Meet the Contenders (for the bench)

It’s Friday! I was all prepared to sit down and write the NL Central Preview for Starting Pitcher #2, but all my research and notes are on my desktop computer. And seeing as I’m traveling this weekend visiting my parents, I don’t have access to it. So I sat and wondered what might Cardinal fans be interested in reading. So how about meeting your bench players for the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals?

First off, I’m going to start with the people we know are due bench spots and move down the line to the more questionable and competitive spots. Presuming that we’ll carry 13 position players, that leaves 5 bench spots to be filled.

C Gerald Laird
Gerald Laird is about the only lock of the bench players. With $1,100,000 being spent on him, it’s one of the two factors as to why that is. The other being the heavily rumored proposition that Duncan, LaRussa, and one of the Cardinals’ starting pitchers doesn’t really like the way Anderson handles the game behind the plate.

After John Mozeliak telling the media after the season that they wanted a backup catcher with offensive potential, my mind immediately when to Bryan Anderson who has had a decent bat in the minor leagues and has potential to do more with it. Apparently, that wasn’t going to happen and Gerald Laird was eventually signed. It was put to me on the CardsClubhouse forums, if Laird is good enough to be Jim Leyland’s (LaRussa’s buddy) everyday catcher, he’s good enough to be Tony LaRussa’s backup. That made the move ultimately make sense.

But after honking for an offensive catcher, the numbers tell us we got anything but. In his last two seasons in Detroit as the primary catcher, Laird hit .218 with 9 HR and 58 RBI in 224 games. His combined OPS+ was 61. Which is actually better than Houston’s starting catcher, Humberto Quintero’s 59. Not exactly the offensive player I was hoping for, but still better than Jason LaRue.

Laird is also no slouch behind the plate, posting a 1.6 defensive WAR over the last two seasons.

Can we say though, there is some hope for offensive production out of him. In 2006 Laird his .296 with 7 HR in 78 games and then in 2008 he hit .276 with 6 HR in 95 games. Those are his two best seasons in his 8 years as a professional baseball player.

What I was really hoping for in a backup catcher is someone who provided enough of an offensive punch that it made sense to give Yadier Molina more time off. After posting the most innings at catcher in 2009 and being close to accomplishing that same feat in 2010 until knee issues shut him down, Molina will eventually wear out and go down. Playing him in 120-130 games a season could delay that and extend his career. Not to mention, this could be a catcher making $7 million next season. Does he get a raise beyond that? That worries me.

More Cardinals bench players after the jump.

INF Nick Punto
Punto is the kind of player that Tony LaRussa will love. He plays several positions, he hustles, and he slides head first into first base. He’s like a better defensive version of Skip Schumaker.

Minnesota fans rejoiced when Punto wasn’t re-signed this offseason mainly because he was Gardenhire’s pet player, or so they claim. He got plenty of ABs in Minnesota and he seems to fit the mold of a David Eckstein. A scrappy player who works hard, which is a lot of what this Cardinals infield needs.

His $750,000 signing was my favorite new player acquisition of the offseason. Finally we have someone who can actually play above average defense in the infield. He’s a career .247 hitter who has 13 homers in 10 pro seasons, so he’s not here for his glove. In his career he averages a yearly +19 defensive RAR at third base, -3 at shortstop, and +3 at second base. So he’s pretty much the best defensive we’ll have in the infield this season. Plus, he’s a switch hitter who has 52 innings of experience in the outfield too? I give Punto about a 99% chance of making the roster.

OF Jon Jay
Jay was the surprise of 2010. He didn’t make the team out of spring training, but provided a good boost off the bench in May in pinch hitting roles. Then in July when given the opportunity to play everyday in July, Jay pounced on it. In the month of July he started 18 games and appeared in 5 more and hit .438 with a pair of home runs.

It was enough to help the Cardinals feel they could trade Ryan Ludwick and not lose much performance out of right field by handing Jay a fairly regular job. Unfortunately, Jay slowed down as the season went on. Hitting just .266 through August and then .218 in September. However, he still was buoyed enough by his July numbers to be officially rounded to .300 for his 2010 season.

I figure Jay is a lock to make the roster considering he can play all three outfield positions. The downside for him is that he is a left handed hitter and they are looking for a right handed hitter to backup in center field. Otherwise, that would lock him onto the roster. I’d give him about a 90% chance of making the opening day roster.

INF/OF Allen Craig
I don’t know what to list Allen Craig as on this list. Is he an infielder or an outfielder? Centerfield, shortstop, and catcher were the only three positions he didn’t appear at in the major leagues last season. In the minors though, he’s played 246 games at third, 133 in left field, and 93 at first base. So is he a third baseman or an outfielder?

For the longest time the talk was that he wasn’t good enough to play third base in the majors, so the effort was to make him into a player at another position. However, the news is that they’ve asked him to work out at third base in the hopes to give them another option at the position should David Freese go down again. The story is also that they aren’t happy with his arm strength while playing third base. If that’s the case, that should be fairly easily remedied by strength training, I would think.

Craig has plenty of potential. In 5 minor league seasons, Craig has hit .300 in the last four, and hit 20+ HR in three of them. He would have hit 20 homers again in 2010, but spent an increased amount of time with the big club that limited his minor league at bats. And while Craig struggled in the majors early, he was given the opportunity to play consistently in September and he responded. In 9 starts and 3 additional appearances he hit .382 in September with a pair of HRs. Showing just a glimpse of his ability at the major league level. Enough so, that several people (myself included) penciled him in as the opening day starter in right field. Then we signed Lance Berkman. I give Craig a 75% chance of making the opening day roster.

INF Tyler Greene
Tyler Greene is one of those players that might best be described as a AAAA player. Great in AAA, but can’t find it in the Majors. He has a .264 batting average in the minor leagues and has shown definite power potential, but he’s been unable to find any of it in order to stick in the major leagues.

The last two seasons he’s gotten cups of coffee at the major league level. 116 plate appearances in ’09 and 122 in ’10. He’s been a consistent .220 hitter with 2 homers in each of those seasons. In fact, looking between the two seasons he has been remarkably consistently with his performance. The only major change in 2010, his walks went from 4 in ’09 to 13 in ’10. A big change.

Some hope might be given that Greene got a chance to play nearly everyday with 14 starts in the month of July and hit .286 with a .400 OBP. However, for me, Greene has a lot to prove in order to make his glove worth it.

That’s always been my downside with Greene is that he’s not a plus defender at any position. His fielding percentages are low and so are his range factors, two defensive statistics that I look at. Are you getting to balls (range) and are you making solid plays when you do (fielding percentage)? But Greene looks to be the next pet project of Tony LaRussa as there’s talk of him being the backup center fielder to play the tough lefties when Colby Rasmus sits. Outfielders playing infield and infielders playing outfield, only on a Tony LaRussa ball club. I give Tyler a 75% chance of making the opening day roster.

Now those are my top-5 and my expected bench for the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals opening day roster, but there are some other names that you should be aware of as Spring Training moves forward.

INF Daniel Descalso
The minor league second baseman, many are hoping that he plays well enough to displace Skip Schumaker at second base. However, when he got the September callup, Descalso played mostly third base. A position he hadn’t played since 2007 in low A ball.

In his 11 games with the major league club, he hit .265 with a .324 OBP. He also played 9 games of perfect defense at third base. In Memphis last year, he hit .282 with 9 HR and a .350 OBP. He’s also been viewed as one of the Cardinals’ top infield talents in the minor league system from what I can tell.

It was good to finally get a look at him in the major leagues, but I don’t expect him to stick on the major league roster out of Spring Training. He will likely be one of the final ones sent out and one of the first to be brought up. I expect him to have the Tyler Greene role this season. That if they need an infielder for a few weeks, they’ll bring Descalso up to fill that role. I give him a 25% chance of making the opening day roster. If someone’s going to jump someone else onto the roster, it’s probably Descalso.

INF/OF Jim Edmonds
Who can forget Jim Edmonds and how instrumental he was viewed to the 2006 World Series run. Or his position in the MV3 of the mid-2000s. News came out earlier this week that Walt Jocketty, who Edmonds played for with the Cardinals and then last season with the Reds, was leaning towards retirement. Edmonds was saying that he was looking for a backup first baseman role or he was going to look at retiring.

Then, not an hour ago, it was announced that Edmonds signed a minor league contract with the Cardinals and will receive an invitation to Spring Training. The 40 year old Edmonds is going to try to make a go of it with his former team.

His outfield defensive stats are still pretty good, but once again he’s a left hander, which doesn’t make him the favorite to have any kind of platoon with Colby Rasmus. He hit .286 with 8 HR in 73 games with Milwaukee this season before being dealt to Cincinnati, where he hit just .207 with 3 solo homers in 13 games.

This could be viewed several ways. Personally, I lean towards the idea that it’s just a ceremonial invite. He’ll play and get one final chance in Cardinal red before retirement. I would also love to see him take the young Colby Rasmus under his arm and mentor him a bit during Spring Training, and hopefully Rasmus will be receptive to it. Either way, I’ll give him about a 5% chance to make the opening day roster. Because I could see him getting an Opening Day start as he heads to retirement with a first week roster move to bring someone else up.

Some 1% chance guys as well.

3B Zach Cox was the Cardinals’ first round draft pick and signed a major league contract. He also participated in the Arizona Fall League, usually one of the last stops for players on their way to the majors in short order. He totalled .262 in 18 games in the AFL, but started just 1-for-17 before putting it together after having essentially not played since the college baseball season ended. He is one player who could make a strong case during Spring Training for a spot on the roster, but I don’t foresee that as long as David Freese stays healthy through the spring.

OF Adron Chambers is a guy that is much beloved, from what I can tell, by the resident Redbird Dugout minor league expert. Jerry described Chambers as the outfielder in our system that’s the closest to being major league ready. He has speed and gap power, plays solid D with some highlight reel potential. Jerry also says he has leadoff hitter tools and has skills that we haven’t seen from a prospect in some time. Personally, I’ve not heard much about Chambers but Jerry knows his stuff.