St. Louis Cardinals: Three bench spots pose a quandary
By Larry Levin
With the starting lineup fairly well set barring trades, the St. Louis Cardinals have several ways to configure their bench. Beyond the sure-things in catcher Carson Kelly and 1B/OF Jose Martinez, which players will get the remaining three slots, and where do they fit position-wise?
The St. Louis Cardinals are in a pretty good spot, other than the acquisition of a closer by trade or free agency, which is anticipated and well analyzed by StL Today Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold. Certainly another corner bat would help, especially of the Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson ilk, but we don’t know if that will occur.
The everyday lineup seems set for now, with Yadier Molina, Jedd Gyorko, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler. This is a reasonably potent lineup and one that, along with a well regarded rotation, can produce effective results. With a closer to complement the deep bullpen, the playoffs are hardly a pipe dream.
But who occupies the backup spots for the team? We’ve already referenced Jose Martinez, who had a hellaciously good offensive year in 2017, and Carson Kelly, who will likely garner a bit more playing time as he continues his apprenticeship under Molina. These two have to be considered locks at this juncture.
Beyond that, though, the bench composition is a major question. With Martinez able to serve as a backup outfielder, albeit weak in defense, there are already four on board to patrol the offense before considering the remaining bench.
Given that the St. Louis Cardinals are predisposed to carry 12 pitchers at most times during any given season, we should assume for now there are only three more spots. To this point we haven’t identified anyone who can fill in at the middle infield or third base spots, so there must be at least one slot reserved for such a player.
That could be Greg Garcia, for instance. While showing very limited offensive skills, Garcia can cover the three non-first base positions reasonably well in a pinch. There’s young Yairo Munoz, acquired from Oakland in the Stephen Piscotty deal; the even younger Edmondo Sosa, only 21; and Breyvic Valera, a guy with likely little upside.
And we’ve seen at least two outfielders, Randal Grichuk and Harrison Bader, who merit consideration for a place on the 25-man roster. With Piscotty and Magneurius Sierra gone by trade, these two have the inside track unless dealt, with a slew of minor-league outfielders pushing them.
But if both Grich and Bader make the team, there’s really only one spot for a reserve utility infielder beyond Martinez. That in all likelihood rules out Luke Voit, who for all intents and purposes cannot handle anyplace beyond first base, and as a slugger appears a duplicate of the more versatile and advanced Martinez.
So how to decide? There are several lines of analysis. One says, take the best players. As of today, that would seem to support the two outfielder approach. The depth in the infield beyond Martinez is weak, to say the least, and going with two guys who can play 2B/SS/3B but are both pretty darn weakish on the offensive side, seems like an irrational decision if pure player quality is the issue.
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Another says, take the approach that gives the most versatility to manage games. This one’s tougher, if you think the St. Louis Cardinals have enough oomph offensively with Martinez, one other outfielder, and Kelly on the bench. The argument then goes: having both Martinez and either Grichuk or Bader is plenty both offensively and in juggling the outfield during games. Adding a second infielder could offer more multi-position options and thus a better mix and match opportunity in late innings.
One aspect of this argument is of course the ability of Matt Carpenter to play multiple positions. It’s not quite like having a true second utility infielder, but it’s partway there. And we know that Martinez and Gyorko can both fill in at first if need be.
A third analysis goes, assess what you can most bear to have a phone call away, at Memphis, rather than on the major-league roster itself. This one’s tricky, because it really depends how you assess the relative importance of the first two analyses above.
If you think having the best players in St. Louis is the optimum approach, then you’re happy leaving a second backup utility infielder in AAA, awaiting a call. If you prefer managerial versatility, you might go the other way.
For me, I think a big part of the consideration is the extent to which you believe the manager can take advantage of a flexible bench. And this is what probably tips the balance for me.
I simply have not seen enough of a shrewd in-game mind from Mike Matheny, despite his other qualities, to think that his game-management prowess can juggle the position-player puzzle in a way that overcomes having lesser talent on the roster.
Next: Grichuk avoids arbitration
So having gone through various analyses and considering the players available, I choose the bench of Martinez/Kelly/Grichuk/Bader/utility (three-position) infielder, whoever that might be. Trades or signings might impact this configuration, but right now it seems the best way to optimize the roster.