Despite all the off-season roster churn, the St. Louis Cardinals have relatively few battles for roster spots this spring.
Sure, the middle infield is muddled and there is a scrum (or perhaps there will be) over who takes over temporarily for Troy Glaus at third base. Colby Rasmus’ immediate major league future may depend as much on Skip Schumaker’s successful conversion to second base as it does him pulling out of a mini slump to start camp.
The rotation is set. The catching is set. The infield and outfield are getting lined up. Until Thursday, the bullpen seemed aligned, too. Yet the concern remained about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the contenders for the second left-handed spot behind Trever Miller.
That concern was addressed with Thursday’s announcement of the signing of Dennys Reyes to a two-year contract. While that is yesterday’s news now, several of the aftershocks attracted my attention.
One is that Miller is going to be tried in the ninth inning, according to an idea of pitching coach Dave Duncan, as shared with the Post-Dispatch. It would not be to displace the winner of the competition between hard-throwing right-handers Jason Motte and Chris Perez, but instead to offer a different look from the other side.
The 35-year-old Miller is a veteran of over 500 MLB games and has accrued a total of ten saves, with three the most gained in any season, at least until now. Miller’s first shot in the ninth was during Friday’s tie game. He yielded the winning run on a pair of hits and a walk.
The presence of Reyes also raised another question as to the identities of the seven members of the bullpen or the 12th pitcher as camp breaks.
Here is what Tony La Russa said to MLB.com on Friday. You may have to read it a second or third time, however…
”… we have that [last] spot. It could go to a third left-hander, or it could go to a right-hander. If somebody wants a gift of a spot on the roster, that’s not the kind of guy you want on the club. You have to earn it. It just goes from two spots open — one spot open and one maybe — to one maybe.”
While La Russa did not identify the six spots taken, let’s take a run through the candidates to see what the manager and pitching coach may be thinking.
First, we have the relievers whose spots seem very secure. They include:
1. Ryan Franklin
2. Miller (L)
3. Reyes (L)
Then we have two returnees whose jobs seem pretty safe:
4. Kyle McClellan
5. Josh Kinney
I believe that McClellan will be on the team, but there remains a small chance he could be needed to start. As of today, his official status is as a starter, though that is expected to change at some point when all five members of the rotation seem fully healthy and ready to begin the season. If Mitchell Boggs can continue to build upon his solid spring debut, he may also ease the McClellan shift back to relief.
Kinney has been struggling with his command and location, but that is likely an early spring issue that will be worked out. Though the righty missed most of the last two seasons following dual elbow surgeries, he returned for an impressive, though short, re-audition last September.
Next we have the closer. It seems things continue to line up such that there will be room for one of the two of Perez and Motte on the opening roster, but not both. Let’s assume that for now.
Are these the manager’s six filled positions?
In a traditional La Russa/Duncan pen, the final spot is a long reliever-spot starter. I don’t want to read anything into early spring performances, but I did note with interest Franklin’s three-inning outing the other day.
Having spent most of his career as a starter prior to arriving in St. Louis, the 36-year-old wanted to compete for a rotation spot when he was signed two years ago. Perhaps it is nothing, but coupling this with the idea of using Miller in the ninth inning might free up Franklin for a longer role in 2009.
Coming into camp, Franklin was most often mentioned as the fallback for a Perez-Motte dual failure. Franklin did not shine as the closer last season, however.
7. To be determined
I see at least three paths here, labeled Options A, B and C. They involve four pitchers in a fight for one job – Brad Thompson, Royce Ring, Charlie Manning and one of Perez and Motte.
Option A: The long man
That Franklin-Miller scenario would put incumbent long-reliever/spot starter Brad Thompson on the hot seat and potentially open up Option B or C below.
Thompson seems to be a guy never able to lock down a role, yet offers a manager a lot of flexibility. For whatever reason, when Thompson starts, the club wins. Since coming up in 2005, the right-hander has started 24 games, during which the Cardinals went 17-7.
Option B: The third lefty
I have noted in the past that the Cardinals have not broken camp with three left-handers in the pen since the short-lived and ill-fated Bill Pulsipher experiment in 2005. That lasted five games for Pulse. The previous case was 2001, a time when another non-roster invitee, Jeff Tabaka, made the team. That lefty remained longer, but it wasn’t an entirely satisfactory result.
The third season in La Russa’s 13 in St. Louis in which the team came north with three left-handed relievers was 1999. That year, in an oddity, the club began the season with three lefties starting (Kent Mercker, Donovan Osborne and Darren Oliver) and three more in the pen (Mike Mohler, Lance Painter and Scott Radinsky).
Back to the here and now, so far in camp, neither lefties Charlie Manning nor Royce Ring have pitched themselves off the team. Both are on the 40-man roster and either could nail down that final spot, a point to which La Russa alluded in his quote above. Maybe the competition is real and maybe it is designed to head off any potential post-Reyes letdown by the pair.
Option C: The second closer
It would be unfair to Motte and Perez to not acknowledge that if each impresses all month long, the club could decide to keep them both.
Speaking of options, let’s discuss options as they relate to the club’s ability to ship these players to the minors. All of the players in question except Ring have an option remaining, which include Motte, Perez, Manning, and even Thompson, though the latter would have to pass through revocable waivers first. This is likely a formality that should not inhibit the decision-making process. Even McClellan and Kinney have options in the unlikely event it gets to that.
All in all, this gives La Russa and Duncan maximum flexibility to shape their pen and decide who to name as that seventh man.