There is a competition brewing for the last spot on the St. Louis Cardinals bench. Who is competing for it and who will win the job?
The bench for the St. Louis Cardinals is one of the only places on this roster where a true competition exists. First, the backup catcher competition was blown wide open when the team signed Matt Wieters, paving the way for competition between him and Francisco Pena. While I am a huge fan of having Wieters backup a 36-year-old Yadier Molina, that is not the competition I want to focus on.
The competition I am more interested in is between the young guns, Yairo Munoz and Drew Robinson. Both options are seemingly viable if you look at the surface level production, but if you dig in a little deeper into what the team actually needs from their last bench spot as well as what each player brings, the more viable candidate appears.
Some have argued that the Cardinals should’ve filled the last bench spot with one of the free agent bench bats that were available, but I believe their best opportunity is to give the two players who are currently getting a look the opportunity to be a cheap option to serve a relatively low impact role. Without more exposition to do, let’s break down both options.
Recency bias immediately gives Yairo Munoz the upper hand in the fight for the last bench spot. Last year, Munoz lit the world on fire during Spring Training after being acquired in the Stephen Piscotty trade. While Munoz’s hot Spring performance didn’t carry over to the regular season resulting in him being sent down for some time, Munoz had more of an opportunity in round 2 of the MLB when Paul Dejong went down with a wrist injury.
When Munoz was given regular time, he showed much more of the player he could be with the bat. Over 108 games last season, Munoz batted .276 with a .350 OBP slugging 8 homers. As has been written before here and at other sites, Munoz is more or less a carbon copy of Jedd Gyorko and extended out over a full season, that’s what you get from Gyorko most of the time.
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Like Gyorko, Munoz can play almost every infield position. Swap Gyorko’s first base ability for some outfield skill and arm strength and you get Yairo Munoz. Unfortunately for Munoz, his defense was a real weak point in 2018. Playing all over the field, Munoz committed 18 total errors and wasn’t much more than an average defender at any position.
I would definitely attribute a fair share of these errors as rookie jitters. Munoz frequently rushed throws and didn’t ever really look settled in comfortably on the defensive side of the ball; but still, that poor of glove work is nothing you wanna see. That being said, the Cardinals don’t necessarily need a glove man to come off the bench.
What the Cardinals need is a bat with some pop that can fill in a couple of times a week and come in late as a defensive replacement. For a bench bat, only a little bit of defensive improvement would be needed in Munoz’s sophomore season.
While fans mostly know Yairo Munoz, Drew Robinson is the exact opposite. Robinson was acquired from the Texas Rangers for third baseman, Patrick Wisdom. The left-handed-swinging Robinson is entering his third year in the MLB and honestly was pretty bad last year in limited time. Over 100 AB’s, Robinson batted just .183 with an anemic .582 OPS and a -0.5 WAR.
In the field is where Robinson gets at least a little more intriguing. With Texas, Robinson was primarily an outfielder, but also spent some time playing every infield position but first base, just like Munoz. While playing a whole lot less than Munoz last year, Robinson performed about the same as Munoz in the field, both in DRS and errors.
So far this breakdown has not painted a pretty picture for Robinson, but getting plenty of opportunities this Spring, he has performed better than last year’s numbers thus far over a tiny sample size. For reasons I will dig into next, the best feature of Robinson is which side of the plate he bats from.
So far, the easy answer for who to fill the last spot on the bench is Munoz. The only reason why there is even a conversation here is because of what the Cardinals have stated they still need for their bench, and how they presented the Wisdom trade.
At the beginning of the offseason, one of the main things the Cardinals stated they needed was a left-handed bat to come off the bench. When they acquired Robinson, they sort of implied that he would be given a very strong look at filling that role, which is about the only thing that puts me in Robinson’s corner.
If that reason sounds stupid, it’s because it is. The Cardinals frequently seem to carry players on the Major League roster out of Spring Training simply because of what they said in the offseason. For this reason, I could easily see them taking Robinson over Munoz to opening day, regardless of the performance of both simply because he bats left-handed.
The good thing is that they can swap Robinson and Munoz as they both have options, but for a guy like Munoz who has proven that he is still working on the mental game, starting the year in the minors even after outperforming his replacement could have effects on his game. The other thing that makes me think the Cardinals will lean towards Robinson is the fact that both Munoz and Gyorko are such similar players.
Depending on how many bullpen arms the team decides to keep, this conversation could all be moot. If Shildt only wants a seven-man bullpen, then that leaves the conversation open. My verdict is that Munoz should be the one to start and stay with the team until either Munoz falters or Robinson is tearing up AAA.
The way that the Cardinals decide to structure their roster coming out of Spring Training is frequently a point of contention that writers and fans argue and fight over and I’m sure this year will be no different. The good thing about Munoz and Robinson is that while their batting handedness and skill may be different, there is just about no difference in versatility and skill defensively. Everything always can and will be swapped around by season’s end regardless.