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Injuries are helping the St. Louis Cardinals figure out their opening day roster

It’s still early in St. Louis Cardinals spring training, but some roster issues seem to already be sorting themselves out.

It concerned me when the Redbirds surprisingly signed catcher Matt Wieters to compete for the backup catcher job after the club already signed Francisco Pena to reprise the role. But, even through Wieters is just getting up to speed, he moved to the inside lane in the battle to be Yadier Molina’s understudy when Pena this week strained an oblique muscle.

Pena is expected to miss at least a couple of weeks and this is the sort of injury that has been known to linger on. He was getting plenty of playing time early on with Molina recovering from minor off-season knee surgery. But when Yadi comes back, he’s going to have to try to get up to speed on an accelerated pace. Unless Wieters is terrible over the next two weeks, he’s got a really good chance to seize a roster spot, sending Pena to Class AAA Memphis for the summer where he’d work behind top catching prospect Andrew Knizner. Pena earned a roster spot in spring training last year when he out-hit Carson Kelly to win a big league job. His poor luck might wipe out his chance to do that again this year despite a .357 hitting mark early on.

In the outfield, Tyler O’Neill has impressed by leading the Redbirds in home runs early on. But more impressive is the fact that he showed up for camp in a serious mind set, working over the winter to eliminate holes in his swing and take his game to another level. Of course conditioning is never a question for the fitness buff. But it doesn’t hurt that he’s done everything he could to prepare and advance his game. Dexter Fowler is probably going to get the benefit of the doubt because of the three years left on his unfortunate contract. But, after going hitless in three trips to the plate Tuesday, he’s batting an anemic .125 so far this spring with five strikeouts and no walks in 16 trips to the plate, the battle for right field isn’t even close. Even if O’Neill makes the team, he might not be handed the starter’s job. Jose Martinez is here to stay. But if Fowler was at the top of his game, O’Neill probably would be ticketed for some more time in the minor leagues despite the fact that he has nothing left to prove. If the season started tomorrow, O’Neill has at least earned the right to come north with the team.

Filling the pitching rotation

On the mound, roster spots haven’t yet been determined. But it looks like there are going to be a lot of good options to choose from.

One player that seems like a shoe-in for a slot in the starting rotation is Jack Flaherty, who was nothing short of dominant Tuesday against the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater. He struck out nine, including seven in a row, and appeared to be a man among boys. Flaherty wasn’t exactly facing a lineup of guys who will be bagging groceries in a couple of weeks, either. While Bryce Harper wasn’t yet in the Philadelphia lineup, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Seguera and J.T. Realmuto were.

Meanwhile, longtime ace Adam Wainwright continues to battle and has been relatively successful. While mixing in a new pitch, he has been decent enough in two starts to make me confident that he’s going to make the opening day roster. While I don’t know if he’ll be on the club in October, it appears Wainwright will be allowed to go as far as his health will take him.

Another remarkable occurrence this spring was that four-time Cardinals top prospect Alex Reyes made his spring debut and, while he was a little bit wild, his velocity and movement were certainly there. The shoulder weakness Carlos Martinez came to camp with may create an opening in the rotation. But, as much as I would like to see Reyes pitching every fifth day, the Birds would be smart to play it safe and let Reyes build up arm strength in the bullpen before throwing caution to the wind. That would mean that John Gant, who is out of options, would have the inside shot to fill in for Martinez in the short term. But Martinez might, too, be better off saving his arm in the ‘pen, which means a shuffling of relievers is in the future. Ideally, if Martinez is out until June as has been speculated, Reyes might be ready to move from the bullpen to the rotation about that time to make room for him.

Who is on the bench?

The biggest question mark for St. Louis at this point is about who will round out the bench. If O’Neill gets one spot, Jose Martinez gets one and the backup catcher gets another, that leaves two spots for Jedd Gyorko, Yairo Munoz, Drew Robinson and others to fight over. Which way that battle goes is a tough call.

It looked like Munoz might have to bow out of the competition a couple of days ago when he was hit on the hand with a pitch. But he had no broken bones, so it doesn’t appear he’ll miss too much action. Robinson seems to have an edge because he’s one of the few left-handed hitters the Cardinals have on the roster. So that leaves Gyorko on the bubble. Older and more expensive than Munoz, he’s still got value in that he’s a strong bat off the bench. Plus, if Matt Carpenter is injured, he’s shown that he is capable of playing third base everyday for a couple of months. The Birds can send Munoz down to keep Gyorko. But that hardly seems fair to a guy who was a vital piece of the puzzle last year.