Cardinals prized prospect Walker makes opening day roster. How will that affect the team?
Not many puzzle assemblies end in happy tears and jubilant phone calls to someone’s nearest and dearest, but the assembly of an opening day roster at the conclusion of spring training is among the strangest puzzles of all.
An announcement late Saturday from the Cardinals demonstrated the way in which they’ve made their pieces fit and carried with it the possibilities of a future not seen in St. Louis in, arguably, decades.
Top prospect Jordan Walker made the Cardinals out of camp, bypassing Triple-A entirely on the strength of early spring slugging and bypassing any concerns around his recent cool down. Veteran utility infielder Taylor Motter is also on the club, and lefty Packy Naughton rounds out the competition for a second lefty spot in the bullpen alongside Zack Thompson.
Walker, who doesn’t turn 21 until May 22, was the club’s first round draft pick in 2020 and is arguably their most exciting prospect since Albert Pujols. When he makes his first start (almost certainly on opening day) he’ll be the youngest Cardinals position player in a starting lineup since David Green on Oct. 4, 1981.
According to research by MLB.com’s Sarah Langs, he would be the team’s youngest position player to start on opening day since shortstop Howard Freigau in 1923.
Finding a place on the roster for Walker means Juan Yepez — who blasted a dramatic, pinch-hit homer in the first game of last year’s Wild Card series — was optioned to Memphis, where he has very little remaining to prove. Motter slots in as a backup infielder in place of Paul DeJong, who will start the season on the injured list as he recovers from lower back stiffness.
Reliever Wilking Rodríguez (shoulder) and starter Adam Wainwright (adductor) were previously announced as set for the IL at season’s open.
The additions of Motter and Walker seemingly impacted the bullpen decision as well, given that both required an addition to the 40-man roster. Motter was selected there Saturday, filling the spot which opened when reliever Freddy Pacheco was taken off waivers by Detroit. Walker’s addition will come officially on opening day, at which point a corresponding move will be announced.
Backup infielder José Fermín, acquired for cash this winter, slowed by a hamstring injury in spring and seemingly passed on the depth chart by Motter, would seem a logical player whose roster spot would be at risk. Injury severity for either Rodríguez or Wainwright could also be a determining factor; neither has had a timeline announced by the club, save for Wainwright missing “several weeks,” and their IL placement could be backdated as far as last Monday.
Andrew Suárez, a lefty with big league experience, signed a minor league deal just before the start of camp in his bid to return to the majors from a year each in Korea and Japan. He was unscored upon in nine spring innings with eight strikeouts and only two walks, but given his need for a 40-man spot, seemingly faced uphill terrain in his roster battle.
More about Walker
Naughton made the playoff roster last fall ahead of Génesis Cabrera and JoJo Romero, both of whom were sent to Memphis alongside Yepez. It comes as little surprise that the club would choose him over them when given a second opportunity to do so, especially given the measurable improvements made to his slider this winter and the long absences from camp both Cabrera and Romero had while competing in the World Baseball Classic.
The headline, though, is Walker. Moved to the outfield immediately following the MLB trade deadline last August, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound slugger who can’t yet buy a postgame beer burst onto the scene this spring with eye-catching exit velocities and undeniable light tower power.
A hard, head-first slide into second base with two weeks to go resulted in a minor injury scare and has coincided with a drop off in his counting numbers, but the Cardinals remain steadfastly convinced he offers the sort of hit tool which can’t be kept down. And, in his favor, should he win Rookie of the Year honors, the team would be awarded a supplemental high draft pick thanks to MLB’s new roster rules designed to discourage service time manipulation.
What calms many of their concerns is likely the pattern followed by Walker throughout his rapid climb through the minors as well as in his work this spring. Anyone who spent time on Jupiter back fields in mid-February has countless video clips of Walker working against big league pitchers in live batting practice and being fooled, looking overmatched.
Adjustments to contract
Then, a week or so into camp, the adjustments came. The contact followed. When game action opened, the ball exploded from his bat. The tools, which are undeniable, were adjusted, and he displayed the capability to handle the mental game which accompanies fending off big league pitchers.
That process is ongoing now as he muddles through early count breaking balls and fastballs which have locked him up, frozen his decision making at the plate. Still, to watch him in real time, you can see the recognition and frustration mounting in tandem. The turn is coming; the adjustment is inevitable.
When it arrives, and when fans in St. Louis hear the rare depth of the sound which accompanies the ball off his bat, this roster decision will seem like a mere formality. The next generation of the Cardinals offense spent spring banging loudly on the door, and they did not hesitate to find a way to let him in.