The St. Louis Cardinals arrived at Wrigley Field this weekend with the opportunity to either seize an advantage gifted by the schedule makers or find themselves scrambling to find footing in a National League playoff race that has bedeviled them for the previous three seasons.
Their strong start against the Cubs has guided them down the path toward the postseason, which puts manager Mike Shildt in the position of finalizing crucial assessments that will determine the club’s postseason roster.
Though the Cardinals are firmly in position to win their 15th division title, a place in the Wild Card game remains a possibility. MLB rules allow a team to submit a different roster for each round of the postseason, which is to say that the Wild Card Cardinals would have a different makeup than the team that would take the field in the full season.
Most Wild Card competitors keep only two starting pitchers on their roster for that game, choosing instead to load up with bats and specialized bullpen arms.
The main thrust of the conversation comes in selecting the players who would be available for a National League Division Series.
Should the Cardinals win the NL Central, they would face the Atlanta Braves in the postseason’s first full round. Atlanta presents a unique challenge; With a switch hitter (Ozzie Albies) and four lefties (Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis, Matthew Joyce) in their regular rotation of hitters, the temptation to add an extra southpaw will be strong.
Their pitching rotation also features lefties Max Fried and Dallas Keuchel, which could benefit a Cardinals team that has few lefthanded bats.
Any player who was a member of the Cardinals organization on September 1 is eligible for the playoff roster, but the Cardinals aren’t expected to reach for any big surprises.
Those with dreams of uber-prospect Dylan Carlson making a dramatic October debut would be best served to continue sleeping and inform the rest of us how the story ends. The 35 men currently on the active roster will be those from which Shildt will choose his players for baseball’s biggest stage.
Position Players – 13 Expected
Locks (9): Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong, Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, Matt Wieters
On the Bubble, Health (1): Kolten Wong
On the Bubble, Performance (6): Andrew Knizner, Yairo Muñoz, Rangel Ravelo, Randy Arozarena, José Martínez, Tyler O’Neill
Headed Home (2): Joe Hudson, Edmundo Sosa
Wong, perhaps the team’s most valuable player this season, would be a guarantee for the roster if the Cardinals were assured of his physical readiness. Unfortunately, a strained hamstring suffered in Chicago on Thursday creates a question whose answer may not come until the season’s final days. Wong’s injury has been described as between “mild” and “moderate,” and he spent two different stretches on the Injured List in 2018 with muscle injuries in the same leg.
Wong said Saturday he hoped this injury would be less significant than those and that he intended to find a way to contribute as soon as possible.
Shildt was more conservative, explaining that the location of the injury in the muscle would make it difficult to contribute in any phase of the game without being at full health. Asked if he would be ready for the postseason, Wong said, “100%.”
Knizner is unlikely to be a candidate for the roster unless the Cardinals see value in backup catcher Wieters being used as a bench bat, and his versatility as a switch hitter may steer them in that direction. If Wong’s injury keeps him off the roster, Wieters is more likely to be used to hit, and Knizner would be needed as the emergency catcher.
Muñoz offers the most positional flexibility of any bench candidate, but he’s been used sparingly as of late, with only seven games played and six total plate appearances in September. Even as a regular starter, Edman’s versatility hedges against Muñoz’s biggest advantage.
O’Neill, too, has seemingly fallen out of favor following a late July wrist injury. Though he offers prodigious power and elite speed, his tendency to strike out could be a serious problem in a tight October matchup.
Martínez, though having a down year, is the most experienced of the bunch and offers a standout clubhouse presence that could help the Cardinals through a mentally challenging stretch.
Ravelo and Arozarena spent most of this season with the Memphis Redbirds, where Arozarena put up eye-popping offensive numbers and Ravelo offered a steady, veteran presence for the team’s prospects. Each has seen more prominent usage lately, with Arozarena serving as the primary pinch runner and Ravelo alternating pinch hitting opportunities with Martínez.
Each also has a defensive benefit; Ravelo is the best first base defender outside of Goldschmidt, and Arozarena has experience at all three outfield spots.
Likely On: Wong, Ravelo, Arozarena, Martínez
Likely Off: Knizner, Muñoz, O’Neill
Pitchers – 12 Expected
Locks (9): John Brebbia, Jack Flaherty, Giovanny Gallegos, Dakota Hudson, Carlos Martínez, Miles Mikolas, Andrew Miller, Adam Wainwright, Tyler Webb
On the Bubble (6): Génesis Cabrera, Junior Fernandez, John Gant, Ryan Helsley, Dominic Leone, Michael Wacha
Headed Home (2): Mike Mayers, Daniel Ponce de Leon
The Cardinals’ treatment of Ponce de Leon continues to baffle many observers. Though very effective as the team’s sixth starter for stretches this season, he’s made only two appearances and pitched a total of five innings in September. Pitchers can lose it if they don’t use it, and Shildt won’t make the same mistake former manager Mike Matheny made with Wacha in 2014.
Helsley is the bubble candidate who’s closest to a lock. He’s been deployed as a multi-inning option as Wacha’s backup throughout the season’s second half, but Shildt has turned to him increasingly often for shorter stretches in recent weeks. He offers a flame thrower look that only Fernandez could match, but Fernandez has been less predictable and consistent.
Gant would be a lock if Shildt takes the full season’s body of work into account, but his nightmarish 6.38 ERA and .820 opponent OPS in the second half should see him relegated to mop up duty.
Leone, like Fernandez, is difficult to predict and represents only depth.
Cabrera was set back by a pitch tipping issue early in the season, but he corrected the flaw and now represents an intriguing option as a matchup pitcher against Atlanta’s lefty sluggers. Shildt was preparing to use him against Cubs crusher Kyle Schwarber in the seventh inning of Friday’s tight game in Chicago, and on Saturday morning, Shildt praised his high velocity and sharp slider as tools that could become weapons in matchup situations.
Wacha is perhaps the biggest question mark on the roster, save for Wong’s health. His recent performances have helped erase his dreadful dog days of summer, as he’s allowed only three earned runs over 15 innings in four September starts, one of which was deliberately truncated.
Though he’s not a candidate to start a postseason game, he could be a backup candidate if one of the four rotation pitchers (Flaherty, Hudson, Wainwright, Mikolas) falters early. His pending free agent status is also a variable. Though the Cardinals will stress performance as the only determining factor, Wacha is a respected veteran with past playoff success nearing the end of the line with the club.
Shildt may defer to that status if he views the decision as close between Wacha and a candidate such as Gant.
Likely On: Cabrera, Helsley, Wacha
Likely Off: Fernandez, Gant, Leone