Cards' bench a puzzle with loss of Schumaker

Cards' bench a puzzle with loss of Schumaker

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- While Skip Schumaker's right oblique injury has prematurely ended his fight for the starting second-base job, it has also left the Cardinals with a more unsettled picture of how the bench will be pieced together.

It was always assumed that the two players who didn't earn regular playing time at second would be crucial pieces on manager Mike Matheny's bench. That won't be the case now, as Schumaker is expected to begin the year on the disabled list. He'll be joined there by outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig, who continues his recovery from offseason knee surgery.

Once fully healthy, Craig and Schumaker will each push someone off the Major League roster. But until then, the Cards have several variables to consider as they whittle down their Opening Day roster to 25.

Schumaker's ability to play the infield and outfield had the Cardinals initially leaning toward taking just one other extra outfielder. That would have been sufficient with Schumaker's versatility. His absence, though, will likely force St. Louis to keep two outfielders on the bench.

The club appears to have four players to consider for those two spots -- Adron Chambers, Erik Komatsu, Shane Robinson and Matt Carpenter. The first three play exclusively in the outfield. Carpenter, who has only seven games of big league experience, has been playing the corner outfield and infield spots after adding outfield work to his offseason regimen.

That versatility boosts Carpenter's chances of making the 25-man roster, since the Cardinals don't have an obvious backup first baseman until Craig returns.

"[Schumaker] was very versatile, which could help a versatile player [take his bench spot]," Matheny said. "We really don't have a guy who does exactly what he did. We have some things to weigh out."

Chambers, Komatsu and Robinson would all add speed to the bench. Robinson is the only one of the three who bats from the right side, and that could benefit him in the competition given how left-handed heavy the bench is likely to be. Still, that does not make Robinson's inclusion a certainty.

Matheny has spoken highly of Komatsu all spring, and if the Cardinals want to be assured of getting a longer look at him, Komatsu will have to make the Major League roster. As a Rule 5 Draft pick, Komatsu must be offered back to the Nationals before the Cards could send him to the Minors.

Komatsu entered Tuesday's game with a .241 batting average and five stolen bases, and a 3-for-5 effort against the Astros pushed him to .294. He has played all three outfield positions this spring, as have Robinson and Chambers.

"I'm really impressed with how he handles the ball in the outfield," Matheny said of Komatsu. "Great jumps. Great instincts. Instincts on the bases. He's shown some power. He's got a pretty nice approach. He's a good ballplayer."

The Cardinals' next two bench spots will be filled by infielders. The first of those two will go to Daniel Descalso or Tyler Greene, whoever does not earn the starting second-base job. Not counting Carpenter, there are another four infielders still trying to make an impression in Major League camp. Those include Mark Hamilton, Eugenio Velez, Matt Adams and Alex Cora.

"These guys have been going about their business the way they should," Matheny said. "They've all made a good case for themselves."

Hamilton has been slowed by a right quad injury much of this month, and that has hurt his chances to play his way into strong consideration. Hamilton, who can play the two corner-infield positions, hasn't appeared in a Grapefruit League game since March 10.

Adams isn't likely the fit the Cards have in mind, given where he is in his development. The 23-year-old first baseman hasn't yet played above Double-A. Velez would bring defensive versatility and could even step into the outfield, if needed. His offensive capabilities, though, aren't as strong as some of the other infield candidates.

Given his experience and versatility, Cora seems to have a strong candidacy for a spot on the roster. He has 14 years of Major League time and an opt-out clause in his contract that can be triggered if he doesn't make the club out of Spring Training. Cora has played every infield spot this spring, too, giving the Cardinals assurance that he can fill in capably at all four.

"He can play anywhere," Matheny said. "He's a very good instinctive player. He sees the field. He sees the situation. He sees the play before it happens."

The fifth bench spot will be grabbed by the team's backup catcher. That still could be any one of three backstops -- Koyie Hill, Tony Cruz or Bryan Anderson. Matheny said nothing can be ruled out, but at this point, the club is still likely to keep just two catchers -- Yadier Molina and his backup.

Another factor that could potentially affect the dynamics of the bench is the readiness of the pitching staff. If the Cards come out of camp needing an extra arm in the bullpen, the club could open the season with just four bench players.

Also to consider is the potential imbalance of right-handed- and left-handed-hitting bench options. The possibility of opening the season with an all left-handed-hitting bench is a real one. With Craig targeting an April return, though, the Cardinals may be content to carry mostly left-handed-hitting bench players knowing Craig will alter those dynamics soon.

"We have what we have," Matheny said. "We also understand that we have a right-handed bat in Allen that's not too far away that certainly makes our picture look a little different."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.