The Cardinals have been operating with confidence this spring that their depth can carry them throughout the season. The splash acquisition of Nolan Arenado certainly changed the makeup of the lineup, but the club opting out of any other serious additions this offseason was a testament to the steps forward it believes its current iteration of players can take.
So, the competitions that have played out at camp are more an alignment of current pieces than true battles for starting time. The infield is set, the rotation is rather set and the bullpen is almost unchanged from last season.
Competition is always welcome, but the ongoing battles taking place further down the roster give the Cardinals hope that their high-talent floor will be a good omen for a third consecutive postseason appearance -- and potentially more.
With that being said, there are just eight days to go until Opening Day in Cincinnati, and there are indeed still spots to be won. Let’s dive into where the four remaining battles stand.
News of Harrison Bader not being available to start the season was certainly a blow to the Cards’ outfield picture, which was set to feature him in center, Tyler O’Neill in left and Dylan Carlson in right. Now, Carlson will be the primary center fielder, where he’s been getting reps as camp has progressed.
But the absence of Bader does allow for some other bubble candidates to step up. Justin Williams will likely make the roster now and could be the starting right fielder when Carlson starts in center. Lane Thomas, who had an inside track for a spot by raking early in camp, is now a safer backup candidate because of his ability to play center. John Nogowski, who is a natural first baseman but is taking more reps in the outfield, may have just seen his roster chances increase. All the while, Austin Dean is making noise as camp winds down.
Few places are the Cardinals allowed to flex their depth more than in this outfield shuffling.
Matt Carpenter is a lock. Williams and Thomas are now near-locks -- just a matter of who starts, and when -- while Nogowski’s torrid spring may be rewarded with a bench spot
But what about an infield utility player? José Rondón, who was signed to a Minor League deal this offseason, has “thunder in his bat,” according to manager Mike Shildt and hasn’t stopped hitting this spring. But the club also has Edmundo Sosa, who’s out of Minor League options, as an in-house candidate. Choosing Rondón over Sosa would mean sending the latter through waivers, which the club may not want to do so early in the year. But Rondón has made it hard to not at least earn a look. Max Moroff has also had a nice spring.
In any event, the Cards know this crop of players will be valuable contributors over the course of the season. When, exactly, is to be determined.
The back end of the rotation
With every day that passes, Kwang Hyun Kim appears more like he’ll be ready for his first turn in the rotation, though it’ll likely be a limited one after his bout with back tightness. So with Miles Mikolas (right shoulder) the only pitcher officially ruled out for the Opening Day roster, it’s down to one rotation spot the Cardinals must fill behind Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martínez and Kim.
John Gant has all but secured that role after he continued to show his deep arsenal of pitches with five punchouts over his five innings his last time out. Daniel Ponce de Leon, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo are all staying ready on a starter’s track, with Ponce de Leon the prime candidate to step up in a pinch, but they’re destined for swingmen roles as it stands. Woodford and Oviedo could start the year in Triple-A. Ponce de Leon could also serve as a piggyback option, if the club decides to lean that way.
The Cardinals have been wary of naming a closer too quickly, nor do they feel the need to do so. Jordan Hicks is back, but he’ll be eased back into game action for the first time since June 2019. Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller and Alex Reyes all have prolonged closing experience, and that track record invites peace of mind that the closer role will be worked out naturally.
All told, the Cardinals feel they have lower-leverage arms that could close for other teams. Seven different St. Louis pitchers earned a save in 2020 -- a number that’ll likely drop in ’21 but emblematic of the overarching depth within the club’s bullpen.