COMMENTARY | With less than three weeks to go in spring training the Cardinals have settled their roster with the exception of two positions -- one in the bullpen and one on the bench.
But that doesn't mean there isn't still a spirited competition underway. At least 10 players are still in the mix for those two spots, including some of the franchise's brightest prospects.
Joe Kelly, who has no record and a 2.25 ERA in two spring starts, seems to have grabbed the fifth spot in the rotation, barring any sudden struggles. The Cardinals have signaled that Trevor Rosenthal, one of three competitors for the last spot in the rotation along with Shelby Miller, will likely pitch out of the bullpen at the start of 2012. That leaves only one more spot for a reliever on the roster.
The battle for the bullpen:
Rosenthal, Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Randy Choate, Marc Rzepczynski and Edward Mujica will take up six spots in a seven-man bullpen. The contestants for the remaining spots are top pitching prospect Miller, second year pro Michael Wacha, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, Maikel Cleto and Victor Marte.
Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha are long shot candidates less because of the way they have performed and more because of the team's desire to handle the potential future stars with care. Miller has a high 5.40 ERA in a small sample size of five innings of work. But he's held opposing hitters to a .200 batting average with one walk allowed against four strikeouts. Wacha has been the star of the pitching staff this spring. He's third on the Cardinals stat sheet with 9 2/3 innings pitched so far. He's allowed six hits and a walk while striking out a team high 13 opposing batters.
Miller had a terrible first half at Class AAA Memphis last season before getting himself straightened out in the last weeks of the minor league season. He got a taste of the big leagues in September and performed well. But it seems, with how sparingly he's being used in the spring, that the Cardinals would like him to go back to Memphis and earn his way to St. Louis instead of allowing him to collect dust in the bullpen. Wacha rocketed from rookie league to Class AA Springfield last year after being taken in the first round of the big league draft in June. The Cardinals seem to be trying to get Wacha as much major-league exposure as they can before the team breaks camp. It would be a shock to see a player with 21 minor league innings to his credit and who has been a starter throughout his college career be converted into a bullpenner. If Cardinals intend for Wacha to ultimately be a starter, it would be more likely to see him sent to Springfield or Memphis to take a regular turn in the rotation.
That leaves four players with more experience in competition, three of whom have spent times in the major leagues as a closer. Cleto, the only remaining candidate without ninth-inning time in the majors on his resume, has been afforded only 3 2/3 innings of work in which he's compiled a 2.40 ERA with two walks allowed and three strikeouts. Former Royals closer Marte had a leg up on Cleto with a larger role in St. Louis last season. But in 4 1/3 innings, he's been bombed for seven hits and a 6.23 ERA while he's walked one and struck out three.
Salas has had only three innings of work. But in that time he's held opposing batters to a .100 average with two strikeouts and no walks. He was inconsistent last season in the big leagues after doing an admirable job as makeshift closer in 2011 when Ryan Franklin faltered and then retired in the middle of the season. He struggled through problems with kidney stones last season, so the Cardinals are hopeful he'll be back to his rookie form if he's healthy.
Sanchez, an extreme long shot when camp opened, also saw time as a closer in 2011. He has been intriguing with eight strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings pitched -- and he's certainly getting the greatest opportunity to prove himself. He's allowed four hits and two walks, both of them -- as well as two of the three runs he's allowed -- came Sunday. Throw out that one bad game and he's been dominant. The Cardinals must be impressed with how well he has controlled his wildly breaking pitches.
If the season started today, it would be hard for the Redbirds to take anyone besides Sanchez north based on Grapefruit League performance and long term roster needs. He's pitched the best of the more experienced candidates and it would make more sense to let Miller and Wacha pitch in the high minors as starters while waiting for an inevitable injury.
The battle for the bench:
If both Pete Kozma and Ronny Cedeno make the big league roster -- and the loss of starting shortstop Rafael Furcal seems to guarantee that they will -- the last of five bench spots will almost assuredly go to an outfielder capable of playing center field.
The popular choice would be to award the job to top prospect Oscar Taveras who can play center, although he's probably going to eventually end up in right field.
Taveras is hitting a respectable .286 with two homers and nine runs batted in this spring. He's improved greatly in his outfield play and he could perform in the major leagues April 1 if necessary. The thing is, he doesn't have to be pressed into service now. In fact, the Cardinals would be wise to keep him in Class AAA Memphis until at least May to buy another year of major league service time before the potential superstar can become a free agent.
If the Redbirds resist the temptation to bring Taveras north, that leaves a three-way battle for at least a month of service as the big league fourth outfielder. The contestants are Shane Robinson, Adron Chambers and Jason Christian.
Christian, a former big leaguer with the Giants, is batting only .214 in 28 spring training at-bats. He's got no homers and two runs batted in. Brought in to be a more experienced fourth outfielder option, Christian has been out-played, up to this point, by the guys he was expected to beat out.
Chambers, who has been called up in September the last two seasons, has been unable to crack the roster during the regular season. He's batting .286 with a homer and six RBIs this spring. But the guy who has really made the most of his chances in Grapefruit League play is Robinson.
A .242 hitter in parts of three major league seasons, Robinson is batting a ridiculous .500 this spring with three homers an 11 runs batted in. He holds the inside track for the 25th spot on the roster because of his hot hand. But Robinson's time in the majors could be short if Taveras hits like he's expected to in Memphis.
While the external factors dictate that Taveras should be farmed out, it is in the Cardinals' best interests to bring him up to the majors by mid 2013 to get him used to big league pitching and to make sure he's ready to take over right field on a full time basis in 2014.
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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