Jose Martinez appears to have earned a spot on the Cardinals' opening day roster with his strong spring.
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By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – With the exhibition schedule having passed the halfway point, it’s time to update the various battles that have been going on for the last few weeks in the Cardinals’ camp:
Backup outfielders – Unless he has a dramatic dropoff, Jose Martinez appears to have wrapped up one of these two spots. He has had a good spring offensively, and has helped his cause by showing the ability to play first base. The Cardinals showed over the winter they were serious about Martinez’s chances by keeping him on the 40-man roster ahead of Jeremy Hazelbaker, claimed on waivers by Arizona, and shortstop prospect Allen Cordoba, lost in the Rule 5 draft to the Padres.
The second spot is still wide open. Tommy Pham has the experience and the familiarity, but he is being pushed by Jordan Schafer, who is trying to make the team as a combination pitcher/outfielder. GM John Mozeliak said Sunday the team likely will have to be comfortable enough with Schafer’s pitching ability to make it, knowing what he can provide at least defensively in the outfield. UPDATE: This battle changed on Tuesday when the Cardinals announced that Schafe will undergo surgery on his left elbow on Friday. He came out of Sunday's pitching appearance because of what was said to be tightness in his forearm.
The team likes prospect Harrison Bader a lot, but the usual question remains when roster decisions have to be made for young players – is it better for them to sit on the bench most of the time in the majors or be playing every day in Triple A. in Bader’s case the answer probably is playing every day. Magneuris Sierra also will be playing every day in the minors but he also has had a very good camp and has been given ample opportunities to impress the major-league staff.
Third base – This would still appear to be Jhonny Peralta’s job to lose, as was the case coming into camp. Peralta has been healthy, the first key to his offensive success, and if he can stay healthy the rest of March there really isn’t much reason to doubt he will be the opening day third baseman. The Cardinals like his defense and believe a full year of recovery from his broken thumb will allow him to be a more effective offensive player.
It’s kind of hard to believe the player who led the team with 30 homers last year can’t win a starting position, but that appears to be the case with Jedd Gyorko. Part of that is a result of Gyorko’s versatility, being able to play all four infield positions. That is the role they really acquired him for last season, but he had to play more out of necessity because of injuries and sub-par performances from other players. With the team also committed to Kolten Wong at second, there really is no other spot where he can start.
Paul DeJong could be the third baseman of the future, even though he will begin this season as the starting shortstop at Memphis, once again helping his versatility for the future. He has had a very good camp.
Fifth starter – This spot was likely decided on the second day of camp when Alex Reyes found out he needed Tommy John surgery. That left Michael Wacha as the favorite, and he has pitched well enough that he probably would have won the spot anyway.
The question for Wacha, of course, has always been can he stay healthy. Nobody really will know if all of the off-season work he did trying to strengthen his shoulder and back worked until he pitches past July and gets 150 or more innings under his belt. By then maybe one of the younger pitchers will be ready to step up to join the rotation if needed, but none of them, including Luke Weaver, appear ready yet for that role.
The timetable for when Tyler Lyons and Marco Gonzales will be ready is still unknown, although both are pleased with their progress as Lyons recovers from off-season knee surgery and Gonzales from Tommy John surgery last summer. Both also could be candidates for the bullpen when they are cleared for game action.
Bullpen – The Cardinals are expected to carry 12 pitchers to open the season, which means five starters and seven relievers. Six of the seven bullpen spots appear to be set – Seung Hwan Oh,Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Bowman and Jonathan Broxton on the right side and Kevin Siegrist and Brett Cecil from the left side.
There is, of course, a chance that Rosenthal might not be ready to pitch when the season begins. He has been out since March 3 after complaining of tightness in his lat area, which is at least different than the arm problems that affected him last year. The Cardinals had wanted to stretch him out this spring so he could be considered as a starter, but Mozeliak now doesn’t think there is enough time left in camp for that to happen. There is still time for him to be ready for a relief role, but Mozeliak really wants to see him be able to get into a game this week.
The pitcher who might have worked his way into the final spot in the bullpen is John Gant, one of the players acquired in the Jaime Garcia trade with Atlanta. He has made two starts and has pitched well, and he also has experience in the bullpen with the Braves.
Miguel Socolovich has to be considered a candidate because of the fact he is out of options, and the Cardinals could lose him if they try to send him to Memphis.
Cleanup hitter – This was never an advertised competition, and there would appear to be three candidates for primary duty in this spot – Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Peralta. Piscotty has not had a good spring, but the Cardinals are convinced he will get going offensively. They like his ability to get on base and his performance with runners in scoring position, something they hope happens a lot in the first inning if he is hitting behind Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz and Matt Carpenter. Grichuk is probably a little more typical cleanup hitter, who should hit for more homers than Piscotty, but almost certainly will strike out more. Peralta could also fill the role, but probably is better suited to hit fifth or sixth.
Players on the bubble – The name to watch here probably is Matt Adams. It might not be a case of what Adams can’t provide to the Cardinals but more of a question about how they can include him on the 25-man roster with Carpenter scheduled to be the regular first baseman. That answer might be paired with what happens to Schafer.
If Schafer can make the team, as the fifth outfielder and last pitcher in the bullpen, it means Pham probably is the odd man out. It also would then open a spot for an extra bench job, which as of now would probably be filled by Adams.
Four of the five bench spots appear set, barring an injury between now and opening day. Eric Fryer will be the backup catcher, Greg Garcia and Gyorko the backup infielders and Martinez one of the backup outfielders, leaving the one open spot – probably a competition between Adams, Pham and Schafer.
Adams, after an 0-for-12 start to the spring, has been swinging the bat much better of late, which no doubt has been noticed by all of the scouts attending these games. If Adams is going to get squeezed off this roster, there certainly would appear to be teams willing to trade for him before the end of the spring. Pham could be in the same position if he isn’t going to make the roster, as there would appear to be no reason to send him to Memphis.
If Bader is playing every day in Memphis, he would be in line for any promotion needed because of an injury to one of the Cardinals’ regular outfielders.
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