Cardinals still sorting out position battles
Backup catcher, bench spots still available for defending champs
JUPITER, Fla. -- Though the club still has some position battles to sort out before opening the season in Miami nine days from now, the Cardinals' recent decisions have brought some clarity to the club's projected roster.
Five players were sent out of Major League camp on Sunday and another Monday, dwindling St. Louis' Spring Training roster to 31 players. Of those 31 players, two -- Chris Carpenter (nerve irritation) and Skip Schumaker (right oblique strain) -- are expected to begin the year on the disabled list. That leaves the Cardinals, who lost to the Mets 6-3 on Monday, with the task of making only four more roster moves in advance of their April 4 opener.
The team began the spring with 60 players in big league camp.
On the pitching end, the Cardinals are almost set. Their rotation, sans Carpenter, is already in place. It includes three remaining members of the 2011 rotation -- Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse -- as well as new addition Lance Lynn in place of Carpenter. Adam Wainwright, who missed last season's World Series run because of Tommy John surgery, will anchor the five-man staff.
"It's going to be tough not having [Carpenter], but we didn't have [Wainwright] last year. We stepped it up and did what we had to do," Westbrook said. "We feel strong about the guys we have, and we have a lot of confidence in what we're capable of doing."
As it concerns the bullpen, there is only one decision left to make, assuming the Cardinals don't carry eight relievers into the season. That's how many remain in camp right now.
Already assured spots are closer Jason Motte, lefties J.C. Romero and Marc Rzepczynski and right-hander Kyle McClellan. Mitchell Boggs and Fernando Salas are likely already in that category, too, though their inclusions in the 'pen haven't been officially announced. That leaves veteran, non-roster right-hander Scott Linebrink, as well as righty Victor Marte, left to fill one spot.
Given his experience and strong spring showing, Linebrink appears to have the upper hand at that final bullpen spot.
As the pieces in the bullpen have come together, so, too, has some definition of roles -- at least, internally. Asked who is in line to open the season as the club's setup man to Motte, manager Mike Matheny skirted specifics.
"[We're] still just waiting to see how things progress," Matheny said. "We have quite a few guys who have some experience in that seventh, eighth inning. Then you have a lefty [Rzepczynski], who can kind of pitch those periods, as well, depending on what those lineups look like. It's going to fluctuate."
Given the late-inning experience he garnered last season, Salas seems a candidate to slide into that eighth-inning role. Matheny also won't hesitate to use Rzepczynski there, especially, as he noted, if it's a situation where several left-handed hitters are due up.
McClellan and Boggs could both be used in multiple-inning situations or in setup roles. Romero and Linebrink would likely be used more often in middle relief, though they won't be pigeonholed there.
The position player picture remains more unsettled than the pitching situation, as the Cardinals have 16 healthy players and 13 spots to fill. The final catcher's spot will go to Tony Cruz or Bryan Anderson. And assuming Tyler Greene wins the second base job, Daniel Descalso will take the club's second bench spot.
Allen Craig's surprisingly quick recovery from offseason knee surgery also has him in line to begin the season with St. Louis. He would take a bench spot and offer the club a key right-handed bat.
That would leave two other openings, one of which will be taken by an outfielder. Shane Robinson and Rule 5 pick Erik Komatsu remain in that mix. If all else is equal, Komatsu could have the edge given that he would have to be offered back to the Nationals for $25,000 if he does not make the team. That is the caveat of a Rule 5 selection.
Infielders Eugenio Velez and Matt Carpenter also remain in camp, and the latter has received especially high praise for the work he's done to become more versatile. His ability to play first base and the corner outfield spots has put the natural third baseman in strong position to steal a bench spot.
"I think many people said it's going to be hard for him to have a better spring than what he had last year, but I think he's had a better spring," Matheny said of Matt Carpenter, who batted .333 in 21 Grapefruit League games last year. "Last year, we saw a guy spray the ball the opposite way. This year, we're seeing a guy drive the ball and spray it, put together tough at-bats. I think he's playing better defense this year. I think he's really holding his own well at third base."
Matt Carpenter, whose two hits against the Mets raised his current spring average to .364, started at first base again on Monday. He has been used liberally at first and in the outfield, and the impression he has made at all three spots has left the Cardinals believing he can comfortably play there, if needed, during the regular season.
While he spent the offseason learning the news positions, he has previously played only one Minor League game anywhere other than third base.
"I can think of only one play -- and it was on a really windy day on a ball to right field -- that he didn't have a great jump on," Matheny said. "Besides that, he's made every play that has come his way, regardless of where we've put him. I think he has surprised us with some of the things that he's done."
The only non-roster invitees remaining in camp are Linebrink, Marte and Velez. The Cardinals have one spot currently unoccupied on their 40-man roster, meaning that the club could add one of these players without having to make a corresponding move.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.