My long-standing love-hate relationship with the process of roster forecasting continues into a new spring.
I actually enjoy trying to predict at which levels players will be assigned coming out of training camps. What drives me crazy is when others communicate their choices as if roster size is not a factor, either at the major- or minor-league levels. After all, it would be easy to guess St. Louis’ roster, for example, if the team could carry 30 players instead of 25.
Making informed tradeoffs is the hardest part. In this annual pre-camp series, I will explain why I made the calls I did – and how they are impacted by and could affect other players.
Granted, it is early – very early. The final players are just trickling into camp this week. Plenty of things can happen over the next six weeks or so. The greatest impact may come from injuries, the effects of which can then domino through multiple rosters. If prior years are any indication, there could be two or three St. Louis disabled list assignments coming, as I recapped here. Spring trades, signings and releases may occur, as well.
In the roster-setting process that follows, I am not going to make any unnatural assumptions to potentially make the job easier. Yet the sheer numbers of players involved means some guys are bound to be left standing when the music stops. That will be much more the case as we work through the full-season minor league rosters, where as many as three-quarters of the players are projected to be returning to the same clubs with which they concluded 2014.
To accommodate and denote these logjams, I created a roster category at each level called “Limbo,” a place where I list those I expect to open the season on the disabled list or who may not appear to have an obvious 25-man roster spot.
I want to be very clear right up front that this is one man’s educated guesses – nothing more. The rosters with which the Cardinals will actually break camp are going to be different from what follows in this series. If predicting the future with 100 percent accuracy was actually possible, I would be in Las Vegas right now – or more likely, on my own tropical isle.
So as long as you accept this work for what it is and not try to make it into something it isn’t, it should at least provide fodder for intelligent discussion - which you can do with other fans on The Cardinal Nation message board.
In this first of five installments, we will begin with St. Louis. Articles two through five, exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation, will go through a similar process for each of the Cardinals’ four full-season minor league affiliates – Triple-A Memphis, Double-A Springfield, A-Advanced Palm Beach and Class-A Peoria.
St. Louis Cardinals projected 2015 opening day roster, as of 2/18/15
|St. Louis (25+2)|
|Lackey||Freeman (L)||T Cruz||Reynolds|
|Ja Garcia (L)||Siegrist (L)|
|(X+Y) = Active + Limbo|
|Limbo = DL/rehab/demote/release candidate|
|Bold = 40-man roster member|
|NRI = non-roster invitee to MLB camp|
|STEP = STEP Camp|
|* promotion from year-end 2014|
|(L) = Left-handed pitcher|
|NRIs to make the team||1||Villanueva|
|Promotions from Triple-A||0|
|Limbo/disabled list||2||J Garcia||Siegrist|
|Key 40-man players to AAA||5||Gonzales||G Garcia||Kelly||Anna||Pham|
As has been the case traditionally, I assume a five-man rotation, seven-man bullpen and 13 position players.
In terms of the names, there are not many surprises here. In fact, every single member of the Cardinals projected 25-man roster has prior MLB experience. We will take them by position group, starting at the upper left with the rotation.
Rotation: Marco to Memphis?
After being the underdog to Joe Kelly and outpitching him last spring only to be banished to the bullpen, Carlos Martinez is the one with the dominant position in this spring’s rotation competition with Marco Gonzales.
The main question is whether Gonzales will open the season in St. Louis’ pen or start in Memphis. Normally, I would expect the former, as Gonzales has demonstrated that he can handle the role and projects to have the greatest long-term value.
However, there are a number of complicating factors which will be made evident in this article. One of them is the bevy of other lefties in the bullpen competition, with three proven pitchers already competing for what appears to be two roster spots.
Well, there is one other big question with the rotation – Jaime Garcia. I know what you are thinking and I understand. For that reason, I list the veteran lefty in limbo.
If Garcia can prove his health, I could see him traded before being made a reliever. Instead, the Cards could be better served to buy time by sending Garcia on a minor league rehab assignment, keeping him ready for the first rotation opening.
Bullpen: Lefty Logjam
If Randy Choate is not going to be dealt away, as it now appears, and Sam Freeman pitches well, I think you could have your pair of left-handed relievers. The tickets of Tyler Lyons, John Gast, Nick Greenwood and Tim Cooney may as well be punched for Memphis right now.
If Kevin Siegrist returns to his prior success level, then one of the other two projected lefties (Choate and Freeman – more likely the latter) could be traded away. At this early date, Siegrist remains in limbo on this list until he proves he should not. If he is not right, but is close, he could open the season on St. Louis’ DL and pitch in a rehab stint or could just be optioned to Memphis as happened during last season.
Carrying a third left-hander seems unlikely unless one of the projected right-handed bullpen five runs into March trouble.
Newcomers Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle add right-handed veteran-ness, essentially taking the places of Pat Neshek and Jason Motte. If healthy, both should be among the Opening Day 25, joining returnees Seth Maness and Trevor Rosenthal.
Last spring, the lone non-roster invitee to make the club was Neshek. This year, the only non-40 man player I see in the mix is eight-year MLB veteran Carlos Villanueva. Assuming the right-hander makes the team as the long man, which I expect, that is one more reason to not keep Gonzales around. Not to belabor the point, but wherever Marco is, he needs to pitch.
Catching: A Constant
Nothing new to see here, folks. Yadier Molina will continue to be one of the best in the game, backed up again by Tony Cruz. The only real question is whether Molina will suffer another significant injury at some point during the season, requiring the Cardinals to scurry around to locate an every-day catcher, as Cruz is not it.
Infield: Koz and the Other Guys
On the infield, the only opening would seem to be at utility middle infielder, joining new corner man back up Mark Reynolds. Frankly, I don’t see the former as much of a competition.
For more than a few exceptional weeks at a time, Pete Kozma has never shined with the bat, but can play solid defense all over. Like Freeman, he has no minor league options remaining. That means Kozma could not be assigned to Memphis without potentially losing him through waivers and I don’t think the Cards will risk giving away either of them.
In other words, I think the job is Kozma’s to lose.
Some folks are quite excited about Dean Anna and Ty Kelly, recently acquired and added to the 40-man roster. I see the two primarily as injury insurance and potentially taking away at-bats from system-developed candidates - both in camp in March and at Triple-A once the season begins.
Keeping one of them (Anna, Kelly or Greg Garcia) along with Kozma would mean the club would have to break camp with just four outfielders. There are other downstream implications, as well. More on that is coming below and in the Memphis installment of this series.
Outfield: Where is Grichuk Better Off?
In a way, Randal Grichuk’s situation a bit like the Gonzales dilemma mentioned earlier. While Marco may be a better pitcher than all of the left-handed relievers in camp, the best thing for the team in the long haul and for his development may be for him to start in Memphis.
Same with Grichuk, but right now, my guess is that the Cardinals will make the opposite decision, keeping him on the big-league roster. One difference is that they have fewer good outfield alternatives than left-handed relievers currently.
It is not a slam-dunk call, however.
Barring injury, the top four outfielders are set. If Peter Bourjos is really healthy and can approach his prior levels of productivity, then he could earn more at-bats. Jon Jay should already see the lion’s share of the time in left and right on the rare occasions when one of the other starters need a day off.
What that also could mean is that the fifth outfielder would be in line to see about as much action as Tony Cruz.
Many who watched Grichuk’s all-or-nothing approach in the post-season came to recognize that he could benefit from more at-bats, especially against right-handed pitching. On the other hand, if the Cards want a lefty-masher off the bench who could start for Jason Heyward on occasion and are less concerned about developing him further, Grichuk is clearly the man for the job.
With Stephen Piscotty continuing to prepare in Memphis to be next in line in the outfield hierarchy, I think Grichuk could stay with the big club for now. As much as the Cardinals might be tempted to send him down, I just don’t see a better alternative – yet.
Is there an imbalance?
One major limitation to this proposed roster is the right-handedness of the bench. All five of these position player reserves bat from that side. (Note that keeping Pham over Grichuk would not change this.)
The overall roster is not nearly as imbalanced, however, since the starting eight is strongly skewed toward left-handed hitters. Among the projected starters, only Molina, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta bat from the right side, with Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, Heyward and Jay all lefty swingers. That overall population of 13 hitters, split eight and five righty-lefty, respectively, could give manager Mike Matheny enough balance – depending on how set his daily lineups become.
Some historical perspective may be enlightening. Only once in the last 17 years, going back to Tony La Russa’s third year as Cardinals manager in 1998, did the club open the season with even four left-handed hitters in the regular lineup, let alone five.
The 2002 Cardinals featured left-handed hitters Tino Martinez (first base), Fernando Vina (second base) and outfielders J.D. Drew and Jim Edmonds. The season-opening bench also had one lefty bat in outfielder Kerry Robinson. That club fared quite nicely during the regular season, winning the division with a 97-65 record.
In five other years in the last two decades, the left-handed hitting starter total was also four when including switch-hitting starters, but the five this season would be a new high.
Back to the here and now, let’s return to the switch-hitting Kelly and the left-handed hitting Anna. This issue of bench balance is likely a big reason why they were added to the picture in the first place. As a result, I may have minimized their chances above.
Kelly has the added benefit of having played some outfield. For that reason and with a good spring at the plate, he could knock Grichuk off this projected roster to claim the final spot or perhaps even put Kozma on the trade block. However, because Kelly has no MLB experience and no track record with this organization, I am not ready to lean into the wind to make that projection - before camp even officially opens.
Or if we want to stretch the definition of “viable alternatives,” perhaps Kozma and Anna could be tried in the corner outfield, as well. I think I will stop there.
In closing, let’s also remember that the almost-forgotten man, Greg Garcia, hits from the left side.
A Final Reminder
Many say to ignore spring training results because they are non-representative. I get where they are coming from and compared to the long haul of the regular season, they are absolutely right.
Then again, some very surprising things can occur during March that can and do impact initial rosters.
Take spring 2013, when light-hitting outfielder Shane Robinson was on fire, finishing second in the National League in batting average and on-base percentage behind some guy named Bryce Harper. Further, as improbable as it sounds, Robinson was also second in the league in spring slugging behind Brandon Belt.
Not only did Robinson make the 2013 Opening Day roster, he managed to spend the entire season with St. Louis. That is the only time to date in the 30-year-old’s career that he has accomplished that feat. (This spring, Robinson is an NRI, trying to make the 2015 Twins, a club that already has eight outfielders on its 40-man.)
The Roster Matrix
To see the full 2014 season-ending rosters by level and position for the entire Cardinals system on one page, check out the Roster Matrix, always up-to-date and free at The Cardinal Nation blog.
The Cardinals’ Triple-A roster will be the focus of part two of this five-part roster projection series - coming soon for members of The Cardinal Nation.
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