The Cardinals will retain some flexibility in how they use Justin Williams this season.
The club received confirmation that their 25-year-old outfielder will have a fourth-year Minor League option for the 2021 season, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told reporters on Wednesday, following a decision by an arbiter regarding several such outstanding cases around the league. That means St. Louis will not need to expose Williams to waivers should it opt to send him to the Minors over the course of the season.
The decision provides enhanced flexibility for Cardinals, but they might not need it any time soon.
At another time, Williams’ chances of making the Major League roster would be made slimmer by this decision, given the Cards can send him to the Minors without the risk of losing him to another organization. But with the news of Harrison Bader being sidelined for four to six weeks also coming out on Wednesday, Williams’ chances for the Opening Day roster skyrocketed.
Truth be told, Williams has been playing himself into the roster conversation lately, lauded for hard contact and providing a spark from the left side of the plate, an area where the club lacks depth. The club’s No. 19 prospect is batting .286 with one homer and one double through 17 spring games.
“A lot of good at-bats by guys, and Williams has definitely done his part,” said manager Mike Shildt, “especially recently.”
With Bader out, Williams could easily find himself as the starting right fielder, sharing the outfield with Tyler O’Neill in left and top prospect Dylan Carlson in center. Lane Thomas is also fighting for playing time in the outfield, and John Nogowski -- a natural first baseman -- has been taking test runs there as well, impressing more than perhaps anyone else at camp.
The Cardinals will eventually have to choose who to send down once Bader returns to full health, but at the very least, by the time Bader’s return forces any decision, they'll have a month-plus of regular-season data to work from.
“Obviously, not having Harrison Bader roaming center field is not great news, but the fact that it's not season-long, I think we can manage through this,” Mozeliak said. “And other players are also having nice camps, like a Justin Williams. Still very optimistic about what we're seeing out of this group, and ultimately, I hope that we have enough horsepower that we can make up for Bader’s loss.”
Here’s some more of what else Mozeliak had to share on Wednesday.
On roster decisions
Williams is one of many Cards trying to force the club’s hand when it comes to final roster decisions. Nogowski, José Rondón and several other fringe candidates are having impressive performances that are hard to ignore.
Mozeliak said that no final roster decisions have been made, but the club can’t help but put a premium on overall versatility from the players it’s considering.
“Tie goes to the runner if you can do more than one position,” Mozeliak said. “Right now, I think the best thing to do is just retain as many talented people as we can before we have to make any difficult roster decisions.”
Miles Mikolas, following a shutdown while he dealt with soreness in his right shoulder, has resumed playing catch. Mozeliak said that the right-hander is likely to throw a bullpen session before Spring Training wraps up on Monday, but that he probably won’t face hitters until the alternate training site opens in Sauget, Ill. Mikolas has been ruled out for his first turn in the rotation, and the Cards will wait to see how he responds to those sessions before putting a firmer timeline on his return to the big league club.
After an 0-for-3 showing hitting cleanup on Wednesday, Matt Carpenter is 1-for-33 this spring, with six walks against 13 strikeouts. With Carpenter likely starting the season in a bench role, how do the Cardinals plan to balance putting together a lineup that hits consistently with giving Carpenter at-bats so he can try to ignite a spark?
“I still think there's ways to try to find some at-bats for him,” Mozeliak said. “I don't think I would draw too many conclusions just solely based on Spring Training stats. Obviously, there's some things he's doing well, in terms of exit velocity, on hitting into some tough luck.
“But reality is, it hasn't been an outstanding camp from just a pure statistical standpoint for him. Overall, I think there's going to be some opportunities for him -- 162 games is a long time -- and you always have to find ways to keep people fresh. So I still think there's going to be some at-bats for him.”