A mid-season roster overhaul changed the St. Louis Cardinals from a National League also-ran into to a playoff contender.
As we get ready to enter the last month of the season, another change that the Redbirds have teed up and ready to launch may be a difference maker other teams in the NL Central and/or the Senior Circuit wild card race can’t overcome.
When the calendar changes to September and rosters expand to 40 players, teams typically add a few top prospects to the mix to give them a taste of life in the big leagues. Maybe one or two warm bodies can add a little depth to the bullpen or some innings in the field. But the Birds, because of all the players they’ve had to use due to injuries and roster turnover already this season have many more players than one would typically expect who are ready to make a difference.
Like many other teams the last two years, the Cardinals are playing games with the 10-day disabled list to cycle out tired pitchers. But they can push aside all pretenses and fill the bullpen to the brim with as many pitchers as manager Mike Shildt could use.
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The Cardinals could theoretically have as many as 21 hurlers on the active roster instead of the usual contingent of 12 or 13. A total of 11 of them (Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Luke Weaver, John Gant, Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber, Adam Wainwright and Tyson Ross) are capable of being starters. Obviously, the team doesn’t need 11 starters. But the 16 guys who aren’t in the rotation will be fighting for a spot in what could be a 9 or 10-man bullpen. It’s a far cry from a couple of months ago when the team only had two or three relief pitchers it could count on.
I could imagine a scenario where, in a tight game, Shildt would pull the plug on his hurler for a pinch hitter in the third or fourth inning and bring in Hudson, Poncedeleon, Ross or Martinez to pitch two or three innings as a piggy back starter.
Of course, if you’re going to switch pitchers like you change your socks, Shildt is going to have to have some position players to swap around, too. He’s in luck because, with Jedd Gyorko settling in at third base, Yairo Munoz will be able to slip into a super-utility role when he returns from a wrist injury. Established hitter — but suspect fielder — Jose Martinez will be able to come off the bench as a pinch hitter when the Cardinals need a run or come off the field for a defensive replacement when the Birds need to preserve a lead. Tyler O’Neill can cover for him in right field and Munoz or recently called up corner infielder Patrick Wisdom can handle infield duties.
Shildt is going to have to make sure he keeps players from getting rusty if he carries a deeper than usual roster. But it’s better to have too many options than too few. I’m sure, if the Birds remain competitive, that the ranks will be thinned as the skipper tries to determine what his postseason roster would look like.
I wonder, because the Redbirds have been so much better than anticipated in August, if some of those youngsters might pay off in another way. Might St. Louis have a post-deadline trade in the works that could make this team a little more formidable for the last few weeks of the 2018 campaign? I certainly wouldn’t give up anyone like Hudson or Flaherty for a short term rental. But the Cardinals have more pitching than they can keep under control. There’s no sense in stashing guys in the minor leagues and letting them rot on the vine.
Regardless of whether St. Louis makes the playoffs or not, A playoff-like atmosphere in September will be good for the development of the Cardinals’ younger players. What seemed like it might be a long and painful rebuilding process now looks a lot more positive with the emergence of Harrison Bader, Munoz, Flaherty, Hudson, Jordan Hicks and other Cardinals youngsters. A well-placed addition or two through trade or free agency could make this team a serious threat in 2019 and beyond.