The St. Louis Cardinals will head into spring training games today with about 23 guys that should be absolute locks to make the club which are as follows:
I've purposely omitted Jason Motte and Jaime Garcia due to health concerns that have their opening day status up in the air. I think Shane Robinson will battle Oscar Taveras for the fourth outfield spot, unless Mike Matheny elects to go with five outfielders, which is unlikely, though not impossible due to the fact that Allen Craig can also play on the infield if push comes to shove.
This also means that Taveras will essentially also be battling first baseman Matt Adams for a job because if Taveras sets the world on fire during spring training and Adams struggles, Craig could be moved back to first base in order to get Taveras innings in the outfield. Regardless of who ends up where, the versatility of Descalso and Craig put the Cardinals in a unique position to get creative with how they fill the remaining 3 roster spots.
We can safely assume two of those spots will go to pitchers, but the remaining spot could go to an infielder, outfielder, or even a third catcher to alleviate the stress on Molina's knees early in the season. While 40-man roster types like Sam Freeman, Audrey Perez, Pete Kozma, Greg Garcia, Tyler Lyons, and Keith Butler could fill those last three spots, they are more replacement level, or "quadruple-A" players than possible impact guys, in my opinion. I would bet that one out of this group makes the roster.
So the player out of the previously mentioned group, plus whoever wins the Taveras/Robinson battle makes 24. That leaves one roster spot up for grabs. Here's a look at three pitchers and three position players that received non-roster spring training invites from the Cardinals that could find themselves playing the part of 2014's Scott Spezio or Rico Washington.
Neshek is a veteran journeyman who has spent parts of seven seasons with the Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres, and Oakland Athletics. His meal ticket is an unorthodox side-arm delivery that allows him to hide the ball from the hitter for a longer period of time and get substantial late movement on his pitches. Neshek was a formidable reliever for the Twins in the late 2000's, as evidenced by a 2.71 ERA and 127 K's over the course of 107 innings between the 2007-2008 season, before having Tommy John surgery that ultimately cost him about 5mph off of his fastball. His repertoire is interesting in that his pitches range from his fastball at 91-92mph all the way down to his 70mph change-up. He relies heavily on a sweeping slider that sits in the low 80's and a sinker that he usually brings in the high 80's. He put up good numbers with Oakland over the last two years, posting a 2.71 ERA over 60 innings pitched. Neshek probably has the best chance to make the roster of any of the invitees.
Cooney was a third round pick out of Wake Forest in 2012 and advanced relatively quickly considering he only has a season and a half of pro ball under his belt. He posted strong numbers for Double-A Springfield last season with a 3.80 ERA to go with 125 K's over 118 innings. He throws a decent enough fastball for a left-hander (90mph) but has shown the ability to crank it up to 92-93 in certain situations. He also features a change-up, cutter, and your typical 12-6 lefty hook. While his cutter is a work-in-progress and his changeup grades out as average, his curveball has shown the potential to be a plus pitch. Reports indicate that Cooney is a smart player with a good feel for pitching. While he projects as a back-end-starter long term, if the Cardinals wanted a third lefty out of the bullpen or mop-up type player, Cooney could find himself making the jump from AA Springfield straight to the majors with a good spring.
When the Cardinal's selected Gonzalez with the 19th overall pick in last years draft, the prevailing sentiment was that while Gonzalez's ultimate ceiling might not be as high as some other first round picks, he was highly polished and would reach the majors quickly. The Cardinals were spot-on in their assessment and now Gonzalez is vying to make the big club with less than a year of professional baseball on his resume. Gonzalez is an excellent athlete (he played outfield and first base at Gonzaga, as well) who repeats his mechanics well, has pinpoint control of his fastball, and has what some called the best changeup in the draft last year. While not imposing at 6-1, 190lbs, he doesn't rely on heat or sharp bite to succeed and much as he does command and savvy. While he made six starts in the minor leagues last season, he only threw 23 innings over 8 appearances last season and he most likely profiles as a dependable left-handed reliever in the long term.
Scruggs possesses arguably the most raw power of any Cardinals minor leaguer. After originally being drafted by Seattle in the 50th round all the way back in 2005, Scruggs played 3 seasons at UNLV before being scooped up by St. Louis in the 19th round of the 2008 draft. Although he is 26 and has yet to ascend above Double-A, Scruggs has slowly and diligently worked his way from anonymity to a legitimate prospect after progressively improving his numbers from 2009-2013. He dominated the Texas league, producing 97 extra-base-hits (including 51 home runs) over the last two seasons in Springfield. While the Cards are pretty deep with Adams and Craig at first base, if they are looking to add a power bat off the bench, they could do much worse than Scruggs.
Ramsey, a former first-round-pick out of Florida State University in 2012, has potential to be the type of player every manager would love to have in his pocket. While not possessing and one superior skill, Ramsey does everything on the field well. He batted just .229 in High-A during his first professional season, but turned a corner last season, batting .251 with 15 home runs and 44 RBI over 347 plate appearances and even got a start in Memphis during the last week of the season. The jury is still out on weather or not the power numbers were a fluke or if Ramsey really does carry 20-homer potential. Even if he doesn't, he should be a .270(ish) hitter one day that might hit 12-15 home runs and steal the same amount of bases with above average defense at all three outfield positions. Think of Jon Jay with more power.
Moore has lived the kind of baseball odyssey that makes him a sort of modern-day Crash Davis. After being drafted eighth overall out of Cypress High School in southern California, Moore has had more stops than a greyhound, playing parts of 11 seasons for the Detroit, Baltimore, Houston, two different stints with the Chicago Cubs, Oakland, San Diego, and has now earned a shot with the Cardinals. Moore can hit. He has 143 home runs to go with a decent .268 batting average in the minor leagues. Unfortunately, he has also struck out in just under a fourth of his at bats and has barely a .350 on-base percentage to go with the heavy power. If the stars align, Moore shows he's capable during camp, and the birds want one more versatile bat to move around the infield, Moore has a shot at playing for big league team number 7.
There's also some guys like Stephen Piscotty, Carson Kelly, Patrick Wisdom, and Jordan Swagerty that have an outside shot to make the roster, but they are sort of the next wave of prospects that I don't see the Cardinals tapping in to and starting the service clock timer on this early. My bet is that either Neshek or Gonzalez gets the extra spot. Early in the season, starting pitchers can't go as far as they can when they are fully stretched out in mid June and a deeper bullpen has a larger impact on success or failure than an extra bat or glove off the bench. However, outside of Ramsey, I do expect to see each one of these guys in St. Louis this season at one point or another.
Stephen Nations is an aspiring sports and Cardinals columnist. He will be contributing his commentary to KSDK.com during the 2014 season. You can follow him on twitter at @Nayshface.