The St. Louis Cardinals have a unique mix of veterans and young prospects all jostling for a place on the 25-man roster this spring training. The Cardinals farm system is ranked first in Major League Baseball by many respected, but as seen below those prospects may have to wait in line behind established veterans. Here is a breakdown of the Cardinals projected starting lineup and 25-man rotation based on the latest news from the past 48 hours.
Projected Starting Lineup
1. Rafael Furcal – Shortstop
2. Jon Jay – Center Field
3. Matt Holliday – Left Field
4. Allen Craig – First Base
5. Carlos Beltran – Right Field
6. David Freese – Third Base
7. Yadier Molina – Catcher
8. Daniel Descalso – Second Base
The Sure Things (Barring Injury): Furcal, Jay, Holliday, Craig, Beltran, Freese, Molina
The Unsure Thing: Descalso
Matt Carpenter – Second Base, First Base, Third Base, Left Field, Right Field
Ty Wigginton – Third Base, First Base, Left Field, Right Field
Tony Cruz – Catcher, First Base
Ronny Cedeno – Shortstop, Second Base
Shane Robinson – Outfield
Sure Things (Barring Injury): Carpenter, Wigginton, Cruz
Unsure Things: Cedeno, Robinson
Last Four Left Out: Pete Kozma, Adron Chambers, Kolten Wong, Matt Adams
Assuming everyone stays health (a big if) almost all the Cardinals starting lineup is set. In 2012 this lineup was second-best in the National League, producing 765 runs with a .759 OPS. The problem with the Cardinals last year was when they scored runs rather than how many runs they scored.
The only real question comes at second base, where Daniel Descalso must improve on his .530 OPS in order to win and/or keep the starting job. Early reports suggest that Matt Carpenter is adjusting well to second base, and last year Carpenter produced an excellent .828 OPS over 340 plate appearances. If Descalso falters over spring training and Carpenter produces just adequate defense he could overtake the starting role. At this point, however, Descalso is still projected as the starter until Carpenter proves himself at the position in some exhibition games.
Matt Carpenter was by far the most valuable bench player for the team this year and will certainly make the roster as at least a bench player barring a complete collapse. The Cardinals signed Wigginton to a two-year $5 million contract so that all-but guarantees him a spot on the roster. The team appreciated the job Tony Cruz did backing up Molina last year and there is no real threat to Cruz in the system right now.
The question marks come with Cedeno and Robinson.
Cedeno was given the nod over Kozma because of his experience and $1.15 million contract. Kozma performed wonderfully in the last month of the season last year, but his minor league numbers suggest he is due for a serious regression. If the two are tied the Cardinals can simply ship Kozma off to AAA for more grooming.
Robinson and Chambers are very similar in that both has speed that fails to produce the kind of stolen base numbers one would expect. Both can play excellent defense, and both have very little power coupled with impressive OBP rates in the minors. One could really toss a coin in deciding which one wins a roster spot, but Robinson wins at this point because the club gave him more time at the Major League level last year. In addition, Robinson bats right-handed and so provides nice balance if he subs in for Jay against a tough left-handed pitcher.
Wong is still likely a few months away from being able to play at the Major League level since he finished last year at AA. Given the options of Descalso and Carpenter the club would probably prefer Wong get more grooming at AAA. GM John Mozeliak has said that the club will only bring Matt Adams up if Adams can get significant at-bats, but Adams is currently blocked by Craig and Carpenter at first base, so Adams will likely be sent down barring an injury.
Early last year Furcal was an ideal leadoff man with a .384 OBP in April and a .397 OBP in May. However, in August Furcal’s OBP fell below .300 and Jon Jay took over the leadoff spot. Assuming he is healthy Furcal will hit first, but if Furcal struggles Jay could hit leadoff and Beltra could be moved up to hit second with Freese or Molina hitting fifth and sixth.
According to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Furcal said he is “very confident” in his elbow and that everything “looks perfect inside.” Furcal also said his elbow is “much better” than it was last fall. Furcal still has not let loose on a throw from the hole, but until he gets injured the shortstop and leadoff spot in the lineup are his to lose.
Carlos Beltran has missed significant playing time with knee issues in 2009 and 2010 but the last two years Beltran has played over 140 games each season. If Beltran was to experience any problems top prospect Oscar Taveras would be ready to take over the role.
Projected Starting Rotation
1. Adam Wainwright
2. Jaime Garcia
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Lance Lynn
5. Shelby Miller
Sure Things (Barring Injury): Wainwright, Garcia, Westbrook
Pretty Sure Thing: Lance Lynn
Unsure Thing: Shelby Miller
Joe Kelly – Long Relief
Marc Rzepczynski – 6th-8th Inning
Trevor Rosenthal – 5th-7th Inning
Edward Mujica – 7th Inning
Randy Choate – Whenever the key left-handed hitter shows up in a crucial spot
Mitchell Boggs – 8th Inning
Jason Motte – 9th Inning
Sure Things (Barring Injury): Motte, Boggs, Choate, Mujica, Rzepcynski
Pretty Sure Thing: Rosenthal
Unsure Thing: Kelly
Last Three Out: Fernando Salas, Sam Freeman, Barret Browning
Starting Rotation Analysis
Wainwright, Garcia, and Westbrook all have the top three slots locked down assuming they are healthy, which is still a question mark for Garcia given the shoulder problem he struggled with last year. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Garcia felt good after throwing live batting practice on Sunday.
The injury to Chris Carpenter assured Lance Lynn of a place in the rotation unless Lynn falters badly in spring training. Lynn began last year as an All-Star with a 3.41 ERA. Lynn then tired in the second half with a 4.32 ERA and eventually was removed from the rotation. Lynn showed up to spring training in better shape this year, which should allow him to weather the 162-game season better this year.
The largest question going into camp is who will be the number five starter. Miller is given the spot in my projection for the following three reasons: (1) Miller has the most experience at the highest levels with 27 games started at AAA last year (2) Miller has the most impressive assortment of pitches with a plus fastball, curveball, and changeup (3) Rosenthal and Kelly are both more suited for the bullpen.
In some ways Rosenthal may actually be hurt by his stellar performance in the bullpen last year. The team may simply prefer to keep Rosenthal as an asset in the bullpen rather than mess with what turned out to be winning formula at the end of last year.
Kelly performed admirably last year in 16 starts at the Major League level, but his minor league numbers (ERA, K/9, BB/9) suggests he is the least qualified of the three candidates. Kelly has an exception fastball which can hit 100 MPH at times, but his lack of a plus secondary pitch makes him more hittable the second or third time he faces a lineup as a starter.
Most of the bullpen is also already set with established players that have Major League contracts. The roles are also fairly defined with Motte as the closer, Boggs as the setup man, Choate as the left-handed specialist, and Mujica and the rest taking care of the seventh or sixth innings as needed.
The question marks are Rosenthal and Kelly.
Rosenthal’s extraordinary fastball makes him an ideal fit in the bullpen, but the organization may prefer to send him down to AAA to develop more as a starter if he does not win a spot in the starting rotation with big league club.
Kelly is projected to make the club over Salas because of his ability to pitch three or more innings if a starting pitcher falters early. However, Salas has significantly more relief pitching experience than Kelly, including 24 saves in 2011, which could give him the edge if the competition for the last spot is close.
Barret Browning (1.73 ERA over 41.2 IP in AAA) and Sam Freeman (2.08 over 30.1 IP in AAA) could both get looks because each would give the bullpen three left-handers, and, theoretically at least, more flexibility. However, both struggled at the Major League level last year which suggests that they may need more development in AAA.