By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – “Bubble watch” is a term very familiar to a lot of college basketball teams and their fans this time of year.
With the NCAA tournament’s selection show coming up on Sunday, teams that are not guaranteed of a spot in the field are on edge waiting for the announcement.
Some players in the Cardinals’ spring training camp know what that feeling of uncertainty is like.
As the Cardinals reach the halfway point in their exhibition schedule this weekend, with just over two weeks of games remaining, there are a lot of battles for roster spots underway – a fight that in many cases likely will come down to the final days of camp before the trip north to begin the regular season.
Here is a rundown of where those battles stand now, with a look at which players are “on the bubble.” All statistics were going into Friday night’s game.
Backup catcher – The fact that there is competition for the role behind starter Willson Contreras is somewhat surprising. It had been assumed this would be Andrew Knizner’s job, just as he backed up Yadier Molina the last few years, but a poor spring has opened a door for Tres Barrera, signed as a minor-league free agent in January. Barrera has spent some time in the majors with the Nationals, but like Knizner, has struggled offensively this spring. Ivan Herrera remains a slight possibility to win the job, although the Cardinals would prefer that he continue to gain experience by catching every day at Memphis.
Bench – Assuming, at this point anyway, that Jordan Walker makes the opening day roster, that development will force one of the projected starting outfielders – Dylan Carlson, Lars Nootbaar or Tyler O’Neill – into a reserve/DH role. The trickle-down effect will impact who wins the final two spots among the team’s 13 position players.
If Paul DeJong can show signs that he can emerge from his offensive slump of the last two years, he should win one of the spots as a backup infielder. Unfortunately for DeJong, that hasn’t happened yet. He is the best choice to play shortstop if Tommy Edman needs a day off; Brendan Donovan can play there too, but the team is much more comfortable with Donovan at second or third base.
If DeJong doesn’t hit, the team will face a major decision. Despite still being under contract for this season, can the Cardinals justify having him fill one of the last spots on the roster? It won’t be an easy call for John Mozeliak,president of baseball operations, and manager Oli Marmol but it might be one the team is finally forced to make.
If one of the outfielders becomes at least a part-time DH, what effect will that have on the two players also fighting for that job, Juan Yepez and Alec Burleson? There probably will not be a spot for both of them on the roster. Yepez also is the best option to back up Paul Goldschmidt at first base, likely a factor in the selection of the final bench spots.
The Cardinals like what they have seen this spring from minor-league free agent Taylor Motter, but it is expected he will go to Memphis and be available to come up in case of an injury.
Righthanded relievers – The Cardinals probably will have six righthanders in the bullpen to open the season. There is competition for at least three of those spots to go along with Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks and Giovanny Gallegos.
“You start to look at spots and it fills up really quickly,” said Marmol. “There are going to be some guys left out who deserve to be on a big-league roster. There will have to be some hard decisions made.”
Jake Woodford has shown that he deserves a spot, throwing four shutout innings against the Yankees and allowing only one run in nine innings this spring. His biggest problem is that he still has minor-league options remaining, so it would be easy – despite his success this spring – to send him out and havehim pitch at Memphis again until he is needed in St. Louis.
Dakota Hudson worked four scoreless innings against Nicaragua in an exhibition game on Thursday, but the Cardinals are still not convinced that he can throw enough strikes to be a reliever, and at the moment there isn’t a spot for him in the rotation.
The Cardinals like what they have seen from Wilking Rodriguez, the Rule 5 pickup from the Yankees, but his status is clouded by the fact that he would have to remain on the roster all season or be offered back to the Yankees. It won’t be easy to make that decision based on a handful of spring training appearances.
Andre Pallante was on the Cardinals roster for all of 2022, working as both a starter and reliever, but he pitched only two innings this spring before leaving camp to join the Italy team for the World Baseball Classic, and that absence might affect his chances of making the team. Like Woodford, he also has options remaining, and that could come into play as the evaluation process and discussions get serious.
Other veterans in the mix include Drew VerHagen and Chris Stratton, whose contract status could play a role in the final decisions about the bullpen makeup.The Cardinals believe VerHagen, who has been healthy this spring after battling injuries last year, can fill a number of different roles in the bullpen.
Lefthanded relievers – The Cardinals brought six lefthanded relievers to camp, plus minor-league starters Matthew Liberatore and Connor Thomas, to compete for what likely will be two spots in the bullpen.
Zack Thompson has been the best of the group this spring with four scoreless innings. Genesis Cabrera likely remains the frontrunner for the other spot based on his MLB experience. He had mixed results, however, in his three appearances before leaving for the WBC. How many more chances he will have to pitch this spring will be determined by how long the Dominican Republic stays alive in the tournament, which could be all the way to the finals.
Others in the mix are Anthony Misiewicz, Packy Naughton, JoJo Romero and Andrew Suarez, all of whom have spent time in the major leagues, but might find themselves having to begin the season in Memphis.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo of Jake Woodford by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports
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