Marmol, Cardinals face tough pitching decisions as team gears up for Wild Card

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

The first year of Major League Baseball’s expanded postseason doesn’t just inject drama in the form of an additional Wild Card team and a best-of-three first round.

A combination of accommodating those extra games and making up for time lost to the sport’s lockout also serves to compress the schedule, leaving teams scrambling to set up pitching even as opponents remain uncertain three days before the first game of the playoffs.

The St. Louis Cardinals are in the throes of those difficult decisions. Over the weekend, manager Oliver Marmol described daily meetings with the coaching, front office and analytic staffs in which various deployments of pitchers were considered, as well as medical check-ins to determine which players will be physically able to perform.

Projecting the roster, starting from the baseline maximum of 13 pitchers for each club but without a requirement to roster 13, necessitates imagining the flexibility from which the manager would most likely seek to draw over a short weekend series. The group of 26 can be reassembled in subsequent playoff rounds, but these players are those most likely to suit up against either Philadelphia or San Diego

Catchers (2)

Andrew Knizner, Yadier Molina

There’s no roster drama behind the plate, though there is room here for lineup intrigue. Marmol refused to commit to using only one starting catcher in the postseason, and Knizner has developed a strong bond with potential game one starter Miles Mikolas. It would not be a surprise to see that maintained once the playoffs begin.

Infielders (6)

Nolan Arenado, Paul DeJong, Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, Albert Pujols

DeJong’s inclusion here comes with the caveat that his performance as a hitter has deteriorated to the point that any at bat he takes in a playoff game will be fair to judge as a potential mistake from the dugout.

Still, the Cardinals are committed to what he offers defensively, and are clearly looking for ways to utilize him in the postseason in the event the lineup does roll over to his spot late. In six seasons in the big leagues, he has zero career sacrifice bunts; Marmol asked him to do so on Monday night in Pittsburgh, presumably as part of evaluating whether he could get a bunt down in a pinch. He struck out.

Pujols’ brief days as a platoon player are over. He’s more than earned his place cemented in the middle of the lineup.

Outfielders (6)

Ben DeLuzio, Alec Burleson, Dylan Carlson, Corey Dickerson, Lars Nootbaar, Juan Yepez

The first name on the list above is most likely to be the first name off if Tyler O’Neill shows enough recovery from a strained hamstring to make the Wild Card roster. However, if O’Neill were to re-injure himself and need to be removed from the roster, he wouldn’t be eligible to return in the next round. That risk, combined with his lack of game action, could push the club to hold him an additional few days and secure a spot for DeLuzio as a pinch runner and defensive substitute.

Of the others, Carlson and Nootbaar seem certain to start in center and right field respectively. Left remains up for grabs; Dickerson has slumped and Burleson hasn’t stood out in limited opportunities, leaving Yepez as perhaps the best option even against Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler or San Diego’s Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove, some of the league’s toughest righties.

Should Dickerson receive those starting assignments instead, it will likely be in a pure platoon alignment with Yepez.

Pitchers (12)

Jack Flaherty, Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks, Steven Matz, Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery, Andre Pallante, José Quintana, Chris Stratton, Zack Thompson, Adam Wainwright

As much as keeping 13 pitchers on a roster for three games feels like overkill, it remains possible the Cardinals determine the potential contributions of DeJong or DeLuzio are less valuable than those they might receive from an extra arm.

As is, in this projection, righties Dakota Hudson and Jake Woodford and lefty JoJo Romero find themselves on the outside looking in. Hicks, who has been on the injured list, seems pointed toward a return in time for the playoffs, save the possibility of a setback.

Marmol has remained cagey about his deployment of starters and has earnestly professed that part of his restraint comes from a lack of knowledge about the Cardinals’ opponent. Recent success and their deployment in short stints on Monday in Pittsburgh does seem to point toward Mikolas and Quintana as the two most likely starters in the first two games.

The third game remains anyone’s guess. If the Cardinals play San Diego, a strong argument could be made for Jack Flaherty against a strikeout-heavy Padres lineup. Against the Phillies, lefty sluggers Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber might cry out for a neutralizing factor in southpaw Montgomery. And still, in the background, lurks Wainwright with an experience pedigree beyond reproach.

Creative deployments are a near guarantee, and decisions could come down to the wire. Flaherty, for instance, could be off the roster entirely, but still find himself scheduled to start the first game of the division series. With fewer off days and more innings to cover, figuring out the pitching is by far the most difficult coming management challenge to overcome.