Three tough questions the St. Louis Cardinals must face before they break camp
The excitement of the World Baseball Classic has pushed some of the doldrums of spring training into the background, but the calendar continues to march onward.
Just two weeks out from opening day, the St. Louis Cardinals have entered the phase of spring in which the questions around the team are becoming increasingly well-defined, and the answers to those questions will follow in short order.
With just over 20 additional cuts still to make and without any significant injury concerns to date, the Cardinals will find themselves having to make some difficult decisions – as well as some decisions that are easier than they may appear at first glance.
Who’s the backup catcher?
Andrew Knizner led Cardinals catchers in starts in 2022, and he entered spring in firm control of the backup job behind Willson Contreras. That a competition between Knizner and non-roster invitee Tres Barrera has developed may come as a surprise, but given the way the club telegraphed its winter, is really just more of the same messaging.
Knizner wasn’t ever seriously considered as an option to be the full-time starter despite the success he’s had in working with some of the team’s most important pitchers. His pairing with Miles Mikolas was strong enough that there was at least some consideration given to having Knizner start a playoff game last fall, and yet from day one of the offseason, the team’s decision makers were adamant that they needed to look outside the organization for catching help.
Barrera performed adequately as a backup for the Washington Nationals in 2021, but took a big step back last season. The team does like his ability to handle pitchers, and given that Knizner is already 28 years old and has only one year of team control after this season, they may see an opportunity to speed up an inevitable decision to move on.
One player whose role in this decision shouldn’t be overlooked – Pedro Pages, who was not protected from the Rule 5 draft last fall but also not selected, and who has shown himself to be more than adequate as a short term fill-in if necessary. Knizner could find himself squeezed out from both sides.
What’s the best way to handle DeJong?
With a new stride, a revamped swing, and fresh optimism for a fresh start, the Cardinals were eager to give Paul DeJong every opportunity to prove himself a reliable depth piece at multiple positions. To do that, though, would require game reps, and DeJong has struggled to stay on the field.
Slowed at first by arm soreness that was explained away as the consequence of overloading his offensive work, he’s now out of the lineup with lower back stiffness. He hasn’t appeared at a position other than shortstop in game action this spring, and on Thursday, Brendan Donovan got his first start in that spot since last season. As roster decisions develop, Donovan’s flexibility could give the Cardinals an opportunity to buy some time.
If DeJong’s stiff back is serious enough to hold him out through opening day, they’ll have effectively bought a full month to make a decision regarding his place on the team. Some time shut down, some time ramping up, and then a rehab assignment to Memphis could push a final call off to the middle of April. In choosing that path, the Cardinals would hope to have a more full picture of whether the changes DeJong made will allow him to reclaim his spot.
Will they take the plunge with Jordan Walker?
The spring’s biggest decision is likely to be one of the last they make, and it will be one that draws eyes and attention from all around the game. Jordan Walker’s first three weeks of game action have displayed, undeniably, a hitter who’s ready for the next level and who will make his team better. There’s room in the lineup and there are at bats to be had.
Whether he maintains that pace through the close of spring – and there’s no reason to believe he won’t – will help determine the resolution to that dilemma. The Cardinals have advertised an open competition and, in fact, have contrasted that competition to previous years in which they said a competition was open but knew that it really wasn’t.
There will be downstream effects to Walker making the team. Some teammates will lose out on playing time, and at least one would necessarily lose a roster spot. Still, the temptation to allow Walker to take the league by storm as of opening day will be strong, and it seems unlikely the Cardinals will be able to avoid it. The ball jumps off his bat. He looks more than ready to jump up two levels.
When the word comes down, fans will be able to safely stash their number 67 jerseys and t-shirts in the back of the closet. There’s an open 25 ready to be hung in the clubhouse; expect it to read “Walker” across the shoulders come opening day.