St. Louis Cardinals: Sleepers to watch in Spring Training

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 03: Greg Garcia
MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 03: Greg Garcia /

Barring a late addition to the St. Louis Cardinals’ camp, their opening day roster is set to have few surprises, if any. Who has the ability to shake things up with a strong showing in Spring Training?

When you’re a team who — ostensibly — is in the mix for a playoff spot, Spring Training games are typically not intended to be open competitions for starting roles. If the front office has done their job, only injury can open the door for an up-and-comer to usurp a presumptive favorite. Thus, the battles are often limited to those for the last spots on the bench and in the bullpen, and this year is no different for the St. Louis Cardinals.

However, every time we think we know who gets to ride in a red convertible, parade around with the clydesdales, and gladhand with Gibby and The Wizard, someone like Jeremy Hazelbaker comes along and sets Roger Dean Stadium on fire, stirring manager Mike Matheny from his own-personality-induced slumber and forcing him to take notice.

So, who has a chance to force their way onto this year’s club and make Mike all misty-eyed?

Let’s start with players currently on the 40-man roster. In short, these players all have an advantage because adding a “non-roster invitee” to the 40-man roster means removing someone else and potentially exposing them to be claimed by another team (see: Rowan Wick this past week). However, only 25 players get to make the opening day roster, so therein lies the competition.

With the starting rotation set and Alex Reyes most likely being held back until May 1st as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, the best way for someone to pitch their way onto the St. Louis Cardinals is through the wide open bullpen. The only locks are the guys with big contracts (Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil) and the guy with no options (Sam Tuivailala). This leaves 4-5 spots for the rest.

Matheny has a reputation for going with what he knows, meaning Tyler Lyons (no-brainer), Matthew Bowman, and John Brebbia have a leg up. Plus, the Cards traded Randal Grichuk for Dominic Leone, so the front office is going to give him every chance to succeed. That leaves 1-2 spots up for grabs, and since swingman Bud Norris received a major league contract, he’s a safe bet to fill one of those.

For that final bullpen spot, though, it might come down to role. With question marks in the rotation, you could argue that having more than one long-reliever/swingman is a good idea. Advantage: John Gant. However, with Tyler Lyons’ ability to get big outs and Brett Cecil expected to do the same, you might want a lefty specialist. Advantage: Ryan Sherriff.

The sleepers, though, are Austin Gomber, a lefty who is consistent, if not overpowering, and who possesses an excellent hook that has the potential to bedevil the Kyle Schwarbers of the world. There’s also the intriguing Conner Greene, a total long-shot, but a guy who possesses triple-digit ability can’t be ignored if he can find the strike zone. Greene is doubtful, but I’m sure heads will perk up when he takes the hill in Jupiter.

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As for the lineup, that’s also set, and the bench will certainly feature Jose Martinez and Carson Kelly. Yet, although it’s assumed that Greg Garcia is a shoe-in due to his ability to play shortstop, I’m not sure the Cardinals feel great about Garcia being their only left-handed option off the bench, especially when his SS defense isn’t all that good. That might open the door for a trade or a defensively superior utility infielder to make the team.

Without seeing Yairo Munoz, it’s tough to say what his chances are, but switch-hitting Breyvic Valera could unseat Garcia with a strong Spring Training. Valera hit well last year in Triple-A Memphis, and he has shown an ability to play all over the infield. Edmundo Sosa is still developing, and it’s tough to see Luke Voit making the team unless he absolutely mashes. Simply put, even if Voit learns left field he’s redundant with Martinez on the bench.

There’s one open outfield spot for which Harrison Bader is the favorite with Tyler O’Neill on his heels. I wouldn’t be surprised to see O’Neill slug his way onto the club if Bader struggles, but by all accounts the role is Bader’s to lose. The only other outfielder on the 40-man is Oscar Mercado, a well-rounded athlete who is probably further away than non-roster invitee Adolis Garcia, but his 40-man status can’t be ignored if the club is in a roster pinch.

Speaking of non-roster invitees, or NRIs, there’s one interesting outfielder who offers a unique skill set: pitching. Jordan Schafer attempted to make the club last year as a left-handed reliever/outfielder who boasts a strong arm and a set of wheels, but he faces an uphill battle because, frankly, he’s no Shohei Otani.

As for other NRI pitchers, you’ve probably heard a lot about a trio of young guns: Jordan Hicks, Ryan Helsley, and Dakota Hudson. The former two have the bigger arms, while Hudson possesses the most advanced secondary pitch with his wipeout slider. The Cardinal front office insists their lack of urgency in acquiring a closer is due to the promise of these young hurlers, but it would take a rapid ascension for any to make an immediate impact.

For NRI position players, there’s catcher Andrew Knizner, who would only make the team if Yadier Molina or Kelly got hurt, and the aforementioned A. Garcia and Randy Arozarena in the outfield. Out of the bunch, A. Garcia has the best chance of making the club outright based on maturity of skills, but again, that would require someone being removed from the 40-man by injury, trade, waivers, or designation for assignment.

Speaking of trades, the NRI infielders offer the most “sleeper intrigue” due to the presence of likely trade candidate, Patrick Wisdom. The third baseman can mash, but he’s right-handed, doesn’t get on base enough, and he’s 26. Alex Mejia and Wilfredo Tovar have slick gloves and the ability to play shortstop, but like G. Garcia they’re not much with the bat, and at least Greg is a lefty who can get on base.

Speaking of lefties who can get on base, we come to one of the deepest sleepers, second baseman Max Schrock. Acquired along with Munoz for Stephen Piscotty, Schrock has hit and put up a strong OBP at every level, but with a small stature and only decent speed, it seems his best bet to make a splash is to learn to play a passable short and third while adding more power to his game.

Next: Which starting pitcher is most important?

Without further ado, here are the “sleepers” I think have the best chance to make the opening day roster… Pitcher: Hudson or Gomber. Position Players: A. Garcia or Valera. Everybody else? Prove me wrong, kids! Prove. Me. Wrong!