Cards thin herd in battle for rotation

Gomber sent to Minors; St. Louis still faces multiple roster decisions

March 20th, 2019

JUPITER, Fla. -- Eight days ahead of their season opener against the Brewers on March 28, the Cardinals still have a handful of roster decisions to make. They made movement toward one of those on Wednesday by removing left-hander and right-hander Daniel Ponce de Leon from the competition for the team’s final starting spot.

Gomber and Ponce de Leon, both of whom were optioned to Triple-A, will open the season in Memphis’ rotation. That will allow the Cards to keep them stretched out and ready for when there is a need at the Major League level.

Subtracting the two from the mix leaves Dakota Hudson and John Gant as the last remaining candidates for the rotation opening. Hudson threw five scoreless innings in a win on Monday and will piggyback Miles Mikolas in relief on Saturday. Gant will make his next start on Friday against the Mets.

Gomber was sent out of big-league camp on Wednesday morning, while Ponce de Leon received the assignment after throwing 70 pitches in a 6-0 loss to the Marlins. After blanking Miami for three innings, Ponce de Leon didn’t make it out of the fourth. He was charged with five runs on seven hits and two walks. He also committed an error.

“The tale of two games, right?” manager Mike Shildt said afterward. “That’s how a game can get away.”

Gomber, who posted a 4.44 ERA in 29 outings (11 starts) for the Cardinals last season, made four Grapefruit League appearances this spring. Over 11 innings, he allowed 19 hits (including six homers) and 13 runs while walking five and striking out three.

“I’m really optimistic about Austin because his stuff was really good,” Shildt said. “He just wasn’t able to execute, mainly his fastball command. So I’m encouraged, as he moves forward, about his secondary pitches and his ability to get lefties and righties. But he’s going to do that right now starting the season in Memphis.”

While the Cardinals continue evaluating their starting options, they’re also deep into decision-making in other areas as well. Here’s a rundown of some of the jobs still up for grabs as the exhibition schedule winds down:

Backup catcher
This decision will be made no later than Friday, as that’s when Matt Wieters can opt out of his Minor League deal if not assured a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Since signing on Feb. 27, Wieters has been playing catch-up to Francisco Pena, who entered camp as the favorite to open the season backing up Yadier Molina. Though he missed some time due to an oblique injury, Pena has had the better offensive camp. Pena is 5-for-17 this spring, while Wieters has three hits in 22 at-bats. Wieters struck out three times on Wednesday.

Utility infielder
This is down to Yairo Munoz and Drew Robinson, though there’s an opportunity for both to make the roster if Jedd Gyorko opens the year on the injured list. That’s becoming more likely by the day, as Gyorko (right calf strain) isn’t expected to be ready to take at-bats in a Minor League game until Sunday.

However, if Gyorko were to be ready for Opening Day, there’d be room for just one of Munoz or Robinson. While the Cardinals like the idea of having a Robinson's left-handed bat available off the bench, Munoz has had the superior camp. Munoz is 10-for-38 with three extra-base hits. Robinson has tallied 12 hits, but has struck out a team-high 17 times in 47 at-bats.

Both players have shown the ability to play multiple infield positions in addition to center field.

Knowing that Carlos Martinez, Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson will open the season on the injured list narrows the field. But that doesn’t mean there’s clarity just yet.

Shildt reiterated on Wednesday that he plans to begin the year with a seven-man bullpen. Andrew Miller and Jordan Hicks are in. Alex Reyes, the Cardinals' top prospect per MLB Pipeline, and Dominic Leone have also positioned themselves for inclusion with standout springs.

Chasen Shreve and Mike Mayers could have an edge as out-of-options players. That’d be the case, too, if Gant doesn’t crack the rotation. And if he does, Hudson would be a natural fit to slide into a relief role.

All these external factors could prevent the other two remaining candidates -- John Brebbia and Tyler Webb -- from being able to crack their first Opening Day roster.