By Rob Rains
With their 13th division title since 2000 secured, the Cardinals’ attention for the final week of the regular season can now shift to preparing for the wild-card series.
The decisions that the front office, manager Oli Marmol and the coaching staff have to make will set the rotation, come up with the best possible lineup, determine who should fill the last couple of bench and bullpen spots and find out if two key injured players will be healthy enough to contribute to the team’s postseason run.
All of the decisions will come with questions attached. Here is a rundown of what the Cardinals’ brass will be considering in the coming days:
Rotation: Based on recent performances, the starters for the first two games of the wild-card series should be Miles Mikolas and Jose Quintana. It’s who should pitch after that which presents a bigger challenge.
Adam Wainwright? Jordan Montgomery? Jack Flaherty? A case could be made for or against all three … especially considering that if one of these three is starting in the wild-card series it likely will be in a win-or-go-home game three.
How each pitches in their last start of the regular season could answer the question. The Cardinals will also have to consider that should a game three be necessary in the wild-card round, they will need another starter ready to pitch game one of the Division Series on Tuesday, Oct. 11, which would be a road game in either New York or Atlanta, whoever wins the NL East.
It’s likely the Cardinals will keep a fourth starter available for the wild-card series in case a starter has to come out of a game early. The fifth starter could either shift to a relief role or be left off the roster until the second round, when rosters can be adjusted.
Cold bats: Some of the hitters the Cardinals have relied on all season have seen their production slip in the last couple of weeks. How long the team stays alive in the playoffs might simply come down to whether Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado can get hot again.
After reaching September as a legitimate threat to win the Triple Crown, Goldschmidt has a .241 average for the month with just two home runs in 95 plate appearances and now is unlikely to lead the league in any of the Triple Crown categories. Arenado has been worse, hitting .214, with two homers in 95 plate appearances this month.
What could be as important as the production from those two players is who hits in front of them – and if they can get on base enough to give Goldschmidt and Arenado RBI opportunities.
That duo likely will come from a combination of Tommy Edman, Brendan Donovan and Lars Nootbaar, with that decision probably driven by the individual pitcher-hitter matchups. Edman has posted a .298 average this month, with a .344 on-base percentage. Donovan hit just .229 but thanks to 15 walks, has a .379 on-base percentage with one game left in the month.
Nootbaar hit just .175 in September, but his four home runs are the most on the team behind the six hit by Albert Pujols.
Of the players who are most likely to be in the starting lineup in the playoffs, the only two with a batting average higher than .241 for the month were Yadier Molina (.306) and Edman. The team’s composite average for the month, .222, ranks 13th in the NL and their total of 95 runs in 25 games, an average of 3.8 per game, is ahead of only the Reds, Marlins and Cubs.
Roster adjustments/makeup: Assuming the Cardinals carry 13 pitchers for the wild-card series, they also will have 13 position players available. Ten of those spots appear set baring a new injury – Goldschmidt, Arenado, Edman, Donovan, Molina, Andrew Knizner, Dylan Carlson, Nootbaar, Corey Dickerson and Pujols.
If Tyler O’Neill’s sore hamstring heals, he will be on the roster. Despite his lack of offensive production, Paul DeJong is expected to be included because the team likes to use him as a late-inning defensive replacement if they have a lead. That would leave one spot to fill. The leading candidate Iikely is Juan Yepez, who could be employed in the outfield, as the designated hitter or as a pinch-hitter.
If O’Neill can’t play, that would open a spot for either Alec Burleson, Ben DeLuzio or perhaps Nolan Gorman, who was optioned to Memphis for the last week of the Triple A season to get regular at-bats. In recent weeks the Cardinals have used DeLuzio in much the same manner as DeJong, going in for defense if they have a late-inning lead.
Injury updates: O’Neill has dealt with multiple injuries throughout his disappointing season and now is dealing with a sore hamstring. He will have to proof that he can run at full speed, and be able to hit, for the Cardinals to feel comfortable putting him back on the roster. If he is not healthy enough to be in the starting lineup, would the Cardinals keep him on the roster simply as a pinch-hitting option?
The injury question in the bullpen concerns Jordan Hicks, who went on the injured list with neck spasms and arm fatigue. Before his latest injury Hicks was being used as a key bridge reliever, with good success, and that would be the way the Cardinals would like to use him in the playoffs – but he has to proof he is healthy enough to do that.
Bullpen makeup: If the Cardinals keep four starters available for the wild-card round, they can have nine pitchers in the bullpen. It also is possible the team would decide to go with just 12 pitchers in the best-of-three series, allowing them to keep an extra position player, knowing they would be able to adjust the roster should they advance to the division series.
Set to be in the bullpen are Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Andre Pallante and Steven Matz. The other four or five spots are not as locked in.
From the right side, the Cardinals could keep Dakota Hudson in the bullpen, especially if they need a long reliever. That spot also could be filled by Flaherty if he is not going to start. Chris Stratton probably will make the roster. Jake Woodford, despite recent success, could be a victim of the numbers game, especially if Hicks is healthy enough to pitch.
Part of the decision regarding the makeup of the bullpen will be answering the question of whether to keep two or three lefthanders. Besides Matz, the other lefthanders could be JoJo Romero, Zack Thompson or Genesis Cabrera, who has been pitching in Memphis to try to see he can restore his lost velocity.
There are six games, all against the Pirates, to try to come up with those answers.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports