Paul DeJong, Carson Kelly and Harrison Bader / (Brian Walton / The Cardinal Nation)

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

Brian Walton explains which players he sees as having the best chance of making the St. Louis Cardinals Triple-A club, the Memphis Redbirds, to open the regular season and why. Second in an annual series of five articles.

Hopefully, you read Part 1 of this five-part series. If not, please do that before returning here, as those assumptions are pre-requisites for this article. 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 new skipper Stubby Clapp, whose interview will be posted here in the next few days. As in all the other articles of this series, every player under contract will be accounted for.

The Memphis story is very different to that of 12 months ago. Last year, a pitching gap at the upper levels of the system, coupled with key injuries to Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales, led the Redbirds to open the season with three free agents in the rotation.

Despite Cooney (lost on waivers) and Gonzales (rehabbing) still unavailable this spring – coupled with the loss of MLB’s top pitching prospect in Alex Reyes – the Cardinals still have more starting candidates for the Triple-A rotation than spots to put them. The acquisition of two starters in trade for Jaime Garcia join pitching prospects pushing for promotion.

The organization still did bring in six veteran free agents to fill out the Redbirds’ roster, including two relievers, three position players and one hybrid pitcher-outfielder. That is down from eight outsiders, including five pitchers, a year ago.

All things considered, there is a bit of a pitching logjam, with three of the four projected promotions from Double-A Springfield being hitters.  

From the big picture view, just 12 of my projected Memphis players to open the season finished the 2016 schedule there.

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


Memphis Redbirds projected 2017 opening day roster, as of 3/24/17

Memphis (25+6)      
Weaver Tuivailala C Kelly Huffman (NRI)
Mayers Brebbia A Rosario (NRI) Voit*
Gant Sherriff (L NRI)    
Ar Reyes (NRI) Wick*    
Ellis Phillips (L NRI)    
  T Lee    
Gonzales (L) Harris (NRI)    
  Littrell (L RL)    
  Schafer (L NRI)    
B Valera DeJong (NRI) Wisdom (NRI) Pham
  Tovar (NRI)   An Garcia 
      Bader (NRI)*
      Cunningham (NRI)

(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 2016
(L) = Left-handed pitcher

Roster sourcing

Returnees 12        
Promotions from Springfield 4 Wick Voit DeJong Bader
Free agents  6 Phillips A Rosario Huffman  
    Tovar Cunningham Zeid  
Rule 5 acquisition 0        
Acquired via trade  2 Gant Ellis    
Down from St. Louis  1 Pham      
Limbo/disabled list/susp 5 Gonzales Harris Littrell Heyer

As opposed to traditional five-man rotation, seven-man bullpen and 13 position players mix as in St. Louis, I am going to go with 13 pitchers on all minor league rosters, because that is what the organization has done in recent years.

Because of that and a number of competitive incumbents, this projected roster assumes there is room for just one pitching promotion 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

Only one of the 2016 season-opening members of the Memphis rotation is projected to be back in that same role to open 2017, right-hander Arturo Reyes. Even if you compare to the end of 2016, Mike Mayers is the only other.

Luke Weaver passed through AutoZone Park for just one start, but should be back for a longer stay to headline the 2017 starting five. Mayers had just one rough start for St. Louis, but remains a viable contender to return.

John Gant, who may be the pitching surprise of St. Louis’ 2017 camp, has both Triple-A and MLB experience with the Braves. The other pitcher joining the Cardinals in the Jaime Garcia trade, Chris Ellis, is doing well in minor league camp and takes the fifth spot. Ellis was exclusively a starter while pitching at Double-A and Triple-A for Atlanta last season.

Coming into spring training, I had already mentally pushed Ellis into the bullpen, with the fifth starter’s spot set up to be a race primarily between lefty Austin Gomber and right-hander Daniel Poncedeleon. Gomber, the organization’s co-Pitcher of the Year in 2015, has the edge of success in the Arizona Fall League prospect showcase, but Poncedeleon was better this spring in MLB camp. As of today, however, I don’t think there will initially be room in Memphis for either.

No one should get comfy! Whoever makes the initial rotation will need to come out with guns blazing, as Gonzales should be ready to return to the Memphis rotation in a month or so.


Bullpen: Cramped conditions

By my count, there are 10 returning Triple-A pitchers in the hunt for just eight spots in the Redbirds’ pen to open the season. It increases to 11 with one pitching promotion projected from Springfield. Excluded from the group is suspended lefty Corey Littrell, who should spend the first 50 games of the season on the restricted list.

Even so, it is stacking up to be a relatively inexperienced relief corps in terms of MLB exposure. Only four of the eight projected relievers were in major league camp this spring, making this projection a bit shaky.

The four includes just two 40-man pitchers in potential Redbirds closer Sam Tuivailala and perhaps his main saves competitor, Rowan Wick. Tuivailala is the only one of the projected eight with MLB experience. Complicating matters further, Wick had been away from camp pitching for Team Canada in the WBC. Still, because of Wick’s spot on the 40-man roster and AFL stint, I think the Cardinals will challenge him in Memphis.

Though Mitch Harris has been on the 40-man roster and has pitched for St. Louis previously, because he has pitched sparingly this spring and has shown rust, I am guessing he could open the season on the DL.

Of the two free agent lefties signed, outfielder hybrid Jordan Schafer seemed the leader before requiring elbow surgery. That may open the door for Zach Phillips, he of the long mane, to be the Redbirds’ second lefty in relief, joining returnee Ryan Sherriff, another pleasant surprise this spring and the subject of another upcoming TCN interview.

As a long man, two other returnees, Kurt Heyer and Thomas Lee, have both previously filled in as spot starters. As a result of their potential overlap with Ellis, the numbers suggest one roster spot could be in jeopardy.

With Heyer having been injured in camp on March 19, even though it was supposedly minor, I am putting him out of action to open the regular season. Newly-signed Josh Zeid, star of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, should claim a pen spot and can pitch in any role as needed.

Cuban Pedro Echemendia, who moved very fast last summer after finishing 2015 at State College, is the eighth and final member of my projected Memphis season-opening bullpen.

In an unconstrained situation, I would look to open the door to Memphis for several more Springfield relievers beyond Wick. Tall right-hander Josh Lucas would be near the top of the list. Corey Baker also seems ready. At this point, however, I don’t see them dislodging the projected Memphis pitchers – at least out of spring camp – let alone the ones in limbo.


Catching: The veteran and the kid - again

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 2017 veteran is returnee Alberto Rosario, who actually served almost three months with St. Louis last year. Despite being outrighted to clear 40-man roster space last fall, the 30-year-old re-signed with the Cardinals on a minor league deal for 2017. However, Rosario’s only reasonable chance to get back to St. Louis would be if back up Eric Fryer is injured. That is remote since Fryer should rarely play behind Yadier Molina.

Of course, the “prospect” to play most days behind the plate is Carson Kelly. Already solid defensively, the former third baseman looks as if he could have additional improvement in his bat ahead with further repetitions. Should Molina be injured for any stretch of time, it will almost certainly be Kelly called upon to replace him.


Infield: Easy decisions

Three of the four starting infield spots are crystal clear to me. Rejuvenated Patrick Wisdom should be at third, former third sacker Paul DeJong will man short and 40-man roster utility man Breyvic Valera is expected to be the starting second baseman. Wilfredo Tovar was signed to provide veteran presence and should be the primary reserve, keeping Alex Mejia down in Springfield.

At first base, the Redbirds could have at least two options on the active roster in veteran free agent Chad Huffman and 2016 Springfield star Luke Voit. While Voit is a first baseman (and designated hitter) only, Huffman can play the outfield, as well.

DeJong and Voit are the only projected infielders to have no prior Triple-A experience, though the former played in the 2016 Arizona Fall League and has seen considerable time in St. Louis spring camp.


Outfield: The signees and the new

My projected Memphis outfield is headlined by Harrison Bader. The Cardinal Nation’s number five prospect debuted with the Redbirds last season but returned briefly to Springfield before his AFL stint.

Returning to the Redbirds should also be the odd man out from the competition for the fourth outfield spot in St. Louis. At this time, I am projecting Tommy Pham to be beaten out by Jose Martinez. Pham last played with Memphis in 2015.

The other two outfielders should be Anthony Garcia, like Pham possessing a 40-man roster spot, however tenuous it may be, and free agent signee Todd Cunningham. The latter’s presence would seem to push Nick Martini back to Springfield.

For that same reason as well as his lack of experience in the US, recently-signed Cuban outfielder Adolis Garcia may open his Cardinals career at Double-A – at least if my prediction is proven to be correct. On the other hand, if the Cuban is deemed ready for Memphis, Cunningham’s Cardinals future could be over before it officially begins.


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 note that pitching roster spots continue to be tight.


Link to related article: Predicting the 2017 St. Louis Opening Roster


The Roster Matrix

To see the full 2016 season-ending rosters by level and position and every transaction across the entire Cardinals system on one page, check out the new 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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