The Dexter Fowler signing was viewed as the most efficient way to upgrade the Cardinals outfield last winter. Fowler was an instrumental piece to the Cubs world championship team, and his presence in center field would offer the Cardinals the luxury of shifting Randal Grichuk to left, improving the overall athleticism of the group.
Beneath the excitement over that move lurked a disquieting reality of the team’s outfield construction: beyond Fowler, John Mozeliak pretty much left it alone. In terms of depth, the Cardinals would be on shakier ground in the outfield in 2017 than they were in 2016.
Though Fowler was added, Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, and even occasional contributor Jeremy Hazelbaker were subtracted. Still, a direct comparison to last year’s mix wouldn’t be exactly fair. None of this year’s anticipated starters–Grichuk, Fowler and Stephen Piscotty–would need late-inning replacements for defense.
For that reason, the Cardinals felt comfortable starting the season with only four outfielders on the roster (five if you count Matt Adams, which the team no longer does). Considering that lack of proven depth, ‘what happens if someone gets hurt?’ was a question most Cardinals fans hoped would remain hypothetical.
It didn’t; instead, that question became a real concern Thursday night as the Cardinals saw not one, but two outfielders exit the game with apparent injuries.
First, Piscotty departed in the second inning with a strained right hamstring after lunging for first base trying to beat out a ground ball. Jose Martinez, the only other outfielder on the roster, took his place in the field. It wasn’t ideal, but it was manageable, at least until the Cardinals got a chance to make a roster move after the game, pending an update on Piscotty’s injury.
Next thing you knew, Aledmys Diaz was trotting out to left field.
After diving for a ball in left-center field, Dexter Fowler left the game with a shoulder strain after the third inning. By using Diaz in left, Mike Matheny indicated that Adams isn’t even an emergency option out there at this point. Fortunately, Diaz saw little action in left field, and escaped the endeavor with his health intact. That it worked one night doesn’t make the defensive alignment any less questionable. The Cardinals roster needed some adjustments, especially if Piscotty or Fowler were to miss significant time.
Based on the news from post-game, the Cardinals may have lucked out with the severity of at least one of the injuries.
“Just got checked out, had the MRI–very, very mild muscle spasm, so extremely good news,” Piscotty said in an interview shown on Fox Sports Midwest. “We’re gonna get reevaluated in the morning and go from there, but everything’s very encouraging after the fact.”
Matheny said he would remain in St. Louis overnight as the rest of the team travels to Atlanta. Piscotty will be checked out medically Friday morning before the team determines the next step for him. Based on he demeanor Thursday night, he appears confident this injury will only keep him on the shelf for a short period of time.
Still, Matheny confirmed the Cardinals “have one player on the move already,” set to join the team for that series against the Braves. That is assumed to be Tommy Pham, who was removed from his game for the Memphis Redbirds after Piscotty’s injury in St. Louis. Pham has excelled this season in Triple-A, posting a batting line of .289/.379/.511 with four home runs and 19 RBIs.
The corresponding move to make room for Pham–or whoever is on the way–has not yet been made clear. Piscotty seems to have intentions to join the Cardinals later this weekend in Atlanta, which would imply that he could avoid the disabled list, though more will be known as Friday progresses.
Even less was known about Fowler’s condition Thursday night, as he was still going through an MRI as of Matheny’s postgame presser. If his right shoulder strain is going to keep him off the field for any length of time, it’s possible the Cardinals utilize the 10-day DL for him, rather than play with a bench any shorter than need be.
Regardless of who goes on the shelf, the addition of Pham is made necessary by the severe lack of depth in the outfield exposed Thursday. That Matheny was forced to risk the health of his starting shortstop in asking him to finish the final six innings of the game as a left fielder is a strong statement about the current composition of the roster.
The Cardinals had a short bench as it was, carrying an extra pitcher in lieu of another position player. It’s worth wondering if the luxury of that extra arm is worth the kind of stress thrust upon the roster in a case like Thursday, when injuries complicate matters.
From Mozeliak’s perspective, it’s understandable that he didn’t desire leaving a guy like Pham on the MLB roster to waste away on the end of the bench. That said, whether it’s Jonathan Broxton, Miguel Socolovich or Sam Tuivailala, it’s tough to argue that the last arm out of that bullpen carries more value to the Cardinals than the luxury of leaving your starting shortstop out of left field.
Thursday’s injury scare could trigger a roster reshuffling that addresses the issue, at least in the short term, as the Cardinals await some clarity on the conditions of two core anchors in their outfield.