I am having a case of déjà vu – St. Louis Cardinals spring training déjà vu.
Based on a combination of factors, including untimely surgery for Nick Punto and a long recovery for oft-injured David Freese, third baseman Matt Carpenter has received more playing time than expected in the first ten games of spring training.
The non-roster invitee, yet to play even a single regular-season game at the Triple-A level, has delivered in the early going. Carpenter has tallied a hit in the last seven games in which he has played. Carpenter is batting a team leading .455 (10-for-22), with two doublse and two triples and is tied for second on the club with six RBI.
It is not as if this is a fluke. Carpenter has a pedigree as a very good player. After all, based on his 2010 season with Double-A Springfield, he was named both The Cardinal Nation Player of the Year and later, the Cardinals followed with their top award as well.
As a result, a group of excited fans are not only penciling Carpenter onto the Cardinals opening day roster – a major feat in itself – some are leaping into projecting him as a platoon partner for Freese. Due to ongoing ankle concerns, Freese is expected to play only two of every three games in 2011 even if he can remain off the disabled list.
With roughly two-thirds of spring training ahead, all I can think of is this: “What would Tony do?”
We have no way of knowing if the manager:
a) Will value another third baseman more than a utility player.
b) Will prefer the biggest/hottest bat he can find.
c) Will want major league experience given a bench that is already projected to include youngsters Tyler Greene, Allen Craig and Jon Jay.
While we don’t know what he WILL do, we know what he will NOT do. The manager will not declare winners for any open jobs at this early juncture.
If you have any doubt, just go back two years ago. Freese would make his first opening day roster, but before that could happen, he had to be recalled from minor league camp. He had sent out in early March because of a slow recovery from foot injuries suffered in an automobile accident over the winter.
While that was clearly an unusual situation, there are other players in competition to cover for Punto besides Carpenter.
Another non-roster infielder has received nearly as many spring plate appearances as Carpenter so far, though he hasn’t done nearly as much with them. Along with Greene and Daniel Descalso, the group is likely competing for two reserve infield roster spots to open the season. It would likely drop to one job as soon as Punto is ready, perhaps as much as two months into the season.
Who is this other NRI infielder?
Hardly an exciting name, the left-handed hitter will celebrate his 35th birthday before the regular season opens. The native of Puerto Rico is well-traveled, having played for six different major league clubs, most recently the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Vazquez has also bounced around the minors as well and in fact didn’t have a single at bat in the majors last season. His career MLB average is .254, but in his last big league action, he batted just .230 for the 2009 Bucs.
He does offer infield versatility and steady defense such as Punto was signed to provide. Vazquez has logged between 165 and 275 major league games at second base, shortstop and third base.
Vazquez has started this spring slowly, at 2-for-16 (.125) with a single and a double though he has also walked three times.
So where’s the déjà vu, you ask?
Back in 2005, another generally anonymous utility infielder who also had previously been discarded by the Pirates, Abraham Nunez, made the Cardinals out of camp as an NRI. The primary assets of the Dominican Republic native were his ability to play three infield positions and switch hit.
Nunez has the same defensive profile as Vazquez, with from between 258 and 293 major league contests at each of the positions of second, short and third. His career batting average when invited to 2005 spring training was an uninspiring .238 and in 2004, he also batted exactly .238 for the Bucs.
In other words, Nunez hardly came into Cardinals camp on a high note.
He batted a surprising .315 that spring, beating out former phenom-for-a-month Bo Hart and ex-major leaguer Wilton Guerrero among others and joined Hector Luna as infield reserves to open the 2005 season.
It wasn’t long after having made the team before Nunez was thrust into the spotlight. When starting third baseman Scott Rolen went down due to injury, large segments of the Cardinal Nation cursed their luck as well as the choice of the man to step in for the star third sacker, who was coming off his MV3 season of 2004.
Nunez ended up receiving 467 plate appearances in 2005. He delivered solid defense and career-bests in nearly every offensive category. A .285 batting average, five home runs and 44 RBI were among his highlights.
In 2006, he translated that into a nice, two-year deal with Philadelphia, where he promptly reverted to the pre-Cardinals Nunez. He is now a baseball vagabond, but that isn’t the point.
I have always believed that one can look back at the Cardinals past and gain insight into what might happen in the future.
Don’t get me wrong.
I am not throwing water on the candidacies of Greene, Descalso and Carpenter. Further, I am not predicting Vazquez will make the 2011 Cardinals, let alone suggesting he will pull a 2005-vintage Nunez season out of his cap.
On the other hand, at this point of the spring, I am not yet discounting Vazquez’ chances of getting hot and at least coming north with the team, either.
Wherever he is now, I bet Abe Nunez agrees.
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