On the final day of the 2019 regular season, the St. Louis Cardinals destroyed the Chicago Cubs 9-0 to clinch their first division title and playoff berth since 2015. Because of this, the Cardinals have earned a berth in the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. And while the Braves may not be perceived as a Houston Astros or Los Angeles Dodgers-like dynasty-in-waiting, they are still a very good playoff team and they are still a team that will not be easy to vanquish. Optimizing the roster is still imperative.
For a quick refresher: while the Cardinals have had the luxury of a 40-man roster for September, the roster will revert back to the standard size of 25 come October. Unlike during the regular season, the team can go all-out in roster assembly and are not beholden to MLB contracts (if the team decided they wanted to keep Paul Goldschmidt off the roster, for some reason, they could do it without pretense of an injury). While players on the roster don’t technically have to have been on the 40-man roster by the beginning of September, it does make things easier. If the Cardinals wanted to put, say, Joe Hudson on their playoff roster, he could only be used by putting somebody else on the IL, thus eliminating them from postseason usage. Luckily this isn’t really relevant here. Technically the Cardinals could sneak a Dylan Carlson onto the roster, but it seems unlikely that they’d give him his first MLB plate appearances in the postseason at the cost of another useful player rather than during September. Additionally, only players in the organization (not necessarily on the 40-man) by September 1 are eligible.
Here is how I would construct the 25-man playoff roster for the NLDS, as opposed to these being my predictions. This roster can change for the NLCS depending on matchup and player health.
Catchers: Yadier Molina and Matt Wieters. Molina is, of course, a lock. He will play every inning of the postseason for the Cardinals barring several amputations of vital limbs for baseball playing. Only slightly more intriguing is the battle for backup catcher…slightly. I’m open to the possibility that Andrew Knizner is better than Matt Wieters, as the latter is a truly terrible pitch framer, but in the event the Cardinals will need a late-inning pinch-hitter, I’d rather have the guy who hit home runs at a 30-plus dinger pace all season and is a switch-hitter.
Infielders—locks: Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong, Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt. The starting infield since Kolten Wong’s injury is assuredly going to crack the postseason roster in its entirety. If Wong is completely healthy, somebody will sit (recent history suggests Carpenter, but recent outfield offensive struggles could mean Edman replaces one of them), but whoever does will immediately be the next man up if somebody else gets hurt (if Goldschmidt gets hurt—Carpenter at first; Wong or DeJong—Edman in the middle infield; Carpenter or Edman—the other one plays third).
Infielder—semi-lock: Kolten Wong. He’s a lock if he’s healthy, and he sounds…kind of healthy? If he isn’t healthy…how not healthy are we talking here? If you told me he couldn’t play until Game 5, I’d hold him back until the NLCS. If he’s going to miss the first couple games, well, his potential replacements aren’t going to play barring a catastrophe anyway.
Infielder: Yairo Muñoz. I’m putting Muñoz on my roster regardless of Wong’s health, but he goes from probable to automatic if Wong can’t play. While his offense leaves a lot to be desired, Muñoz is capable, if not superb, at positions across the infield. While the emergence of Tommy Edman has probably made Muñoz redundant in the long term, having this type of player when Edman is likely a committed starter is a nice luxury to have.
Infield exclusions: It’s basically just Rangel Ravelo, a better hitter than Muñoz but not a versatile defender and probably still only the fourth or so best pinch-hitting option. I’d love to find room for Ravelo on the roster, but he is limited in terms of potential value on this one. As far as Edmundo Sosa or Ramon Urias, it’ll take further injuries before they merit serious consideration.
Outfielders—locks: Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez, Marcell Ozuna. Barring injury, the starting outfield of Ozuna, Bader, and Fowler is somewhat set in stone for the roster, even if all three have had late-season struggles at the plate. And while Martinez has had a semi-disappointing year and he is a defensive liability, he is still the most demonstrably potent bat coming off the bench with the potential exception of Matt Carpenter.
Outfielder—semi-lock: Tyler O’Neill. I’m not as enamored with O’Neill as some others are, as I find his constant selling out for power horrendously aesthetically unappealing. But he still has non-terrible offensive numbers despite a mostly disappointing year, and his versatility (unlike Martinez, he can play center field) and speed (he’s a sure-fire pinch-runner in the event Edman and Bader are starting) make him an interesting weapon, though his relative lack of September game action has me at least somewhat concerned he’s dealing with an injury.
Outfield exclusions: With all due respect to Jose Adolis Garcia and Justin Williams, the only real exclusion here is Randy Arozarena. And while Arozarena has an interesting skill set, there is decent overlap there with Tyler O’Neill, but the latter is a more established big-league bat. Arozarena has a vocal set of supporters among Cardinals fans because he hasn’t gone through any prolonged slumps, but that’s what happens when you have 23 career MLB plate appearances.
Starting rotation: Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas. In terms of order, the only significant ranking is #1, as it will enable him to start two games in the NLDS; there is no question that Flaherty, with his sub-one post-July ERA, is the man for that task. He will certainly start Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 5. The next three best starters are these three in some order, with the only real difference being that Hudson would start on the road while Wainwright and Mikolas would start at home, where they have significant home/road splits. Do I believe these splits are a reflection on their true ability? Not especially, but if shuffling the rotation provides any sort of psychological advantage, it’s probably worth it. One thing that might make me reconsider the order is the health of Kolten Wong, which would benefit any of these starters but would particularly help Dakota Hudson, the ground ball pitcher who might be worth pitching for Game 3 or 4 if Wong is available then but not earlier.
Right-handed relievers—locks: John Brebbia, Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Carlos Martinez. Three have been the team’s most consistent relief pitchers all season long—Brebbia, a bullpen mainstay of the last few years; Gallegos, the team’s bullpen ace; Martinez, the team’s post-Jordan Hicks closer. And while it may seem premature to some, Ryan Helsley and his sub-3 ERA all but assures the Cardinals including him on the playoff roster. A AAA starter, Helsley hits 99 MPH out of the bullpen and while his strikeout rate is lower than you might expect and his flyball rate is troubling, he’s essentially what Joe Kelly was a few years ago for the Cardinals—a guy I don’t want starting but whose stuff is interesting in relief.
Right-handed relievers—on the roster: Daniel Ponce de Leon. I would have given this long-ish reliever spot to Michael Wacha if he were healthy, but it appears he is not, so I’m giving the nod to Ponce de Leon, who hasn’t pitched a lot lately but has done reasonably well when called upon. In a way, this makes him the Randy Arozarena of Cardinals relievers, but truthfully this group just doesn’t look as deep as it did a month ago.
Left-handed relievers: Genesis Cabrera, Andrew Miller, Tyler Webb. I’m relatively bullish on Andrew Miller in that I don’t want to see him catapulted out of town. I think he’s largely been the victim of circumstance—his usage is perhaps the biggest weakness in Mike Shildt’s tactical game, as he frequently is the man tasked with facing brutal righties. He’s on my roster, though Cabrera admittedly is the guy I’m really excited about—he struggled in his two starts but has an ERA near three out of the bullpen. And while Tyler Webb seems like an implosion waiting to happen, as he is a not particularly hard-tosser nearing thirty who seems to be assured a roster spot because he looks like he could be Mike Shildt’s son, I can’t really argue with the results, such as his sub-3 second-half ERA and sub-4 second-half FIP.
Reliever exclusions: Junior Fernandez has some dynamic stuff and he seems like he should be dominant. But despite high strikeout totals, Fernandez has ERAs and FIPs nearing the mid-fives, and any game I’d be content to see him pitch is a game I’m not counting on winning in the first place. I’m more emphatic, though perhaps irrationally so, about excluding John Gant, who seemingly lost his touch in the second half. The only other healthy veteran reliever being excluded is Dominic Leone, whose absence shouldn’t be too devastating to overcome.
There it is. There’s the team I’ll let lead me into battle. Cardinals in 2.