Bubble watch: A look at the players fighting for final spots on Cardinals bench, bullpen

By Rob Rains

JUPITER, Fla. – The opening day of the regular season is just two weeks away, meaning players competing for one of the final spots on the Cardinals bench or in the bullpen are running out of time to impress the manager and coaching staff.

Depending on if the Cardinals decide to carry 13 or 14 pitchers on the roster, there would seem to be one or perhaps two jobs open among position players and either one, two or perhaps no spots available in the bullpen.

“I think it’s a healthy competition,” manager Mike Shildt said on Wednesday. “There are a lot of guys who are earning their way on the club but we just don’t know if we are going to have enough seats at the table for them when we start the season.”

Here is a rundown of the candidates for those jobs and where the races stand:

Position players

Three of the bench spots appear that they will be filled by Lane Thomas, Matt Carpenter and Andrew Knizner. That leaves these five players in contention for the remaining one or two spots (listed in alphabetical order):

Austin Dean – The challenge facing both Dean and Justin Williams is convincing the Cardinals they need to carry a fifth outfielder, which would come at the expense of the extra middle infielder. This position would more times than not be used in a pinch-hitting role, so offense certainly would seem to be the biggest factor in that decision. Going into Wednesday night’s game, Dean was 6-of-20 this spring, a .300 average, but has struck out nine times in those 20 at-bats.

John Nogowski – Of the five bench candidates, Nogowski might be the one best suited for a primary pinch-hitting role. His natural position, first base, will be occupied most of the time by Paul Goldschmidt, and when he does take an occasional day off, Carpenter is the logical substitute. Nogowski has played some games in the outfield in the past, including 12 games in the minors, 10 of which came in A ball. He has taken fly balls there this spring but has not appeared there in a game. If the Cardinals are convinced he could play there if necessary, his odds of making the team go up. So far this spring he has a .333 average (6-of-18) with one homer and eight RBIs, tied for the team lead with Tyler O’Neill. He also has drawn five walks in 23 plate appearances and struck out only three times.

Jose Rondon – It’s always harder for a player who is not on the 40-man roster to win a job in the spring, especially when the player he is primarily competing against (Edmundo Sosa) is out of options. There has been a big difference so far, however, in how the two have performed offensively. Rondon is 4-of-14, and three of his hits have gone for extra bases (two triples and a home run), driving in six runs. What Rondon has to prove to the Cardinals in the remaining games is that he can be an adequate fill-in defensively, primarily at shortstop, but also at second and third, and that he could be a better option as a pinch-hitter than the other bench candidates.

Edmundo Sosa – Sosa came to camp as the favorite to win the final bench spot if for no other reasons than the unknown ability of Rondon and the fact that Sosa is out of options. Sosa appears to be the better of the two defensively, but that alone – and being out of options – should not guarantee him the job. If Sosa is not the choice, the Cardinals would either have to work out a trade or risk losing him on waivers, which will be a tough decision. Sosa started the spring 0-of-10 before getting his first hit, a double, on Monday.

Justin Williams – Williams has one advantage over the other four candidates for the last roster spot – he is the only one who bats left-handed. That alone, however, won’t be enough to guarantee him the job because the Cardinals should already have a left-handed hitter in Carpenter available to pinch-hit most nights. Williams’s status is a little clouded because the team has still not received a ruling from the MLB office about whether or not Williams is out of options – the question is about how MLB will handle options from last year’s shortened season. As is the case with Sosa, however, even if Williams is out of options, he should not automatically win a spot. He also, like Dean, has to convince the Cardinals to carry an extra outfielder over another infielder or Nogowski. Williams has four hits in 21 at-bats so far this spring, including one home run.

Bullpen

At the moment it appears John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon will fill the last two spots in the rotation in place of Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim as the season begins. There is at least a slim chance, however, that Kim could be ready to pitch at some point during the rotation’s first turn in the regular season which would move Ponce de Leon back to the bullpen.

Locked into spots in the bullpen are Jordan Hicks, Alex Reyes, Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller, Genesis Cabrera and Tyler Webb. If the team carries 13 pitchers, there is one opening – assuming Kim starts the year on the injured list.

If they want to keep 14 pitchers, there could be two openings (if Kim is out) or one if he is healhy.

These are three pitchers still competing for that spot or spots:

Kodi Whitley – Whitley would appear to be the favorite for the spot since he is strictly a reliever while the other two candidates, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo, have primarily been starters in the past although Woodford was used out of the bullpen last summer. Whitley’s rookie season was interrupted by COVID-19, but he is back on the mound and has been effective in limited use this spring. In 3 1/3 innings he has not allowed a hit or a run, walked one and struck out five.

Jake Woodford – If Woodford does not end up on the opening day roster, it won’t be because he did something to lose the spot. He has pitched very well so far this spring, giving up only one hit and one walk while striking out three in four innings. The decision the Cardinals have to make is if they want to develop Woodford as a starter, it might make more sense for him to open the year at the alternate site camp and in the rotation at Triple A, getting stretched out, where he would be available if the need arose for a starter later in the season.

Johan Oviedo – One way to kind of assess where a player stands when he is competing for a spot on the roster is to see how much he is being used. In Oviedo’s case, that has been very infrequently. He has pitched in only one main spring training game, covering two innings, while his other two appearances have come in a B game and in a simulated game. As is the case with Woodford, if the Cardinals want to stretch Oviedo out as a starter, he would probably be best served by beginning the year at the alternate site camp and then going into the rotation when the Triple A season begins in May.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

Photo of Kodi Whitley by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports

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For the latest news and features in St. Louis Sports check out STLSportsPage.com. Rob Rains, Editor.