Then the injury bug bit – and it bit hard. First, Nick Punto may be out for as much as three months following groin surgery. He backs up oft-injured David Freese. Adam Wainwright's elbow injury means he will miss the entire season, followed by what are expected to be minor injuries to Chris Carpenter and Mitchell Boggs suffered on Tuesday. New outfielder Lance Berkman is dealing with calf and elbow soreness and the list goes on...
Though it may seem a stretch to some, coming in, La Russa had defined spring camp competition as two bullpen spots and one reserve infield position. I think he was stretching on the second relief spot, but the domino effect from Wainwright's injury and Kyle McClellan being moved to the rotation competition makes the manager seem prescient. On the infield side, certainly Punto's job is immediately open for a couple of months into the season, creating a second opening.
Here is my interpretation of the other 21 spots, seemingly locked in place unless more injuries strike.
While La Russa has not defined which players are on the bubble, I made my best assessment as reflected here.
In the table below, I do not list all potential candidates in camp, just those who I consider to have a fighting chance.
|Valdes (L NRI)|
For the two relief jobs, I see the leaders and the contenders. In the latter camp, there are those who were starters last season and those who have been (and may continue to be) relievers. Most of the group comes from the former category.
Starters may have an edge to compete with my early leader, Miguel Batista, for the long man role while the reliever heritage pitchers may be aligned to fight for the shorter McClellan-vacated spot.
Of all the pitching contenders, only P.J. Walters and Bryan Augenstein are already on the 40-man roster. While that would seem to give them a slight edge coming in, if one or both perform poorly this spring, it could turn one of them into the source of a roster spot potentially needed if one of the NRIs makes the team instead.
I forecast Fernando Salas in the early lead for the shorter role, but that is entirely based upon his rookie 2010 showing. Like all the others, he will need to re-prove himself this month. Salas could also be bumped out if McClellan's bid for the rotation falls short and he returns to the pen.
Lefty Raul Valdes is really the only one of the seven pitching contenders with a substantial body of work in relief, but that alone is far from a guarantee of anything. The other true relievers are youngsters like Eduardo Sanchez and Adam Reifer, not listed here because they are likely not yet considered ready to make the jump to the majors.
In reality, just about any of these pitchers could handle any role and would surely be glad to take it if it meant a coveted 25-man roster spot and a trip north.
Remember that with 40-man roster spots being tight, any ties may go to those already on the roster. In other words, a youngster like Lance Lynn is going to need to literally force his way onto the 25-man (and 40-man) with a performance so strong that the coaches would be left with no other comparable choice.
The first NRI addition can take Wainwright's roster spot, but without another serious injury (or a trade or release), the addition of a second NRI to start the season would require someone to be dropped. I covered those possibilities in detail in my earlier article, "Making Room for the Cards NRIs: Outrighting".
In the reserve infielder derby, one has to think that Tyler Greene has a job to lose and can fend off the other candidates. La Russa's disclosure at Winter Warm-Up that he will use Greene in centerfield as a right-handed alternative to Colby Rasmus indicates to me who came into camp as the leader for this job. Another benefit for Greene is that other than the injured Punto, he is the only reserve candidate whose primary position is shortstop. If Greene makes it, it would be his first opening day roster.
Daniel Descalso was thrown into the third base fire last September despite having played only second base in recent seasons and did a credible job. While Descalso lacks shortstop experience, Greene would seem to have that bench need covered.
Veteran non-roster invitee Ramon Vazquez has past experience at second, third and short, but did not play in the majors last season. Like Descalso, Vazquez hits from the left side, a potentially useful late-game option off the bench. Vazquez' big question may be his bat, however. In 2009 with the Pirates, Vazquez' OPS was just .614. He is 34 years old.
I give the slight early nod to Descalso because he has a bit of a track record with Tony La Russa and is already on the 40-man roster, but this race could easily change if Vazquez impresses and Descalso does not. Either would seem destined to head to Memphis when Punto recovers, but that could be as much as two months into the regular season.
As camp progresses, I will revisit these projections on an as-needed basis.
Earlier related articles:
"Cardinals Veteran NRI Spring History: 2005-10"
"Handicapping the 2011 Cards NRIs: Veterans"
"Handicapping the 2011 Cards NRIs: Prospects"
"Making Room for the Cards NRIs: Outrighting"
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Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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