We’ve heard St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny preach versatility this spring and for good reason. While it never hurts to have plenty of options on the MLB roster or within the system when a quick call-up is needed, it is much more important for a team like the Cardinals who have several players who have a hard time staying on the field. Some of the issues can be attributed to dumb luck, but most are centered on players with long histories of battling injuries. It is going to cause Matheny headaches at some point this season. It is inevitable.
As I mentioned, Matheny is doing his best to have plans in place should problems arise. He has some things going in his favor. One, he has plenty of depth everywhere. I’m speaking of players who are better than simple fill-ins, but legitimate players who can be productive in the place of the team’s regular starter. What’s better about his replacements is their age. He is not subjected to carrying a bunch of old veterans who could just as easily suffer an injury when filling in.
Matheny is conducting a competition at second base this spring between three players. One will get the starting job with no assurance that it will be theirs for the entire season. The two players who lose out will more than most likely remain with the big club as bench players. If Tyler Greene fails to win the job he can play either shortstop in place of an injury prone Rafael Furcal, or whoever does win the second base job. If Daniel Descalso loses the second base job, he can cover third base as he did for David Freese last season, or obviously second and has played some shortstop as well. Freese while young has never played in more than 97 games as a major-leaguer, so it is nice to have the insurance on the MLB roster. If Skip Schumaker fails to secure the second base job, he is a competent enough to roam the outfield and of course second base.
Matheny has also decided to give some of the players who will begin the year at AAA Memphis opportunities to see time at alternate positions during their stay in the major league camp. Matt Carpenter and Mark Hamilton are slated to receive game time action at new positions. Carpenter, a third baseman, was in today’s lineup in right field. Hamilton, a first baseman will also see some time in the outfield during the spring.
I’ve mentioned Furcal and Freese already, but there are a few other issues on the team. The biggest is Carlos Beltran. Beltran has had a multitude of injuries over the last few seasons. Last year he was able to play in 140 games, the most since 2008. Beltran was kept off the bus to Port St. Lucie today as the Cardinals are going to try to keep him as fresh as possible. Don’t expect to see Beltran making many road trips in the spring. Besides M. Carpenter and Hamilton, the Cardinals will get Allen Craig back sometime at the end of April or early May. He’ll be available to play Beltran’s corner spot, or fill in at first base if needed.
Speaking of first base, another player to keep an eye on is Lance Berkman. Berkman, the 2011 NL Comeback Player of the Year, is no spring chicken. His 2010 season was played under the stress of injuries and his production suffered for it. Berkman has yet to put on the cleats for a game this spring after being held back today from the trip due to “minor soreness in his side” according to a tweet from St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter Joe Strauss. The Cardinals have a major league ready bat at AAA, in Matt Adams. Adams hit 32 home runs and drove in 101 in 115 games last season. He is a big boy, listed at 6’3″ 230 lbs, without much movement. He launched a grand slam in today’s game against the Mets. He is seemingly blocked by Craig as a potential replacement for Berkman.
Matheny has taken it slowly this spring with his top two pitchers, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. Carpenter is coming off a 270 inning workload in 2011 and Wainwright is returning from Tommy John surgery. Neither player has had a setback to this point, but the chances of something happening to them is certainly better than not, so why push them now? Carpenter, who turns 37 at the end of April, is a former Tommy John surgery alumnus as well. Anyone coming back directly from the surgery like Wainwright is subject to issues. The precautions are wise and justified because behind them are some question marks as well.
The Cardinals have Shelby Miller, the 21 year prospect in the background, but we’re not certain if he is ready for the big leagues yet. His talent is undeniable and he will get the start in tomorrow’s Grapefruit League game. The chances that Miller gets the initial nod if a starter is needed is small however, at least if it is required early on in the season, as he has not pitched at a level higher than AA. The organization would likely desire he pitch the entire season at Memphis. The first choice within the organization may go to Brandon Dickson, who was knocked around yesterday in his appearance against the Miami Marlins. The Cardinals can get by with spot starts from Dickson, but long term I’m not sure he is a viable answer.
The Cards have Kyle McClellan who can convert to a starter and Lance Lynn who projects as a starter, but for some reason Matheny has decided he will not stretch them out during the spring. They are being used exclusively as relievers in the spring, so it would take some time if they were required to make a start now. While I understand Matheny’s reasoning for giving the players a set role, I’m not sure he should have kept both of them as strict relievers. It would be nice if one of them could step in for a start if necessary on short notice.
None of this speaks to the numerous chances of an injury happening to any of the players on the roster. They happen and there is only so much that can be done to avoid them. Right now, Matheny is taking as many precautions as possible. Once the season begins he will have a deep enough bench to give days off to the older players or those who just don’t feel 100%. If a major injury arises the players who receive bench spots and those in AAA are ready and versatile enough to provide enough production to get by, and in some cases they may end up prospering. You’ll just have to hope there are not too many players being placed in uncomfortable positions at the same time. Versatility is nice, reliability is better.