The St. Louis Cardinals are built for the long term. General manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny have assembled a group made for the grind of 162 games. The regular position players are a mix of young and old, the rotation is much of the same mix and the bullpen is young and strong. That leaves an equally important piece of this team, the bench, which is hungry.
The phrase, ‘The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games this year, if they stay healthy,’ has been uttered everywhere by just about every Redbirds fan. Health is the great equalizer sometimes. After ten games, they’ve been less than 100% healthy and yet have opened up a three game lead on their nearest competitors by winning seven of them. Why? In part it’s the balance of the lineup where no one player is required to carry them and the other is the production of the bench players when they start.
Health for the regulars is obviously key, but the Cards have a few weapons on the bench who will soon be fighting for time and this will only make them stronger when they fill in for the starters. The Cards’ bench is more than just a collection of spare parts. They have players who can hold or have held their own as regulars for differing periods of time. Two of the members of the bench, Skip Schumaker and Allen Craig, will be back within the next month, so long as they stay healthy. Sorry had to say it. When they return, two of the current bench players will have to say goodbye.
Matheny will have an interesting decision on his hands when he is forced to make it, but that is not the focus of this letter. Rather, I’d like to establish that Matheny has purposely and wisely set the culture of the position players as that of a large conglomerate with moving parts. He stressed versatility during the spring and with good reason. He knew he would either be utilizing his bench players more often because he would have to, or he would write them into the lineup because he wanted to rest a regular to keep him fresh. In the process, Matheny didn’t want to drag the team down. With this bench he is far from putting the team at a disadvantage by playing them.
We’ve seen both aspects of this already. There have been players purposely rested to give the bench players starts and there have been injuries to Lance Berkman and David Freese which have forced the issue. In each instance the team has not missed a beat. Shane Robinson took his one start on April 8th against the Milwaukee Brewers and went 3-for-5 with a homer and three RBI. Erik Komatsu entered Sunday’s game against the Cubs to replace Carlos Beltran after he was hit by a pitch and went 1-for-2 with a run and a RBI.
The biggest story has been Matt Carpenter, who has been able to log the most time and has been nothing short of spectacular. He’s hitting a team leading .409 with 1 HR and 10 RBI, which is tied for second on the team. The bat has been great and he’s also been flawless at first base.
With Schumaker and Craig soon due back the only certainty is that Carpenter will not be going anywhere. He has proven his versatility and his ability to play daily. Matheny will be searching on a regular basis for playing time for these three players. Each of them is capable of filling in for long or short periods and in various positions. Each of them wants to be a regular player. Each of them is willing to do anything to get on and stay on the field. Whoever is pushed out the door will be equally ready to work to get back to the big club.
There is not much space on a major league bench, and unfortunately the Cardinals cannot hold seven bench players. Matheny has a beautiful problem; hungry bench players trying to force their way into the lineup on a permanent basis. Matheny will have more injuries and will keep resting veterans throughout the season. When that happens, don’t expect the team to let off the gas. The bench allows for the machine to keep humming even when it is without its best parts because in most cases, we can’t tell there is a replacement in there at all.