This past weekend, there was a spirited discussion here at The Cardinal Nation blog regarding the possible construction of the St. Louis Cardinals bench exiting spring training. With three weeks to go, some are already calling out favorites, myself included.
Putting aside the reserve catcher, Tony Cruz, four position player spots remain. Certainties are first baseman-third baseman Mark Reynolds and centerfielder Peter Bourjos. Almost sure, in my view, is shortstop Pete Kozma, reinforced by challenger Dean Anna‘s .083 batting average.
As I see it, there are three primary candidates for the final spot. Of note is that they specialize at different positions. They are second baseman Ty Kelly and outfielders Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham.
An interesting twist is that all of the infielders mentioned in this article have also seen time in the outfield this spring. If that experiment is proven to be successful, it could give the Cardinals the confidence to go with Kelly and send both true outfielders – Grichuk and Pham – to Triple-A Memphis.
In other words, will the Cardinals run with a more traditional bench of two reserve outfielders (Bourjos and Pham/Grichuk) and two infielders (Reynolds and Kozma) or one outfielder (Bourjos) and three infielders (Reynolds, Kozma and Kelly)? In the latter scenario, Kozma, Kelly and Reynolds could jointly serve as the fifth outfielder along with their primary jobs.
Not that I have a vote, but personally, I am less excited about infielders playing in the outfield, other than on an exception basis.
If I was Kelly, I would be pulling for Bourjos to get hot at the plate. The inherent defensive risk in the four-real outfielder scenario would be lessened if Bourjos demonstrates he is ready for semi-regular playing time. The difference between Bourjos defensively and any one of the natural infielders playing out there is huge and very important.
A productive Bourjos would free Jay to cover the corners as the top reserve for both left and right fields and the Kozma/Kelly/Reynolds outfield tandem would rarely be needed, other than late in games potentially.
All that said, my roster preference remains the traditional two and two. Beyond better defense by having fielders at their best positions, I believe that either Pham or Grichuk is going to hit better than Kelly over the long haul. Kelly does, however, have a built-in advantage as a switch-hitter on a righty-heavy bench backing up a very lefty-heavy starting eight. I evaluated that aspect in considerable detail recently at The Cardinal Nation, illustrating that in the totality of the roster, there would still be a typical left-right balance in any case.
As an aside, for those who worry about the Cardinals having just one reserve shortstop in Kozma, it is not unusual. In fact, this proposed roster construction is less restrictive defensively than the one the team opened with just two years ago.
To start the 2013 season, the five-man bench was Cruz (catcher), Ty Wigginton (corner infield and outfield), Matt Adams (first base only), Shane Robinson (outfield) and Ryan Jackson (middle infield). The latter, a natural shortstop like Kozma, was the only middle infield reserve. On that club, starting first baseman Allen Craig could also play in the outfield, offering some flexibility.
Back to the present, at this point, I would single out Grichuk as my favorite for this final roster spot due to his power. It remains to be seen if Pham can re-establish his pre-injury momentum when cleared to return to action. Soon Jay will also be back, with getting his at-bats to prepare for the regular season becoming a priority over playing reserve candidates.
Even if Kelly does make the initial roster, my prediction is that within four to six weeks, the Cards will be back to the traditional two infielders and two outfielders on the bench.
No matter how it ends up, it should continue to be entertaining to watch this play out between now and opening night.
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