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Three contenders emerge in battle for a spot in St. Louis Cardinals outfield

While there are plenty of questions to be answered this spring about who the St. Louis Cardinals will field in the starting lineup and in what order those players will bat, it’s also going to be interesting to see how the last three or four spots on the 25-man roster are filled.

One job that is wide-open for the Redbirds is the fifth outfielder slot.

Randal Grichuk, Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty seem like locks as outfield starters. And Tommy Pham seems likely to get the job as the first flychaser off the bench. But Pham has had trouble staying healthy over the course of his career – and for that matter, so have Grichuk and Fowler – so having another versatile and reliable outfielder is a key to surviving a long season ahead.

Maybe the most intriguing player in the competition is Jordan Schaefer, a plus defender in all three outfield positions who can fly on the bases. The knock against Schaefer is that he’s never been much of a hitter with a career batting average of .228 over parts of six seasons. He’s got a .308 on-base percentage and a .307 slugging percentage, but he’s stolen 103 bases in 136 tries. The thing that makes him especially interesting is that Schaefer also pitches – and left-handed, too.

Once the starting center fielder for the Atlanta Braves, Schaefer hasn’t had a major-league plate appearance since 2015 because of the effort by the Los Angeles Dodgers organization to turn him into a hurler.

Schaefer appeared in the outfield for the Cardinals in their Grapefruit League opener Saturday against the Miami Marlins and made a nice catch. But the Birds have also been working him out on the mound, so it remains to be seen where and how he would be used if he makes the roster.

Is it a plus that he’s an outfielder who can pitch? Or might that lack of commitment to one position be a factor that holds Schaefer back?

If newly acquired – and handsomely paid – lefty reliever Brett Cecil and fifth-year southpaw Kevin Siegrist are healthy, it’s hard to imagine the Birds would keep him in the big leagues primarily as a relief pitcher. They don’t NEED a third lefty and it would seem like a stretch to keep a guy on the major-league roster, if you think his future is on the mound, when he’s never pitched in a big league game. It would probably be better to send Schaefer to Class AAA Memphis where he can work on his new craft regularly.

I think the Cardinals might value Schaefer’s defensive tools and his speed enough to give him a chance to make the team. But being able to pitch might hold him back because you’re not going to start a guy in the outfield if you think you might need him to face a few hitters in the sixth or seventh inning. And, although former St. Louis skipper Whitey Herzog may have made it seem as if it was no big deal to put your pitcher in the outfield and then switch him to the mound, it’s an issue if the player was in the outfield first. How would he warm up to pitch? My guess is that if Schaefer was in center field and then manager Mike Matheny wanted to use him to face a tough lefty hitter, it would have to come at the start of an inning.

Herzog sometimes stashed a hitter in the outfield for one batter to exploit a pitching matchup and then bring his closer back into the game. But he didn’t start an inning with a pitcher in right field and then call that guy to the mound.

By keeping Schaefer as an outfielder, it seems that his conversion to a pitcher would be either shelved or at least compromised.

A player a lot of folks are rooting for to make the St. Louis roster out of spring training is prospect Harrison Bader.

Just 22, Bader is a .281 hitter in the minor leagues who hit 19 home runs last year with Class AA Springfield and Class AAA Memphis. Bader is drawing near the big leagues. But the Cardinals may be likely to start him out in Memphis to get him into games every day as opposed to using him as a fourth or fifth outfielder in St. Louis.

I’d be surprised if he made the roster for Opening Day. But he could be a factor early in the 2017 campaign, ready to move up to the big leagues if an injury in the outfield provides an opportunity for enough playing time to justify the promotion.

A third option as a reserve outfielder is farmer Kansas City Royals farmhand Jose Martinez, who made his major-league debut with the Cardinals last season, hitting .438 in 16 trips to the plate.

Martinez is a former Class AAA batting champion who saw his career stall in the Kansas City system. A .294 hitter over 10 seasons in the minors, he may be the most likely to succeed at the plate of the three contenders for the last outfield spot, especially in a pinch-hitting or spot-starting role.

While he doesn’t typically play center field, costing the Cardinals some depth there if he makes the big-league club, he does play first base, which is something Schaefer and Bader don’t offer. Another factor in Martinez’s favor is that he is the only one of the three players already on the 40-man roster.

My guess is that the fifth spot is between Schaefer and Martinez – but that they’ll only be keeping Bader out of the big leagues temporarily.

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