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Cardinals in a jam as injured players return

The St. Louis Cardinals have a roster jam of biblical proportions staring them in the face.

The team is on the verge of getting shortstop Ruben Tejada and outfielder Tommy Pham back from the disabled list as soon as this weekend.

But a lot has changed since the Redbirds lost those two players -- who were originally being counted on to play significant roles for the team this season.

In short, the guys who were asked to fill in for them have been two of the most productive players on the roster in the early part of the 2016 campaign.

With starting shortstop Jhonny Peralta out for potentially half the season with a thumb injury, the Cardinals shipped out prospect Aledmys Diaz to the minors and signed Tejada to a one-year deal to fill the gap.

When Tejada pulled a quad, the Birds had no choice but to give Diaz a second chance. The Cuban defector who was waived off St. Louis’ 40-man roster last year suddenly had new life. And he didn’t disappoint with a .409 batting average and six extra base hits including a homer, a triple and four doubles.

Besides a devastating error on a double play ball in his first start, Diaz has showed much more range and better hands than we were led to believe he offered. He’s taken the starting shortstop job and run away with it.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Hazelbaker made his MLB debut after eight years of toiling in the minors and is hitting .481 with three homers a double and three triples in Pham’s stead.

On one hand, Tejada and Pham didn’t do anything to deserve a demotion to the minor leagues. But on the other, how can manager Mike Matheny pull the Cardinals’ two hottest hitters from the field?

The Cardinals’ roster woes aren’t limited to position players.

The team learned this week that left-handed starting pitcher Marco Gonzales is out for the year and maybe beyond due to ligament replacement surgery in his pitching elbow.

The Birds were already without fellow Class AAA starter Tim Cooney who has battled shoulder issues since the beginning of spring training.

So the Cardinals are short handed on one side of the roster and overwhelmed on the other.

Hopefully, the team can find solutions from within to its pitching problems.

Sam Tuivailala could factor largely into an internal solution for the pitching shortfall.

The most likely choice for the rotation would be Tyler Lyons and the second option could be Matt Bowman if the Birds need an emergency starter. Tuivailala proved last season that he was ready to step into the major league bullpen and could fill either’s shoes. The biggest issue would be the fact that the Cardinals would lose a bullpen lefty if they replaced Lyons with Tuivailala.

But the offensive situation isn’t that clear. The Cardinals have to find a balance between riding this hot streak as long as they can and protecting themselves for the long haul.

If they cut Tejada loose, what happens if Peralta can’t come back at all? What happens if Diaz’s magic disappears as quickly as it arrived?

But I sincerely doubt that Tejada is going to be very happy if he goes from starting with the Mets to starting at Class AAA Memphis. He didn’t sign with St. Louis to be demoted. And Pham has fought long and hard to make it to the big leagues. It would be terribly cruel to pull the rug out from beneath his feet.

What else can the Cardinals do?

They’re not going to jettison Jedd Gyorko, although he has arguably been the middle infielder who has made the slightest impact this season. He’s batting .176 with a .263 on base percentage. It’s a terribly small batch of statistics on which to make a decision. But the thing that’s going to keep him in St. Louis is the fact that he has a multi-year contract.

Greg Garcia has only had 10 plate appearances. Maybe he’s the guy to go. But he’s hitting .500 and has been a tremendous pinch hitter for the Cardinals dating back to last season.

Barring a trade, I’d figure Garcia is the most likely to go. He’s got options and it makes more sense than releasing Tejada because, if Diaz falls back to earth, St. Louis could be overexposed.

The Pham/Hazelbaker situation is less clear.

Pham might have to idle in Memphis for a while in hopes that Hazelbaker cools.

It’s no secret that the Cardinals are most in need of offensive help. So when Diaz and Hazelbaker are the hottest hitters on the club, the team can’t afford to subtract them from the roster.

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