The talented 23-year-old was named to the Wild Card roster, but he has a murky path to playing time in 2022.
Juan Yepez briefly set Cardinals twitter ablaze when the team announced that he was included on the Wild Card roster. After a season in which he tallied a .417 wOBA in Double-A and a .413 wOBA in Triple-A, it was exciting to see Yepez on the big league team, even though he ended up not making an appearance in the game. The fact that he made the team shows that the Cardinals think highly of his bat and were willing to give him the chance to make his MLB debut in the playoffs. He certainly earned such an opportunity, but now that the season is over, it is unclear how many plate appearances will be available for Yepez in 2022.
Between Double-A and Triple-A, Yepez played 554 1⁄3 innings at first base, 123 2⁄3 innings at third base, 102 innings in left field, and 16 innings in right field. This versatility goes well with his bat, but the problem for Yepez is that those positions are covered by Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Tyler O’Neill, and Dylan Carlson, respectively. With very little playing time open in the corners, it will be difficult for Yepez to get in the game.
Something that may help Yepez is that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on December 1st. Thus, it is possible that the universal DH will be coming to baseball in 2022. This would open a spot for Yepez as he could take that role and use his best tools (hitting, power) while not having to play a position.
If the DH comes to the NL next season, though, there will be plenty of competition for at-bats from other young prospects. The Cardinals likely want to give Lars Nootbaar more playing time next season after he seized the fourth outfield role this year. Nick Plummer had a similarly impressive year between Double-A and Triple-A next season, and he may push for plate appearances at the big league level, although the Cardinals may leave him in Triple-A since he only had 102 plate appearances at the level. Finally, Nolan Gorman will also be pushing for plate appearances at the MLB level. If Paul DeJong is still on the team next year then he may also be a DH candidate.
Ultimately, then, Yepez’s role may be that of a potential DH and primary pinch hitter who sees the field to give rest to the corner infielders and outfielders. The danger with this is that Yepez may be better off in Triple-A where he can receive regular plate appearances and defensive work if he is not seeing enough action at the big league level. The problem with this approach is that plate appearances are not going to open for Yepez anytime soon with Goldschmidt, Arenado, and O’Neill being highly productive and Carlson having a strong rookie year and being a former top prospect.
As a result, Yepez should be on the 2022 roster. If there is a DH in the NL next year, then he should be the lead candidate for the role. If not, then he can still get plenty of appearances as the primary pinch hitter and replacement for any of the corner players. If Matt Carpenter can get 249 plate appearances this year, then Yepez should easily be able to reach 350. This is more than enough plate appearances to justify keeping Yepez in the majors as it gives him a large enough role to provide value to the team.
Ultimately, it comes down to Mike Shildt, as it is the manager’s job to get his best players on the field. If Yepez shows that he is ready to hit MLB pitching, then it is Shildt’s job to get him plate appearances. The question is how effectively Shildt will be able to do this if he also has to find playing time for Nolan Gorman and two shortstops.
Mike Shildt can have a tendency to stick to his starters, but with so many well-performing prospects with the potential to reach St. Louis next season, it would be a good strategy to rotate the starters more often and keep them rested while giving more playing time to players such as Gorman and Yepez, and even Nootbaar and Andrew Knizner to a lesser extent.
This will be the challenge for Shildt in 2022, but it is a good problem to have. The Cardinals saw their depth get tested in 2021, but they should have no problems in getting production off the bench in 2022. The DH may open up more playing time for impressive prospects, but even if the DH does not come to NL, Yepez should be a fixture on the St. Louis Cardinals roster. He did not get the chance to make his debut in the playoffs, but he should not have to wait long to do so next season.