Predicting the 2016 Memphis Opening Roster

The players Brian Walton sees as having the best chance of making the Cardinals’ Triple-A roster to open the regular season and why.

Hopefully, you read Part 1 of this five-part series. If not, please do that before returning here. There, I explained the process I am following to project the season-opening rosters for the St. Louis Cardinals and their four full-season minor league affiliates – before minor leaguers even begin spring play!

Here in Part 2, we tackle the challenge of setting the roster of Triple-A Memphis, led by Mike Shildt, back for a second season as manager of the Redbirds. As in all the other articles of this series, every player under contract will be accounted for.

The Memphis roster story is very different from 12 months ago. In fact, it has been a few years since the Cardinals felt they had to sign a number of minor league free agents to fill out the Redbirds’ roster. Yet, that is what they did for 2016, especially on the pitching side.

This year, the number of external free agent additions is eight, including five pitchers. Their arrival may push the same number of returning organizational pitchers off the roster. More on that below.

The three returning position players include one, outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker, who re-signed with the Cardinals. The key difference on the position player side of the roster is that all five of the projected promotions from Double-A Springfield are hitters.

From the big picture view, just 14 of my projected Memphis players to open the season finished the 2015 schedule there.

Here is my early take on the 25-man opening roster for the Redbirds, with detailed explanation following.

Memphis Redbirds projected 2016 opening day roster, as of 3/16/16

Memphis (25+5)      
Cooney (L) Tuivailala Fryer (NRI) Jon Rodriguez (NRI) *
Gonzales (L) Harris Ohlman * Washington (NRI) *
McGuire (NRI) Heyer    
Sulbaran (NRI) Kiekhefer (L)    
Hefner (NRI) Waldron (NRI)    
Ar Reyes (STEP) Ju Gonzalez (NRI)    
  Wright (L)    
  Sherriff (L)    
J Wilson (NRI) Mejia Wisdom (NRI) * An Garcia
Anna     Hazelbaker (NRI)
      Peguero (NRI)
      Tilson *

(X+Y) = Active + Limbo
Limbo = DL/rehab/demote/release candidate
Bold = 40-man roster member
NRI = non-roster invitee to MLB camp
* promotion from year-end 2015
(L) = Left-handed pitcher

Roster sourcing

Returnees 13+1%          
Promotions from AA  5 Ohlman JRodriguez Washington Wisdom Tilson
Free agents  7+1# McGuire Sulbaran JGonzalez Church# Hefner
    Fryer Peguero Hazelbaker%    
Acquired via trade  0          
Down from St. Louis  0          
Limbo/disabled list 5 Wright Sherriff Thomas Church# Wyatt

As opposed to a traditional five-man rotation, seven-man bullpen and 13 position player mix, I am going with 13 pitchers here entirely due to the quantity of arms in competition for a job. Even so, this projected roster assumes there is no room for any new pitching promotions from Springfield.

I will talk more about my five in-limbo players, all of whom are pitchers, as I review the positions in detail below.


Rotation: Major churn

Last year, the Memphis rotation was almost as stable as St. Louis’ is today. Four of the 2014 starters returned for 2015.

The same two at the top, Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney, should be back, locked in a battle to be the first starter called up to St. Louis this season. Behind them is Arturo Reyes, who made five bumpy starts (7.82 ERA) for the Redbirds in September after his promotion from Springfield.

There are three newcomers who may also be in the mix for spots in the five-man rotation. All were signed as free agents during the off-season – J.C. Sulbaran, Deck McGwire and Jeremy Hefner. Hefner, coming back from two Tommy John surgeries, has MLB experience with the New York Mets.

My guess is that whichever one of the six does not start will moved to the bullpen, along with another free agent signee, Juan Gonzalez. If I had to hazard a guess, it would be Sulbaran, simply based on his very early cut from MLB spring camp.

Another possibility would be Reyes, who was the only one of this group not invited to big-league camp - or perhaps one of the external signees could be released.

Needless to say, Mike Mayers, Andrew Morales and/or any of the other season-ending starters at Springfield would seem to be blocked for now. And as you will see in the next installment of this series, pitching roster spots at Double-A will be just as tight.


Bullpen: Cramped conditions

By my count, there are 12 pitchers in the hunt for just seven spots in the Redbirds’ pen to open the season. As noted above, the jam is even more pronounced given that this work assumes no pitching promotions from Springfield.

There is definitely experience in the relief corps. Six of the seven projected relievers are in major league camp this spring, including four 40-man pitchers in potential Redbirds closer Sam Tuivailala, Mitch Harris, Miguel Socolovich and lefty Dean Kiekhefer. The others are Gonzalez and Tyler Waldron, both non-roster invitees. The one exception is swingman Kurt Heyer, who was effective in that hybrid role with the Redbirds last season.

Tuivailala, Harris and Kiekhefer (twice) have all pitched in the Arizona Fall League prospect showcase and with the addition of reliever Gonzalez from the outside, the roster filled up quickly.

In terms of raw numbers, the four of the five pitching additions from the outside – if they truly stick – seem to push four returning pitchers off the Memphis roster. There simply is not room for them all.

The four incumbents I have singled out are right-handers Heath Wyatt and Chris Thomas and lefties Ryan Sherriff and Justin Wright. None were in MLB camp or STEP camp this spring. Again, this is less about performance than it is about roster space. I actually think that at least a couple of these hurlers could make the team at someone else’s expense.

Another who I feel could be on the outside looking in is recent free agent signee John Church. As he was not invited to MLB camp or early minor league camp (STEP camp), I consider his position to be more tenuous than the former free agents participating with the big-leaguers.

In an unconstrained situation, I would look to open the door to Memphis for several Springfield hurlers. At this point, however, I do not see any of them dislodging any of the projected Memphis relievers – at least out of spring camp – let alone the ones in limbo.

Then again, it is fair to remember than none of the five pitching outsiders have any track record with the Cardinals, so their spring results could be more important than for some of the home-grown hurlers. When all is said and done, however, my take is that when bringing in the outsiders, the Cardinals had to believe they were going to be as good or better than the incumbents. So that is how I made these roster calls.


Catching: The veteran and the kid

There is a tried and true formula followed with the Triple-A catching in recent years – sign a veteran, preferably with MLB experience, and couple him with a prospect.

The 2016 veteran is Eric Fryer, who has served in the Majors in small parts of three seasons. The “prospect” to share time with Fryer should move up from Springfield in 2015, in 40-man roster backstop Michael Ohlman. The latter is said to be improved defensively in just his second year in the organization.

There does not seem to be much drama in this selection, as there are no other prospects at the position ready for Triple-A. Veteran Alberto Rosario would seem to be the next man up, if needed, though with a good debut at Springfield, Carson Kelly could enter the picture later in the year.


Infield: Easy decisions

I went into some detail in the St. Louis installment of this series as to the various bench alternatives for the Cardinals and specifically the shortstop competition that includes Greg Garcia and Aledmys Diaz. As of now, I have both infielders among St. Louis’ opening 25.

Essentially, middle infield returnees Jacob Wilson, Dean Anna and Alex Mejia will be needed. Instead, if the Cardinals acquire an MLB shortstop and return Diaz to Memphis, Mejia could be the most likely player to be bumped down.

The corner outfield duo from Springfield the past two seasons – first baseman Jonathan Rodriguez and third sacker Patrick Wisdom – should be making their Triple-A debuts. Whether listed as a first baseman or outfielder, David Washington’s bat should be ready, also as a potential designated hitter.

Which leads us to…


Outfield: The signees and the new

The rest of the outfield should be made up of two 40-man players who spent most of 2015 in Springfield in Charlie Tilson and Anthony Garcia. The others are likely to be Hazelbaker and another free agent addition, Carlos Peguero. Of the group, Tilson should be especially busy as the leadoff man and the roster’s only natural center fielder.

Gone from 2015 are Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty, now in St. Louis, and Rafael Ortega and Mike O’Neill, lost as a free agent and in the Rule 5 Draft, respectively.

Up next

The Cardinals’ Double-A roster will be the focus of Part 3 of this series - coming soon for members of The Cardinal Nation. It is not a spoiler to reinforce that pitching roster spots will continue to be tight.

Link to related article: Predicting the 2016 Cardinals Opening Roster

The Roster Matrix

To see the full 2015 season-ending rosters by level and position and every transaction across the entire Cardinals system on one page, check out the Roster Matrix, always up-to-date and free at The Cardinal Nation blog.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at Also catch his Cardinals commentary at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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