As the days tick toward the opening of the 2021 season, the Cardinals’ nightly lineup continues to solidify. One reality was already rather discernible but now affirmed: Tommy Edman will be the Opening Day and primary second baseman, though he could find some reps in the outfield.
With that confirmation from manager Mike Shildt before Sunday’s 11-3 Grapefruit League loss to the Nationals, Matt Carpenter, too, has been officially designated a role for the start of the season: He’ll occupy a bench spot.
There was some hope entering the spring that Carpenter could challenge Edman for starting time at second base, perhaps setting up some sort of platoon. But that has not panned out. Carpenter left play on Sunday -- where he lined up at third base and made a few impressive stops -- with just one hit in 36 at-bats (.028 average) and 13 strikeouts against eight walks all spring.
“Carp’s taken rightful ownership of the process and [is] believing in it,” Shildt said. “We’re not naive; the process hasn’t yielded results. But the process has yielded a lot of balls that have been hit hard.”
True, Carpenter has hit into both wind and bad luck, unable to beat the shift on multiple occasions with hard-hit balls that died at the warning track or that would have gone for base knocks in a standard infield alignment. The unfortunate reality for Carpenter is that the shift remains a permissible defensive tactic.
“When you can start to control the ball after it leaves the bat, let us know,” Shildt said, “because we’d love to get some of that.”
The Cardinals will look for a balance with Carpenter, attempting to get him the proper at-bats to stay in pristine playing shape and ignite a spark, but doing so from primarily a spot-start and pinch-hitting role. Carpenter was a 2014 All-Star at second base, a two-time All-Star at third and has taken some reps at first this spring.
Carpenter has taken a bench role before, and the right-handedness of the club’s projected starting lineup can make him a useful left-handed power bat off the bench.
“Let's not minimize the importance of that role, that responsibility and that opportunity,” Shildt said. “And he's done it well.”
And though he’s struggled, Shildt said Carpenter remains in a good mental state, “probably in a far better place than a lot of people would be.”
The Cardinals believe their best roster is a roster where Carpenter’s play dictates more playing time. That has not panned out yet, but there are 162 games for the 10-year veteran to try and make it happen.
“Like we've talked about, I’m comfortable and confident that it's a long season and Carp will stay ready to go,” Shildt said. “Opportunities will present themselves, and I’m confident he’ll take advantage of them.”
Liberatore’s final showing
Around 8:40 a.m. CT on Sunday, Matthew Liberatore’s roommate -- fellow prospect Nolan Gorman -- asked him if he was leaving the apartment a little later in the day. Starters usually take some extra time in their pregame routines, after all.
Only thing: Liberatore didn’t know until then that he was starting.
By the time he left the mound that afternoon -- with 2 1/3 innings, two earned runs and four strikeouts on his ledger -- it represented Liberatore’s first start since the end of the 2019 season. The 2020 Minor League season was canceled due to the pandemic; Liberatore worked out at the alternate training site instead.
“Felt like riding a bike,” Liberatore said. “I felt like I was back in my element a little bit more.”
Already re-assigned out of Major League camp, the club’s top pitching prospect (No. 2 overall) isn’t slated for the Opening Day roster, but he showed what he could potentially do as a midseason callup this spring, with a 3.24 ERA across 8 1/3 innings (five appearances, one start).
“Mentally, I've made leaps and bounds since my last [start], just as far as what I'm looking for in hitters to the usage of my stuff or the sequencing, even,” Liberatore said. "I think I just have a lot more refined approach to what I'm doing.”
Around the horn
• Adam Wainwright was originally penciled in for Sunday against the Nats, but he's been pushed back to Monday’s Grapefruit League finale against the Mets, perhaps with the foresight that the Cards play Washington twice in the first month of the season. Carlos Martínez will piggyback Wainwright on Monday.
• Kwang Hyun Kim, who returned to action with two innings on Saturday after a bout with back tightness, will not travel with the Cardinals to their first series in Cincinnati. The left-hander’s timetable to make his season debut has yet to be determined.