With the end of spring training slowly but surely approaching, teams are getting ready to finalize rosters and competitions are fierce for the few remaining spots.
This is especially true for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Eight players are fighting for five outfield slots, and it does not make Tony LaRussa’s job any easier that all are posting a strong case for their right to be on the opening day roster.
Going into spring training, Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, Skip Schumaker, and Ryan Ludwick figured to be contenders with Colby Rasmus out to show the organization he could step up and fill the enormous shoes left by Jim Edmonds in center, and Juan Gonzalez desperate to prove he is still capable enough to play in the majors.
As this wasn’t enough, Rule 5 draftee Brian Barton and farm system product Joe Mather also threw their names into the competition.
As of today (3/17), the Cardinals optioned Colby Rasmus (.273, 2 HRs, 4 RBI) and Joe Mather (.289, 1, 4) to the minors.
These moves make sense as both Rasmus and Mather have more options than Brian Barton (who, if not kept on the major league roster for the entire season, must be sent back the Cleveland Indians).
Furthermore, Rasmus would be making a huge jump Double-A baseball to the majors; this allows him to gain his footing in the outfield, as well as the organization and take his time to develop as a more effective hitter and fielder.
The same goes for Mather who had a breakout 2007 with 31 home runs between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. Added time in the farm system will only help increase his hitting ability.
That still leaves six players vying for the five available positions. With a stellar spring training so far and an intriguing 2007 season, Rick Ankiel (.362, 3, 7) figures to have secured a roster spot if not the role as the Opening Day center fielder.
Skip Schumaker (.333, 1, 5) and Ryan Ludwick (.293, 2, 5) are both coming off solid seasons as bench players for the decimated Cardinals outfield last year. Schumaker is the closest player the Cardinals have to a stolen base threat this spring with three steals so far this Spring.
They both figure (and are most likely) to have an outfield slot secured. Even if only one of them starts, they provide LaRussa with capable bats off the bench as well as back-ups should one of the starters go down with an injury.
Chris Duncan (.038, 0, 0) has been a disappointment so far this spring, however he has experience in his converted position in the outfield and has hit more than 20 home runs each of the past two seasons. He also has logged plenty of time at first base which could prove valuable.
Surely, his performance from previous seasons will be enough for LaRussa to overlook his slow start to spring training and give him a spot on the roster (surely being the son of the pitching coach doesn’t hurt too much either).
That leaves Brian Barton (.349, 2, 8) and Juan Gonzalez (.308, 1, 5), one with a promising future and the other with an experienced past.
Both have played well so far this spring. However, Gonzalez has missed considerable time already with a strained abdominal muscle. This, combined with the fact he has not played in the majors since 2005 and will turn 39 this year, does not bode well for him.
Furthermore, Barton has played exceptionally well this spring and is one of only three right-handed bats available in the outfield (Ludwick and Gonzalez being the other two). Not to mention, he does have youth on his side.
More than likely, Juan Gonzalez will be the odd man out at the end of spring training. Whether or not he will accept an assignment to the minor leagues is to be determined.
An outfield roster of Ankiel, Duncan, Schumaker, Ludwick, and Barton, while lacking in All-Star caliber names, does provide the Cardinals with a good mix of youth and experience.
It should also be comforting to LaRussa to know Rasmus and Mather are available and ready at a moment’s notice to step up in the event of an injury or poor performance by the five big leaguers.
It will be interesting to see the final decision of the coaching staff and how well this list of relative no-names can hold up and carry the Cardinals' outfield during the marathon season.