SARASOTA, Fla. — When Randal Grichuk rocketed a misplaced fastball 400-some feet on Sunday, the first thing that came to mind, after making sure the tree beyond the center-field fence was still standing, was:
How can this guy not make the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster?
The homer was Grichuk’s fourth of spring training, the most on the team — and four more than the combined total of the projected starting outfield.
Grichuk brings far more to the field than the best power swing on the team, no disrespect to Matt Holliday or Matt Adams. Grichuk plays all three outfield positions, and plays them all well. He’s fast and fearless and has a strong arm. He’s running the bases with the aggressiveness that Mike Matheny has been requesting of all his players. And while Grichuk is only 23, he brings the experience of starting all of the team’s postseason games last season.
Sure, there’s room for improvement and more time in the minors would not hurt. But he’s clearly shown he is one of the top four outfielders on the club, and it’s not like the Cardinals are stocked with power hitters.
Grichuk may well be in the club’s plans to make the 25-man roster, but no one can be sure. We know that Jason Heyward will open the season in right, Holliday in left and Jon Jay, whose surgically repaired left wrist appears fine, in center.
But then it gets interesting. The Cardinals have been giving all the backup infielder-utility types some time in the outfield. Even Mark Reynolds, a corner infielder, has played a little in right and made at least one nice catch running toward the wall along the foul line.
Pete Kozma, playing perhaps the best baseball of his young career, has seen time in both corners and is expected to get at least a few innings in center before the Cardinals head north. Ty Kelly, Xavier Scruggs and upstart infielder Jacob Wilson also have played some in the outfield and done enough overall to make the conversation about one of the final roster spots.
We know this much about the five-man bench: Reynolds, Kozma and Tony Cruz are locks. By my count, that leaves no fewer than six players in the running for two spots: Peter Bourjos, Grichuk, Kelly, Scruggs, Wilson and Dean Anna. Tommy Pham lost his shot when he strained a hamstring that he initially hoped would sideline him a couple of days. But that was 10 days ago.
Wilson has made a great impression at the plate and in the field, but he has yet to spend a day in Class AAA, so his chances are slim to none. Scruggs has been fine in the outfield, from what I’ve seen, and Matheny complimented his approach Sunday when he worked a ninth-inning walk that proved key in an 8-6 comeback victory over Baltimore. Still, he has only four hits, including just one double, and figures to be playing first base at Memphis again. Anna has come on after a poor start, but Kelly clearly has outperformed him — and brings more power and is a switch-hitter.
So, based on my less-than-infallible calculation, that brings the two-spot race to Bourjos, Grichuk and Kelly.
As easy as it is to root for Bourjos, he has become a wrench in the plans. He has not hit well as he adjusts to a new — and improved, Matheny says — swing. As elite as are Bourjos’ speed and defense, Grichuk brings plenty of both, too. Factor in Kelly’s versatility, ability to work a walk and the pop he brings from the left side, he also could do more for the team than Bourjos in a bench role.
Matheny has, not surprisingly, revealed little of the club’s intentions. Not that he needs to. Following Tuesday’s off day, the Cardinals still have 10 games remaining in Florida, including a split-squad affair Friday. While the regulars figure to soon start taking more of the available at-bats, there’s still plenty of time for more to develop.
If the decision was mine — I don’t blame you for laughing at that prospect — Grichuk and Kelly would make the roster and Bourjos would not. I don’t see any point in trying to send him to the minors, either. He might be better off going to a team where he could get regular at-bats. That said, if he does stick with St. Louis, I don’t see that as a big mistake.
For me, not including Grichuk is the biggest mistake the club could make about the bench.