Rafael Furcal's Elbow Sends Ripples Through the St. Louis Cardinals Roster

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal was supposed to make his debut in the field this weekend. But his sore throwing elbow still isn't well enough to allow him to play. Manager Mike Matheny acknowledged the setback is significant, saying he couldn't put a time table on the veteran infielder's return.

The news about Furcal will send ripples through the Cardinals' 25-man roster as the team suddenly will likely have to cobble together a committee to fill its most shallow defensive position. Here's a look at how three key battles for position may now shape up:

Shortstop:

Infielder Pete Kozma looked like he didn't have much of a chance to make the roster when the Cardinals arrived at camp simply because of the numbers game. But he's batting .385 with a homer, two doubles and four RBIs in 17 at-bats. The Redbirds are apparently giving Kozma a serious look because he's already played more this spring training than he has in his previous two camps, combined. Meanwhile, the guy who was signed as a free agent to be shortstop insurance, Ronny Cedeno, is batting .167 in 12 at-bats with three strikeouts. Unless things chance dramatically, it appears that Kozma is getting the jump on Cedeno. He's now got a decent chance to make the roster unless the Cardinals make a bold trade to permanently replace Furcal.

Ryan Jackson, who was called up to the big leagues last season when Furcal's elbow initially flared up, has a .167 batting average in 12 at-bats so far this spring. He seems destined to go to Class AAA Memphis and his future could lie more in being a utility player than a major league shortstop. Although he started at short last year and forced Kozma to second base, Jackson is listed on the 2013 St. Louis depth chart as a second baseman.

Verdict: There's still a long way to go before the season starts. But Kozma is certainly getting strong consideration as the starter at shortstop if Furcal can't play. And we have every reason to believe he's not going to be ready when six months of rest for his painful right elbow hasn't been enough to get it ready. Cedeno could make the team as a utility player. Or the Cardinals might opt to fill his spot with a bat, brining slugging first baseman Matt Adams north. He doesn't offer much defensive flexibility. But Adams has proved all he can at Class AAA and he's hitting .462 with power so far this spring.

Second base:

Daniel Descalso is the incumbent. He took over the starting job at second base late in 2012 when Matheny opted to go with a more consistent lineup instead of the revolving door policy he used earlier in the season. Descalso hit only .227 last year with four homers and 26 RBIs. But he showed a lot more offensive potential in the National League Championship Series with a .316 batting average, two homers and six runs knocked in. He'll have to hit more than that to win the starting second base job. But Furcal's injury might have taken away Descalso's opportunity to start at second no matter how well he plays.

Descalso has a lot more defensive flexibility that his primary competition at second, Matt Carpenter. if Cedeno doesn't make the team, Descalso will be used as a utility player, making a generous number of starts at shortstop and second while filling in for third baseman David Freese when needed. If Cedeno does make the club but doesn't hit, he'd likely be viewed more as a defensive replacement than a potential starter.

Carpenter showed a much more dynamic bat than Descalso in 2012. He hit .294 with six homers and 46 RBI last season, spending much of his time filling in at first base for oft-injured slugger Lance Berkman. The Cardinals let Berkman go as free agent as Allen Craig eventually settled into the position. That leaves the productive Carpenter without a position to play. More of an on-base percentage producer than a power man, Carpenter profiles as a middle infielder more than a corner one. So the Redbirds asked him to try to move over. He's hitting .385 with five walks so far this spring. He's looked comfortable at second base and could get a lot of playing time there if he is competent with the glove.

Kolten Wong is the rookie heir apparent at second base. But, based on his playing time and how he has been used so far this spring, it seems he's not getting much of a shot to make the opening day roster. His ticket seems punched to go to Class AAA Memphis for further development, which is the prudent thing to do.

Verdict: Carpenter seems like he's capable of moving into the second base picture. Descalso will probably find playing time there, but Furcal's injury makes him more valuable as a utility player. If Kozma makes the roster over Cedeno, Descalso will be likely be needed to play more shortstop than second.

Outfield:

The Cardinals are likely going to have only one spot on the bench available for a reserve outfielder, although Ty Wigginton, Carpenter and Craig can play the corners in a pinch. None of those guys -- nor starters Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran -- are capable of playing centerfield.

Former San Francisco outfielder Justin Christian is getting plenty of chances to earn the fourth outfielder job. He's batting .286 in 14 at-bats and he's right handed, which is a plus on a lefty heavy team. Shane Robinson, a surprise addition to the St. Louis roster after last spring, is hitting out of his mind so far this Grapefruit League season with a .533 batting average, a home and six RBIs. He's also walked three times. Adron Chambers, a September call-up each of the last two years who has been unable to crack the roster otherwise, is batting .235 with a homer and five RBIs.

All three players are getting about the same amount of playing time. But, truthfully, the one who ends up winning the three-way battle will likely be little more than a footnote to Cardinals history.

St. Louis' top prospect, slugging outfielder Oscar Taveras, is batting .318 with a homer and six RBIs this spring. It seems the only thing likely to keep him from making the opening day roster is the fact that the Redbirds can prevent Taveras from reaching free agency for an additional year if they send the 20-year-old outfielder to Class AAA Memphis for a month or so before his major league service time clock is started.

It's the wise thing to do, and not only from a player control standpoint. But also because it will allow the Cardinals to be sure they're not rushing the kid with too much pressure too soon. The move was good enough for American League Rookie of the Year Award winner Mike Trout. Why not for the St. Louis prospect?

Verdict: Either Christian or Robinson will likely get the job as the last man on the St. Louis roster. But, barring an injury, they'll soon be ticketed for Memphis when the Cardinals recall Taveras in May to play a generous amount of time in the outfield split between all three positions. While the Cardinals could use a Furcal's spot on the roster for another outfielder, I think that's unlikely because the guys available don't bring a lot to the plate offensively.

Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.

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