configuration…Allen Craig is on his way and DD could potentially start a lot of games at SS.
Should be an interesting few weeks of camp!
(Oh…and it should be noted…if Descalso is left off the roster…that ring ceremony in Busch against the Cubs might be a bit awkward for at least a couple guys in uniform.)