Last Sunday, with the Cardinals’ odds of their season extending beyond this Sunday very good (or at least the odds of it not seeming like a long shot by today being extremely good), I decided to hammer out my hypothetical playoff roster. I was attending the next three games at Busch Stadium and wouldn’t have much time to write a new post over the week so I’d write something and then just tinker with it accordingly…
Well, as it turns out, everything is on fire now (not in the good way), and the playoff race, while not over, is looking bleak. This roster may very well be futile. I figured I’d amend this post but now that its premise seems absurd, I might as well just preserve it as this bizarre time capsule. This is how I felt (and probably, logically speaking, should feel now).
As a reminder, playoff rosters reset with each playoff round, including the Wild Card game. A player can be removed from the roster during a series, but he must then miss the next round (obviously this doesn’t apply in the one-game Wild Card round). Anyway, here it goes. Mind you that these are not predictions but rather what I think the roster should be.
Catchers: Yadier Molina and Carson Kelly
The backup catcher will probably end up being Francisco Pena rather than Kelly, and while I disagree with this, it probably won’t make much of a difference. The Cardinals aren’t going to give Yadier Molina any days off (I mean, they barely do anyway, and that’s without a built-in off-day at least every four days) and probably won’t remove him for strategic purposes. The backup catcher spot is a fail-safe in case of injury, and I think Carson Kelly is better than Francisco Pena (for what it’s worth, since Kelly returned to the Majors during September call-ups, while he has been a poor hitter, with a 62 wRC+, Pena has been worse, with a 28 in September and a 31 in 2018). I don’t want to belabor the point that Francisco Pena is historically bad to be on a Major League roster. And while Yadier Molina has declined since half a decade ago, he’s still quite easily the most proven catcher on the roster.
Infielders: Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, Jedd Gyorko, Yairo Munoz, Matt Adams, Patrick Wisdom
The starting lineup, barring injury, is an easy call for me. While Matt Carpenter has struggled, generally speaking, in September, and there is some reasonable cause for concern mixed in with a lot of poor luck, you can’t not start a guy who was firmly in the MVP discussion entering September. The closest thing the Cardinals have to a replaceable infielder for a one-game playoff is Kolten Wong against a left-handed pitcher, but Wong has been so good in the second half at the plate and such an incredible fielder all season that I’d rather save Yairo Munoz for situational purposes regardless of the starting pitcher. Paul DeJong is the team’s only “real” shortstop, and he’d have to have been terrible this season to lose his job, but fortunately for the Cardinals he has been good. And Jedd Gyorko is quietly having another above-average offensive and defensive season.
I suppose there is some argument for starting Matt Adams against a righty and sitting Jedd Gyorko, but the marginal offensive upgrade hardly seems worth the diminished defense of Adams and Carpenter at the corners rather than Carpenter and Gyorko. I’d rather save Matt Adams for a big pinch-hitting moment, the kind of moment for which the Cardinals acquired him in the first place. Yairo Munoz, as a versatile infielder and competent hitter, might be the bench player most likely to find himself in the game in some way or another.
Greg Garcia has been on the Cardinals roster all season, and while I think he is often overly criticized (a .255 BABIP is not normal for a baseball player who, like, can literally run), I can’t fathom a situation where I would be dying to get him into a game. Munoz is a better utility infielder, Matt Adams is a better pinch-hitter against righties, so at this point, I’d rather include Patrick Wisdom, a righty who hit well this season with AAA Memphis and has impressed in limited action in the Majors.
Outfielders: Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, Jose Martinez, Tyler O’Neill
All four of these players are gimmes to make the roster. Ozuna and Bader are automatic starts–Ozuna’s second half is representative of the hopes the Cardinals had for him when they acquired him from the Miami Marlins, and Bader is a good-hitting, elite-fielding center fielder. One could make the case that Tyler O’Neill should be starting in right field over Jose Martinez, as Martinez struggles at the plate and has never been much of a fielder anywhere, but I must commend the idea of Mike Shildt sticking with Jose Martinez as the opposite of a Mike Matheny move. Matheny obsessed over the hot hand. Shildt is going with the guy he thinks is better, right or wrong.
Starting pitchers: Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, John Gant
This is the order I’d roll out pitchers in. If Mikolas is rested, pitch him. If Mikolas isn’t rested, pitch Flaherty. If neither is rested…you get the picture.
Miles Mikolas has been the team’s best pitcher throughout 2018 and while I expected he’d come back to reality in the second half, he has been continuously good for the Cardinals. The emergence of Jack Flaherty throughout 2018 meant continuously waiting for the moment that Flaherty would eclipse Mikolas but it just never happened. Miles Mikolas keeps doing this not-walking-guys thing while striking out a respectable number of batters.
Adam Wainwright is a bit scarier for obvious reasons–he was hurt most of the season and was ineffective before that. And in his first start back, Adam Wainwright fell apart after two innings. But after his last two starts, I’m back in. Wainwright was masterful against the Dodgers, and while his start against the Giants came to a screeching halt, a loaded playoff bullpen (in terms of quantity, if not quality) should mitigiate that risk. A six-inning outing allowing one run and striking out six to go with zero walks would be extremely acceptable.
John Gant and Austin Gomber are probably a toss-up, though I’d give some attention to Tyson Ross, as well (I assume Ross’s per-start bonus applies to the postseason as well, but if the Cardinals aren’t willing to pay that for a playoff game, you might as well fold up the franchise). But ultimately I’m going with Gant because of how lockdown he has been as a starter this season. The third time through the order, Gant is more than a little dicey, but he has a sub-3 ERA the first and second time through. And again, a pitcher doesn’t need a complete game to warrant a postseason start.
Since I have nine spots left for a (huge) bullpen, I’m going to break the bullpen down by sub-groups.
The Late Inning Guys: John Brebbia, Jordan Hicks, Carlos Martinez
Obviously, these were the guys you were expecting in the beginning of the season, right?
John Brebbia has, much to my surprise, become maybe the safest option in the bullpen late in the season. He has the highest strikeout rate among guys with a representative number of innings and has decent control. Jordan Hicks, while maybe slightly disappointing if you only look at his velocity, has been a mostly good pitcher–his early season walks and inability to strike guys out despite his velocity, while not totally solved, are much more under control than they once were. And if you’re going to keep Carlos Martinez in the bullpen, you better use him in high-leverage situations. His recent turns as a closer indicate that the Cardinals agree.
The Starters: Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Daniel Poncedeleon, Tyson Ross
I feel…weirdly comfortable with this group? Like, I shouldn’t, especially since I’m not exactly thrilled about my #3 and #4 starters, but I’m cool letting these guys just kind of do their thing in shorter bursts. While designating a reliever as a long man seems like a backhanded compliment in the playoffs, Tyson Ross might be an important piece in case a start must be abandoned before things get out of hand. Both Poncedeleon and Gomber have been reasonably effective in both roles this season. And while Dakota Hudson’s lack of strikeouts and high walk rate worry me, and should worry you, he’s getting ground balls and, frankly, it’s a nine-man bullpen.
The Guy Who Throws 98: Mike Mayers
He throws 98. And while I like the idea of a LOOGY, he’s been better against lefties than Brett Cecil or Chasen Shreve, and whatever, Gomber’s a lefty, it’s fine.
I Still Believe In You, Kind Of: Bud Norris
He was the best reliever throughout the season and I have more faith in him to bounce back in 2018 than Luke Weaver. There’s realistically nothing Weaver can do that’s going to make me want him in the playoff rotation, but Norris can convince me perhaps not that he should be the closer again but that he can handle, say, a three-run game in the sixth inning. And not that this should inspire that much confidence, but in his last three appearances before being essentially shelved with an injury (which implies he wasn’t all that right to begin with), he had a 0.00/2.40/3.65 ERA/FIP/xFIP. Maybe the injury truly was the problem. Maybe Bud Norris is going to pitch like he did in April. I kind of doubt it and think it’s more likely he fulfills the 2013 Edward Mujica role in this bullpen, but I have enough faith in him to take the risk.