The Cardinals are finally getting it done on the field in the way we’ve expected them to do it all season. By finding ways to win regardless of who is on the mound, what lineup configuration Matheny rolls out that game, or who is currently on the DL, the Redbirds look like the team in September that many of us expected in April.
Now they face some tough decisions. In what could be the most intriguing postseason roster construction process in the last ten years for St. Louis, John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny will face off in a test of wills. Information versus faith. Statistical Evaluation versus Player Loyalty.
And more than one very painful call.
However it plays out – and yes, I realize we have a lot of work to do before worrying too much about postseason rosters – let’s see if we here at Cards ‘N Stuff can help out a bit. Here’s our first crack at an October playoff roster for the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals.
STARTING PITCHERS (Of which there are four…)
1. Adam Wainwright. The ace of the staff is a no-brainer, but the Cardinals will have to keep a close watch on his pitch count and innings load between now and October 1st. Somewhere, somehow, Matheny has to steal some rest for his number one option on the mound, especially if he expects to put him in a slot that could throw two games in a best-of-five NLDS.
2. Lance Lynn. The beast of the rotation has stepped up beyond measure this season. Previously prone to late-season fades, Lynn has solved his August issues and looks to finish strong – both figuratively and literally – in September on his way to locking down the number two spot in a playoff rotation.
3. John Lackey. If we didn’t acquire Big John to start playoff games, why did we get him? In what could become a surprisingly crowded rotation by the end of the month, Lackey must be given a rotation spot in October given his ability, veteran status, and track record in the postseason.
4. Michael Wacha. Wacha-mania is set to return to October in much the same fashion as last season. Abbreviated season, some level of fatigue-workload concern, but a staggering ability to get hitters out that eclipses all of that. The one difference that stands out…rest. Wacha’s time on the DL was likely no fun, but it did make sure the pitcher who threw at three (four?) different levels in a single calendar year – starting with college and ending with the MLB World Series – got adequate time to rest, build strength, and prepare for a stretch run in the postseason. His 95 mph fastball last night can attest to the results.
POSITION PLAYERS (A starting eight…)
5. Yadier Molina. Yadi’s had some spotty at-bats in his return, but that’s to be expected. Give him the rest of September to hit his stride, and October should be fun. Now…if the Cardinals can just keep him from re-injuring his thumb for the next three or four weeks…
6. Matt Adams. Adams’ oblique is reportedly acting up, enough to necessitate a move sooner than expected for Triple-A first baseman Xavier Scruggs, and could become an issue between now and October if the Cardinals don’t properly manage his playing time. In September, no one goes on the DL…because there’s no point with expanded rosters. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It keeps players like Adams available if needed (see: Carlos Gomez and his injured wrist for the Brewers inserted for base running purposes last night), but on the flip side…it keeps him available if needed. Matheny must resist the temptation to plug Adams in for pinch-hit at-bats and give his muscle adequate time to heal. Considering the Cardinals’ four-game lead in the Central right now, that should be achievable.
7. Kolten Wong. The young second baseman is really showing his value on the field, finding ways to impact the game with his speed, his defense, his overall hitting ability, and his surprising power. Combined with his postseason experience last year, those skills are going to make him a valuable piece in October.
8. Jhonny Peralta. Bernie Miklasz called Peralta a “stealth MVP” because of his consistent power in a power-starved lineup and his surprisingly good defense at shortstop. He’ll be an interesting bat in the playoffs, especially with Adams’ oblique issues affecting his swing.
9. Matt Carpenter. Carpenter’s average is down this year from 2013, but his on-base percentage is still highly effective. After finishing 2013 with a big 0-fer in his attempt to force 200 hits, Carpenter looked a bit awkward at times in the World Series. This year, look for him to learn from his postseason experience and be an on-base machine for the Cardinals.
10. Matt Holliday. The big man has finally found his stroke and could carry the Redbirds through the first round of the playoffs. With so many outfield options to play with, it would be wise of Matheny to take advantage of what could be a sizeable lead in the last week of September and rest Holliday’s temperamental back. This offense is going to need a fresh, 100% Matt Holliday in October.
11. Peter Bourjos. Bourjos seems to finally be putting it all together. His speed and defense have been clear upgrades over incumbent Jon Jay in center field, but his free-swinging bat was the elephant in the room for an under-performing offense. But if there’s one thing the Cardinals’ past opponents in October have taught St. Louis, it’s that speed (see: Carlos Beltran, 2004) and outfield defense (see: Red Sox, 2013) can have a huge impact on a playoff series. For those reasons alone, look for Bourjos to play a significant role in October.
12. Jon Jay. The often-dismissed man just keeps finding ways to assert himself. For an offense lacking in consistent production above all else, Jay’s .300-plus average and ridiculous on-base percentage have been, perhaps, season-savers. If he can carry that into October, a Holliday-Bourjos-Jay outfield could win it all for the Redbirds.
THE BENCH (Perhaps there are five…)
13. Daniel Descalso. For some reason, Descalso has gone from fan-favorite role-player and postseason asset to Cardinal Nation whipping boy in just one season. But despite Matheny’s puzzling roster management, Descalso has re-established himself as a valuable player off the bench, especially considering his ability to play every infield position. He’s a hitter that never seems to be overwhelmed by the situation or the pitcher he’s facing, and that’s something you can’t teach pinch hitters in October.
14. Randal Grichuk. The outfielder from Memphis by way of L.A. has a killer arm, speed, the ability to play a very good RF and a decent CF, a stunning power stroke at the plate, and a tendency to demolish left-handed pitching. That final note may be what gets him on the roster over all else. Lefties have beguiled the Cardinals for years, and they can’t afford to leave themselves vulnerable to LH relief pitchers in late-game situations in October.
15. A.J. Pierzynski. All due respect to Tony Cruz, but when you have a veteran of AJP’s caliber – competitive, salty edge with experience and hitting ability – you don’t leave him off your playoff roster. AJP can provide not only valuable catching protection, but also the ability to pinch-hit in an impactful way late in the game. I have a feeling the Cardinals are going to need all the late-inning pinch-hitting help they can muster this postseason.
16. Pete Kozma. I fully expect Greg Garcia to be this guy going forward, but for right now, today…Kozma’s playoff experience and constantly-developing skills may prove invaluable in October, especially if Matheny faces the brain-cramping task of shuffling multiple players to accommodate late-inning moves.
17. Oscar Taveras. Despite his struggles this season, Oscar has still shown an ability to be a valuable pinch-hitter off the bench. If Matheny and the Cardinals can help him further develop that skill over the next three weeks while playing sporadically, his power and big-hit potential are a must-have for a Cardinal bench that’s been largely anemic most of the year.
THE BULLPEN (As many as eight…?!)
18. Shelby Miller. Miller’s not going to like this. After last year’s non-use fiasco in the postseason, Shelby seems to believe he’s been all-but promised a rotation spot this October. In short, I don’t think so. With Wainwright and Lynn as locks, the acquisition of Lackey making him a near-sure thing, and the Wacha comeback in full stride, Miller is going to be the man without a seat when the music stops…again. And really, considering his up and down performance this season, that just makes sense. There’s still a chance one of the four guys will break down between now and October 1st, but that’s looking less and less likely with every start. But…there is good news for Miller…
This season will most definitely NOT be like last season in the pen for Shelby. With a shaky pen heading into the postseason (last year’s arms were dominant fireballers), Miller could very well be the most effective arm for Mike Matheny. Rosie is the clear closer, Martinez and Neshek seem slated for 7th and 8th inning work, and Choate/Freeman/Siegrist will hold the left side…but no one is emerging for innings five through seven before the game gets to those hurlers. Matheny seems to want Jason Motte to be that guy, but putting Motte on the mound in October with a 93 mph fastball is like throwing meat to the wolves.
Shelby is likely going to be that guy. Long relief, starter protection, and fifth through seventh inning work when needed. That’s his role. And considering the fatigue of Wainwright, the possible fatigue of a Lance Lynn without his typical August/September “break” from the rotation, Wacha’s lack of use in 2014, and Lackey’s occasional uncertainty…Miller could get more than enough opportunities to pitch in playoff games. Think of him as the Joe Kelly of playoffs past.
19. Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal may be gut-wrenching to watch, but he seems to be sharpening up lately and ready to avoid the late-season closer potholes of those before him (see: Izzy, Mujica, etc.). He’s Matheny’s closer…with a short leash in October.
20. Carlos Martinez. The return of Yadier Molina seems to have righted the ship for Martinez…that, and the return to a familiar late-season role. Mike appears ready to slot Carlos into the fireman role out of the pen, ready to come in and get an out with runners on and the game on the line around the 7th and 8th innings.
21. Seth Maness. Maness has really matured and developed as a pitcher this season. Originally a starter in the Cardinals’ system, Maness earned a spot on the big league roster due to his uncanny ability to induce ground balls in double play situations. Now that he’s returned to form, he’s being used in much more high-leverage situations regardless of whether or not it’s a DP situation. He’s a complete pitcher that Matheny likes to deploy “as needed.” That could make him the fifth through sixth inning option, but Miller’s fastball and stamina will likely win out there, freeing Maness to be that floater in the pen, able to fill multiple roles but not bound by any of them.
22. Pat Neshek. Neshek is showing some signs of heavy use recently. Just eyeballing it, it seems that his fly ball rate is up, his contact rate is up, and his overall efficiency is down. The Cardinals would be wise to give him a break as the opportunity presents itself between now and October and see if a little rest can return him to dominance. But even if not, his different-look motion and ability to stifle right-handed hitters makes him a valuable piece in October.
23. Randy Choate. The old man in the pen doesn’t see many hitters these days, but come October, his leadership and ability to shut down left-handed hitting will be significant. If he’s wise, Matheny will look for ways to use him more in exactly that role between now and October. Otherwise, he runs the risk of deploying a rusty Choate in a key postseason at-bat.
24. Sam Freeman. Freeman has shown his value over the last few months. No longer seen as a lefty specialist, his pitches seem more than capable of dispensing with RH hitters as well. He’s going to be an effective pitcher in LH-RH-LH hitter lineup situations late in games.
25. Kevin Siegrist. The last man on, Kevin Siegrist, is not the pitcher he was last season, largely due to his diminished fastball velocity. Despite Matheny’s attempt to do so, he should no longer be trusted against right-handed hitters. But, he still holds value as a lefty specialist. As long as Sam Freeman is capable of getting both RH and LH hitters out, the Cardinals can afford to carry two additional lefty specialists.
– Jason Motte was a tough exclusion, if only because of what he’s done in postseasons past. But the fact is, without his 97-99 fastball, Motte’s other pitches have never measured up. If Mozeliak can’t go toe-to-toe with Mike Matheny and keep Jason Motte off the postseason roster, the Cardinals are in for a rough ride every time he takes the mound (see: Edward Mujica). The best thing for Motte and the Cardinals would be to let Jason shut it down after September and begin looking towards building arm strength for 2015.
– Justin Masterson hasn’t shown anything to suggest he can be more valuable than any of the other options out of the pen. Trade acquisition or not, the Cardinals can’t afford to take a reclamation project into the postseason. Best to write him off and move on after September.
– Mark Ellis is a tough exclusion, but if the Redbirds are serious about taking the best roster into October, they have nothing to suggest that even a healthy 2014 Mark Ellis can provide anything of value on the field. In the clubhouse…maybe…but the Cardinals chemistry has developed without his contributions. Why mess with that now for no real tangible, on-field return?
– Xavier Scruggs has the ability to push a pitcher off the roster and make himself a valuable RH pinch-hitting option between now and October. But he has to show more than he showed last night in Milwaukee. If he can make a strong case for his own roster spot by making contact with significant power, he could be a valuable piece off the bench late in the game. If not, he’s just first base backup if Adams gets injured…and that can be addressed if/when Adams goes on the DL (Scruggs could be added as an injury replacement). Of course, if Adams oblique injury doesn’t improve significantly, Scruggs could have value as a part-time player in postseason games without having to completely sacrifice Adams off the roster. Also, if the Redbirds somehow collapse and find themselves in the Wild Card game, Scruggs could make the roster in place of a pitcher just to add pinch-hitting depth in a game that won’t require so many relief pitchers on the roster.