We have made our 30-man roster prediction, but when really digging into how the St. Louis Cardinals should best utilize the 5-man bench and taxi squad, what should that look like?
The St. Louis Cardinals will begin the 2020 season in less than five days in what will likely be the weirdest season any living fan has ever gotten to witness. With just 60 games on the schedule, things will no doubt have to be run differently from a managerial perspective, but it also adds some opportunities to be creative.
With 30-man rosters available for the first two weeks of the season, teams are going to be utilizing a lot more pitchers than normal, but an expanded roster isn’t the only wrinkle that will allow teams to gain an advantage over any normal year. This year, there will be a three-man taxi squad that travels with the team.
This taxi squad will be made up of at least one catcher, and then two other players who are not on the 30-man roster. For these players, they do not accrue service time and only travel with the team on road trips to serve as quick reinforcements should someone not be able to play.
These taxi squad players will be able to practice with the team on the road, giving a chance to get players to experience being around the regulars without sacrificing service time. When the team plays at home, the catcher on the taxi squad can serve as the bullpen catcher, or he can join the other two in returning to the satellite camp, or AA Springfield, in this case.
So, with this taxi squad and expanded rosters along with the inclusion of the DH, how can the Cardinals make the best of it?
This honestly doesn’t deserve its own headline, but the Cardinals are pretty much locked in to holding 16 pitchers. With starters beginning to hit that five-inning mark, there is no need for any more than 11 bullpen guys. As crazy as it sounds, that’s what the team will look like on opening day.
Even with the 11-man bullpen, it’s going to be smart to hold another pitcher on the taxi squad just in case. Using more than one of the taxi squad spots for a pitcher seems overkill, so I would think a pitcher like Jake Woodford, Genesis Cabrera, or Johan Oviedo will be on the taxi squad if they don’t make the active roster.
Onto the bench
The Cardinals’ starting lineup is more or less set at this point. As much as fans may despise it, Dylan Carlson won’t be in left field to start the year, it’ll be Tyler O’Neill. At third base, there will likely be Tommy Edman with Matt Carpenter serving as the designated hitter. That isn’t the fun stuff.
The fun stuff comes when you try to decipher what John Mozeliak means when he speaks publicly, specifically when it comes down to how these last two taxi spots are going to go and how the bench looks.
In the first broadcasted intrasquad game, Mo said that it was an easy choice to have three catchers on the roster and also made it pretty clear Dylan Carlson wouldn’t be starting. What I miscalculated was that this comment didn’t mean the Cardinals would use three catchers on the 30-man. It makes so much more sense to use that third catcher as a taxi squad member.
That catcher would likely be Andrew Knizner, and with him on the taxi squad, the bench can start to take shape.
Starting with Lane Thomas, the Cardinals have made it clear they are going to give him and O’Neill some looks in left field. Beyond that, the second catcher, Matt Wieters, is an easy addition. Brad Miller, the lefty Jedd Gyorko, will have his spot, then back up first baseman Rangel Ravelo will get the fourth spot.
With these first four, the Cardinals have a backup catcher, a backup outfielder, and two corner infielders. So naturally, the last spot should go to a guy up the middle like Edmundo Sosa, right? Not so fast. Sosa isn’t a good choice for a couple of reasons. First, you can’t forget about Tommy Edman. Any game that either Paul DeJong or Kolten Wong needs off, Edman could slide in there. Also, you have to remember that both DeJong and Wong don’t take that many days off.
While a lack of rest may have been a detriment to DeJong’s performance at the end of 2019, we could easily see DeJong and Wong play in 55+ of the 60 games, barring sickness and injury. The DH allows for more flexibility to DH an outfielder instead of Carpenter to let Edman and Carpenter both take an infield spot. The bench can be a spot where more power-hitting pinch hitters can hide.
Enter Austin Dean
Many people are sleeping on Austin Dean. Dean was acquired from the Marlins in January for minor league outfielder Diowill Burgos, just after the team traded away Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena.
Many people disliked the trade at the time because the 26-year-old batted just .225 with the Marlins in 2019, but for those of you who loved Randy Arozarena for his AAA performance, Dean is another guy to like.
In 73 games at AAA in 2019, Dean hit a slash line of .337/.401/.635 with 18 homers and a 146 wRC+. Randy A had a wRC+ of 151 in 64 AAA games for reference.
2019 was Dean’s second year of getting a taste at the MLB level, with both years going poorly, but he’s already on the 40-man roster and to this point, Dean has impressed in left field.
For a lineup that is starved for offense, Dean is a clear choice for that final bench spot and a guy that could even push for the starting job.
If Dean were to take that final bench spot, it would be a good move for the Cardinals to put Carlson on the taxi squad to keep him working out around the great leaders at the MLB level, but it could also make sense to put Sosa in that role.
Justin Williams has also made a push during Summer Camp for some roster consideration, but I’m not personally sold on him.
With a bench of Wieters, Miller, Thomas, Ravelo, and Dean, the Cardinals could have ample replacements as well as a few dangerous batters to pull from for pinch-hitting situations.
The DH will make things different as pinch hitters won’t be used as much, but throwing Dean into the left field competition and giving him some playing time could work out.
If there’s one guy to turn into the Jeremy Hazelbaker of 2020, it would be Dean.
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Carlson will get his chance eventually this year, it just won’t be at first. By waiting just six days, the Cardinals can not only get another full year of Carlson, but also get to see what they have in Thomas, O’Neill, and Dean. That is the clear path of least resistance.