Let’s take a hard look at the Cardinals’ current depth chart… because what else do we have to do?
Welcome to lockout content!
For the next few months, your faithful writers here at Viva El Birdos will have nothing new to talk about. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing.
No signing rumors. No trade talk. No “what if” articles. Just nothing.
Except for labor battles, of course. And even that seems to have gone quiet once the lockout went into effect.
So, with weeks and months of writing ahead of us with nothing new to talk about, I thought it might be helpful – though admittedly boring – to lay out an overview of the Cardinals’ depth chart.
Fun stuff, I know.
Still, I found the exercise to be surprisingly informative. It’s one thing to talk about depth options and rising minor league talent throughout the season and into the offseason. It’s another thing to lay it all out there and see where everyone fits.
Here’s my conclusion early: the Cardinals have intriguing depth throughout their roster and it will probably be difficult to find playing time for all the players who have earned it.
Let’s start with the offense. To form the following chart, I assumed that there would be a 26-man roster and the Cards would start with 13 hitters and 13 pitchers. That could change in a variety of ways, but for our purposes today, that seems like the way to go. Here’s where I landed.
(Note: Ali Sanchez is on the 40-Man roster even though he is listed under the non-roster column. I wanted to make sure he was on the list but didn’t want to add another column exclusively for him.)
Most of the Cardinals’ offensive starters are pretty well set. Molina, Goldschmidt, Arenado, O’Neill, Bader, and Carlson are locks to start at their positions out of spring training, barring injury. Lars Nootbaar could push Dylan Carlson or Harrison Bader in spring training but that’s the longest of long shots. If Nootbaar has that good of a spring, then he’s more likely to just slide into the DH spot, which is almost certainly going to be in play in the NL in 2022.
Less secure is Tommy Edman, who won a Gold Glove at second and finished second in the league in doubles. The only reason he’s not a lock as a starter is that the Cardinals’ top prospect, Nolan Gorman, shifted to second base after the Nolan Arenado trade and advanced to AAA last season. Gorman could benefit from a bit more time at Memphis to start the season, but if he comes to camp on fire, it’s possible, though highly unlikely, that he could push Edman off second. Once Gorman arrives, Mozeliak will want him to play every day. The position battle between those two will probably have to wait until mid-season or for an injury to make space for both players.
The remaining two positions – SS and DH – are far from locks. Paul DeJong has seniority at SS and the hope that he’ll regain some of his old offensive form. He’s probably the favorite to start at short right now. Edmundo Sosa was the starter at the end of the season, and he brings an elite glove but very little offensive ability. He’s a BABIP-dependent contact hitter with no power and no interest in drawing walks. His lone offensive claim to fame is the ability to get hit by pitches. I suspect both of those two will get plenty of playing time early in the season.
I have Juan Yepez penciled in at DH, but since he has 0 MLB plate appearances, it’s a spot he’s going to have to earn. Otherwise, Marmol will use it to spell regulars and to give playing time to backups like Lars Nootbaar and whoever ends up as the lefty UT.
That position, the 13th man on offense, is the only one I’m currently leaving blank. The Cardinals need someone who can fill the lefty utility infield role vacated by Matt Carpenter. That doesn’t mean they have to look outside their organization to find someone. Brendan Donovan is the best candidate internally. He’s got a bag full of gloves – infield and outfield – and sort of knows how to use all of them. He has also hit everywhere he’s played, including a good showing in the Arizona Fall League. If the club wants some security, there are multiple veteran options the Cards could grab on the cheap after the lockout to compete with Donovan.
The position of least depth is the outfield, where the Cardinals have Lars Nootbaar on their bench and no one else ready to go. With a strong rookie season followed by a monster performance in the AFL, Noot’s lefty bat and versatility on defense have him written in ink on the roster. Behind him? Alec Burleson advanced rapidly last season and projects as a future starter. Capel can play centerfield competently. Neither player is on the 40-man roster.
I suspect that the Cardinals view their outfield depth more broadly than I’ve presented. Nolan Gorman still doesn’t have much time in the outfield in his minor league career, but if a corner outfielder went down, he could get a call. Juan Yepez is a more athletic version of Jose Martinez in the outfield but he could fill a spot for a time. Brendan Donovan is a possibility. And no one wants to hear this, but Tommy Edman has pl… You know what, I’m just going to stop before I finish that sentence.
On to pitching.
Blake did a good job covering the pitching side of the depth chart in an article yesterday. The Cardinals have their five-man rotation set, with Adam Wainwright likely to lead off the season. Jack Flaherty’s injuries shouldn’t be a long-term concern and the club is surely expecting a strong bounce back from him. We’ve covered Matz in detail on the site… seriously, find a media outlet that had better coverage of the Steven Matz signing than Viva El Birdos! (I know it wasn’t that exciting of a deal but by golly we covered the heck out of it here.) Hudson is an ideal starter for this ballpark and defense and, provided that his command is back after Tommy John, should be in line for a solid season.
And Mikolas? Well, if the Cardinals went out and signed a control specialist with a 4.2 fWAR in the not-too-distant past and some injury issues and plugged him in as the fifth starter, I think I would be praising the deal. Mikolas did produce .5 fWAR in just 8 (plus one injured outing) starts last season. His peripherals were encouraging in what was, essentially, a rehab season. There’s risk with Mikolas but there always is with a #5 starter.
Behind those five the club has Jake Woodford, Alex Reyes, and Jordan Hicks on a starter’s schedule this winter. When the team suffers its inevitable spring training injury to a starter, it’s possible one of those three could find their way into the rotation for a time.
And that’s why the team might consider bringing in another swing-style starter before the season begins. Wade LeBlanc is the name that keeps getting thrown around.
The Cardinals have solid depth in AAA, too, with Oviedo and Rondon already on the 40-man roster and Matthew Liberatore, Connor Thomas, and (late in the season) Zack Thompson ready behind them. If the team suffers a long-term injury from a starter early in the season, don’t rule out the possibility that Liberatore jumps to the head of the line. I’ll have more on his 2021 season in a later piece, but his stats at AAA project well and they came with a notable velocity bump by the end of the season. Right now, Steamer projects him to be about a league-average starter at age 23.
Even though some fans were upset that the team allowed Luis Garcia to go to the Padres in free agency, the team seems fairly set in relief. Gallegos should be the “closer” if Marmol feels the need to have one. Whitley and Helsley are behind him from the right side and Cabrera and McFarland from the left. Woodford, Reyes, and Hicks could find their way to the bullpen in some kind of relief role.
Behind them, the Cards’ depth might feel limited but it isn’t. Johan Oviedo and Angel Rondon could easily – and probably should – transition into relief roles. I would have no problem with Zack Thompson finding his way to relief innings by mid-season. Besides someone like LeBlanc, I don’t think the team needs to use any more resources on relievers. They are just as likely to get solid production from a DFA’ed vet than they are paying hefty $’s in free agency.
Discuss away in the comments. The roster is fairly complete, lacking a lefty utility hitter and maybe a swing-starter. Are you satisfied? Do you see areas of potential trouble? Are you comfortable with Lars Nootbaar being the only backup outfielder on the roster? Use the comments to make your thoughts known.