The St. Louis Cardinals enter the 2012 iteration of spring training looking to defend an unlikely championship, the result of a magical late-season run and one of the great postseasons ever played. They'll do so with one of the most changed teams ever for a defending World Series champion, with significant changes in both the roster and the coaching staff. It isn't often you see a team win a title then lose its best player, Hall of Fame manager, and all-time great pitching coach before the next season opens.
Long before the title defense begins in interest, though, there are spots to be decided in camp. We know the big names, the big decisions, and the performances that will likely make or break the Cards' chances in 2012. There will be time later to mull over those issues. For now, I'm more interested in taking a look at a few of the lesser-known names in camp.
These aren't necessarily players who will make the Opening Day roster; they may, or they may not. And even if they do, these aren't likely names we'll be hearing come up again and again as the difference between winning and losing in 2012. Still, though, many is the team that has been buoyed -- or sunk -- by what they do or don't manage to squeeze out of the margin of the roster.
With that in mind, here are five players on the margins of the roster I'll be watching with interest throughout the spring. Take down these names, and you can sound smart later when talking to your friends about who will be the first reliever up when Mike Matheny decides to go all Crazy Tony on us and expand the bullpen to take up half the roster.
Adam Reifer, RHP -- One of the most intriguing arms in the Cardinals' system, Reifer was expected to spend 2011 pitching the late innings in Memphis and waiting for his chance at the big league level. Instead, a torn ACL suffered early in the season put him on the shelf for the year. He'll be to make up for lost time this spring and prove he deserves to be that first reliever up.
When healthy, Reifer has truly electric stuff, beginning with a mid-90s fastball that has touched as high as 99 at times and a slider that can be positively Lidgian when it's on. He's been slightly more hittable in the minors than a pitcher with his stuff should be, largely due to less-than-ideal command, but he showed signs of sharpening in 2010. Future Redbirds conducted an interview with Reifer recently
; he likes techno music. That's more than enough to make me root for him.
R.J. Swindle, LHP -- Signed as a minor league free agent just before Christmas, Swindle will likely receive far more print space this spring than he deserves. The reason? Well, despite being one of the most marginal of margin players, Swindle is just, well, fascinating. His results in the minors have been consistently brilliant, despite featuring stuff that would make most beer-league softball pitchers chuckle a bit.
The Cards come into camp with Marc Rzepczynski as their only sure thing from the left side of the bullpen; J.C. Romero is seen as the likely second lefty, but he's been both old and awful of late, with neither condition showing signs of abating. Sam Freeman, a farm system product, could get a look as well, but it's tough to see Freeman as being major league ready right out of the gate. Swindle isn't currently on the roster, but by the end of spring training it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him claim a chance to throw his eephus to left-handed hitters in St. Louis this season.
Brandon Dickson, RHP -- We saw Dickson make a few appearances in St. Louis last season, and we'll likely see him again at some point in time in 2012. He won't wow you with his stuff, but a sinking fastball in the 90s and a very nice knuckle curve give him enough of a repertoire to play Brad Thompson for a couple years.
The main reason I'm interested in Dickson this spring is because of what effect his performance might have on the standing of Kyle McClellan with the club. K-Mac is working out of the bullpen again this season, of course, but the real reason he was resigned at a premium rate is largely as starter insurance. The Cards seem to view Lance Lynn currently as a better option out of the 'pen, making him unlikely to fulfill that sixth starter's role, and the club would be loathe to push Shelby Miller at anything other than his own pace just to fill a temporary rotation slot for fear of stunting his development. Thus, McClellan will serve as the club's primary insurance policy against the injury bug striking its stable of starters.
If Dickson comes in an impresses in spring training, it could make McClellan more expendable. We've already seen the club try to move him in its pursuit of Roy Oswalt; obviously the Cards' brass doesn't see K-Mac as a long-term solution. He's no longer free, either; I'm sure John Mozeliak wouldn't mind unloading his $2.5 million salary if there's a league-minimum solution just sitting there in Memphis waiting to be used.
Bryan Anderson, C -- Bryan Anderson was selected by the Cardinals out of a California high school way back in the 2005 draft. He jumped onto the prospect map almost immediately, flashing a left-handed bat with unusual promise for a catcher and impressing in his first big league spring training. And since that time, Anderson has, well, pretty much stayed the exact same player. You couldn't blame a person for being tired of hearing about him even two or three years ago; by this point it's almost surprising to recall he's still around.
However, if there's ever a year Bryan Anderson could make a mark with the big-league club, this is likely it. Mike Matheny has long been a supporter of Anderson's, working with him in camp each of the last few years and praising his work behind the plate. Gone is Tony La Russa and his fetish for all-glove no-hit backup catchers (which, as far as fetishes go, is really one of the least extreme ones I can think of, and not at all uncommon), and the Cards go into camp without a veteran backup backstop signed for the first time since 2005, when Yadier Molina apprenticed under Matheny himself.
Anderson has never developed the power many thought he would, but he's still capable of hitting for a good average, and I think his defense is better than many believe. He'll be competing with Tony Cruz for the roster spot; if he can't seize it this year it's likely time for him to move on, either to another organization or perhaps a nice gig selling insurance.
Matt Carpenter, 3B -- Another player who received a brief audition with the big club last year, Carpenter is best known for his remarkable plate discipline, which allowed him to post a .263 on-base percentage in an extremely small sample size last season despite hitting just .067. He's a good hitter, but has only moderate power; his path to production in the big leagues will have a whole lot to do with working pitchers for as many walks as possible. His other tools are good enough, and he plays a solid if unspectacular third base.
Carpenter is going to be taking grounders in camp at second base, attempting to increase his versatility to get more potential playing time. I'm not sure a guy who stands 6'4" is going to be able to handle the nimble movement necessary to play the keystone, but I would certainly be willing to give it a shot.
Bottom line, I think Matt Carpenter deserves to be on this team. Personally, I think he has at least as good a chance of being a quality major leaguer as David Freese, and without the nightmarish bad luck constantly threatening to send him to an early grave. The biggest question for Carpenter is simply going to be one of opportunity, and whether or not he receives it.
So there you have it, folks. Just a few of the more interesting names floating around camp of players who may or may not have a role to play on this team before all is said and done. These aren't going to be stars, at least not in 2012 anyway, but they could still have a say in what the story of this title defense ends up looking like.
Spring Training is finally underway, promising an end to winter and a return of sunny days and the smell of stadium hot dogs.