With Thursday's trade of shortstop Julio Lugo, the Cardinals settled their three-way battle for two outfield reserve positions by keeping all three right-handed hitting competitors, Allen Craig, Nick Stavinoha and Joe Mather.
The Cardinals decision is obviously important for all three, but perhaps it is most special for Craig. The 25-year-old not only makes his first major league opening day roster, but will also soon appear in his first MLB game.
"It's definitely a relief with how things worked out," Craig told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. "It's pretty exciting getting to go with all the guys. It's really a dream come true for me personally to make the team. I'm pretty fired up."
The organization's 2009 Player of the Year can cover both corner infield and outfield positions but is primarily considered a left fielder after having come up through the system as a third baseman. He had extensive experience last season at first base for the Triple A Memphis Redbirds as well.
Craig was taken in the eighth round of the 2006 draft from Cal-Berkeley. This spring, he posted a sharp .310/.385/.586 line in 58 at-bats over 19 games. He collected eight doubles, a triple, two home runs and drove in nine. Craig also fanned 13 times.
Like Craig, Stavinoha will be riding in the parade around Busch Stadium for the home opener for the very first time, but unlike Craig, the 27-year-old Texan has 115 days of major league service. Stavinoha has been a regular on the St. Louis-Memphis shuttle after making his MLB debut in Boston on June 22, 2008. He was first called up in 2009 when Ryan Ludwick was injured last May 13 and was back and forth two other times.
Drafted in the seventh round in 2005, Stavinoha offers an important advantage over the other two outfielders. He has professional experience behind the plate, an especially injury-plagued position for the Cardinals currently with both starter Yadier Molina and reserve Jason LaRue banged up. Stavinoha also has logged considerable time at first base. In fact, with Memphis last season, he started 34 games at first and 32 at catcher.
With the bat, Stavi hit 24 doubles, 13 home runs and collected 73 RBI in just 346 at-bats between Memphis and St. Louis last season. This spring, he has two doubles and two home runs among his 20 hits. Stavinoha drove in nine and his Florida line was an impressive .345/.350/.483. He was also 3-for-6 as a pinch-hitter, a likely early-season assignment for him.
"I feel like I gave some good at-bats and really that was my goal at the beginning of the spring," Stavinoha told the Globe-Democrat. "In the end, it all works out OK I think. That's my plan, to take every at-bat like it's my last one and try to win it and try to come out on top and execute a plan. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't, but at the end of the spring, you can look back and try to grade yourself out on what you accomplished and how you did. I'm happy with where I am right now."
Mather, 27, worked the longest to make an opening day roster. The most-tenured Cardinal of the three was selected in the third round of the 2001 draft. He made his MLB debut on May 29, 2008 when Chris Duncan was sent down and remained with the club from early July until a broken hamate bone ended his season on September 1.
Though primarily an outfielder, Mather was in the lead for a time for the starting third base job in the spring of 2009 before illness sapped his strength and ultimately cost him a spot on the opening day roster. Soon, a recurring sprain in the same left wrist that was operated upon in 2008 basically scuttled Mather's entire season. He totaled just 202 at-bats between Memphis, the Gulf Coast League Cardinals and Springfield in 2009.
Mather offers important versatility to the Cardinals both at third base and as a back up centerfielder to starter Colby Rasmus. While two starters at other positions, right fielder Ryan Ludwick and second baseman Skip Schumaker, can both play center as well, manager Tony La Russa seems reluctant to move them around, increasing Mather's value defensively.
Of the three new outfielders, Mather had the least impressive camp at the plate, with just 13 hits in 61 at-bats and a .213/.314/.344 line. He had five doubles, one home run but found an uncanny knack for getting runs home with 11 RBI.
"I felt good about what I did this spring," Mather told the paper. "The numbers probably could have been a little better but outside of that, I did what I needed to do. I felt good about it and either way, I felt like I was going to be here at some point."
To start the season at least, against the odds, all three are St. Louis Cardinals. Mather likely spoke for all three when he said, "It's pretty awesome. It was a little unexpected. It's just great news for everybody."
Hopefully it will be great news for Cardinals fans as well.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.
Follow Brian on Twitter.
© 2010 stlcardinals.scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.