Cards' roster starting to take shape
Competition starting to fade as leaders seize their roles
JUPITER, Fla. -- Manager Tony La Russa has repeatedly deflected any and all questions about the makeup of his Opening Day roster, insisting that specific decisions will wait until after the Cardinals' off-day on Tuesday. However, many of the decisions have actually made themselves, leaving the Redbirds with virtually no open spots on the offensive side of the roster -- fully 15 days before the season opener.
Eighteen hitters remain in camp, but at this point, the 13 leaders have created separation from the five chasers.
"To me, it seems like our [offensive] roster is somewhat obvious," general manager John Mozeliak said on Sunday. "But the fact is, we're still two weeks away and lots of things happen. I don't want to get really concrete on it."
As camp has gone on, one question after another has answered itself. The greatest intrigue at the start of the spring appeared to be in the outfield, where seven players were competing for five spots. Rick Ankiel and Chris Duncan entered camp all but set, and though Duncan has struggled, that has not changed. Skip Schumaker entered as a favorite and has played extremely well. La Russa recently said that Schumaker would have to play his way off the roster, rather than on.
Ryan Ludwick, like Schumaker, started the spring not as a certainty, but surely as a favorite. And, like Schumaker, he has not done anything to hurt himself. As those four players crystallized in the top four spots, it left a three-for-one battle.
Colby Rasmus has played extremely well, but Rasmus' playing time has dwindled recently. Additionally, the Cardinals have a well-established unofficial rule that players with options -- or, in Rasmus' case, who are not even on the 40-man roster -- lose all ties.
In recent days, it has appeared that the outfield was down to two men for one spot, and that question has just about ceased to be a question. Juan Gonzalez has not played in six days as he tries to recover from an abdominal strain. Given that one of the greatest unknowns with Gonzalez was his ability to stay healthy, the injury has drastically diminished his chances and made Brian Barton a heavy favorite.
The catching position, meanwhile, is completely set. Yadier Molina is the starter, Jason LaRue is the backup, and Mark Johnson is going to be the starter at Memphis. Two up, one down. Very little has been predictable in this camp, but the catchers have worked out according to form.
In the infield, Albert Pujols' and Troy Glaus' names may as well be etched on stone tablets as the starting corner men, and Adam Kennedy's solid performance in spring games has removed any doubt about his status. He'll be there. Cesar Izturis has had a shaky spring, but he was brought in to be the starting shortstop, and he surely hasn't been so shaky as to be cut. Aaron Miles is greatly valued by La Russa for his versatility, his attitude and his ability to scratch out a pinch-hit, and the chances of his being sent out are pretty much nil.
Following Scott Spiezio's release, a scramble ensued for the final infield spot. Brendan Ryan looked like the man to beat early, but La Russa made it clear that Ryan would not be handed a spot. However, D'Angelo Jimenez has done little to help himself, batting .125 and playing erratic defense. A non-roster invitee, Jimenez needed to distinguish himself, and he has not.
In something of a surprise, the last battle shaped up to be between Ryan and Joe Mather, who emerged as one of the best stories in camp. Mather has opened plenty of eyes and played well, but his furious pace at the plate has slowed lately. With the team preferring four middle infielders rather than three, Mather will probably head to Triple-A Memphis to start the year.
Not that La Russa wants any part of that assessment -- or any of them.
"You don't evaluate the roster," he said recently. "What you're doing is giving guys opportunity. What [Mather] has done so far is that he's played the game well. He's defended well. He's run the bases well. He's taken consistent at-bats.
"Now, how does that rank? Since nobody's getting any ranks, you don't have an answer."
As the Cardinals have seen on the pitching side of things recently, plenty can change in two weeks. Players can get hurt, and moves can be made. But for now, the roster appears to have some shape.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.