Could Mather at third help unlock Colby in the outfield?

To be honest, until recently I hadn’t been all that energized over the potential of seeing many pitched battles in spring training for roster spots on the 2009 St. Louis Cardinals. Instead, I was thinking more about likelihood of gauging the health of Chris Carpenter daily and interpreting its impact in solidifying the rotation and bullpen.

However, that was before recent comments coming out of the Cardinals brass that actually have me gotten me kind of excited.

Why? Colby Rasmus and Joe Mather are why.

Rasmus considerations

For two reasons, I had previously felt quite strongly that top prospect Rasmus would not make the team out of spring training no matter how well he played. That may still be the case, but the door has now been opened a crack.

First, there are the five incumbent outfielders ahead of Colby – Rick Ankiel, Skip Schumaker, Ryan Ludwick, Chris Duncan and Mather. Six if you count 2008 Rule 5 pick Brian Barton. Sure, one or more could be traded, but that hasn’t happened yet and very well may not. I also never take the easy way out in roster questions by assuming players will become injured. I consider that a copout to avoid making tough calls.

The second Rasmus reason is clearly still valid. That is financial. Ensuring Colby does not spend his entire first season in the bigs would prevent his free agency from occurring a year sooner than would be the case otherwise. While we are talking about six years from now, it is still very significant – a whole additional season under team control.

But this post isn’t about Rasmus as much as it is about Mather. One of my secondary concerns about Rasmus making the team was that if he did so over Mather, it would overbalance the outfield with four lefty hitters and just one righty (Ludwick).

Mo and TLR introduce a scenario

It seems the Cards are considering the chances of having their Rasmus cake and eating their Mather dessert, too. I offer these revealing comments that GM John Mozeliak volunteered to Hall of Famer Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch last week.

“Mozeliak ruled out nothing but also said that the Cardinals’ opening day roster might include all of the aforementioned outfielders plus rookie Colby Rasmus and Joe Mather, who last year filled a utility role, a role that might be expanded to third base and perhaps even second base this spring,” Hummel reported.

This section of the article also included a direct Mozeliak quote.

“But he (Mo) added, ‘I do think there’s a way that all these guys (the six at the big-league level) make it. There is a scenario.’”

The very next day, a Derrick Goold piece quoted manager Tony La Russa jabbing at the second base idea, but essentially backing the rest.

“After a joke about 6-foot-4 Joe Mather playing a little second base during spring training and becoming one of the tallest ever to play the position, La Russa says Mather will see time at first base, in the outfield and, yes, even third base.”

So, what is the scenario at which Mozeliak hinted?

Mather makes the team as more of an infield reserve than an outfield reserve, that’s how.

How does it all fit together?

Let’s step back for a second and consider the way the 25-man roster is typically constructed coming out of camp. The good news is that it is pretty consistent from year to year.

There are five starting pitchers, seven relievers including two lefties, and 13 position players. From there you have the eight starters and five reserves. One back up is a catcher, two are outfielders and two infielders.

We’ve already discussed the outfield situation. The reserve catcher, Jason LaRue, is set. Brendan Ryan, a middle infielder by training and out of options, is very likely one infield back up. That leaves one spot, generally to be considered the position vacated by Aaron Miles, someone who could play all over the field.

The list of current candidates for that spot is woven from an unproven, somewhat uninspiring fabric, headed by non-roster invitee and former Dodgers prospect Joe Thurston. Others in the mix are Brian Barden and Tyler Greene.

Where could Mather fit?

With Ryan able to play second, short or third, could Joe Mather handle that other infield reserve job, also providing the ability to play outfield and deliver some much-needed pop off the bench?

From the Memphis perspective, the answer is “yes”, with Thurston taking over the D’Angelo Jimenez veteran middle infielder role, and Barden, Greene and Jarrett Hoffpauir also competing for Triple-A at-bats.

Another player that will likely be considered for a St. Louis opening is third baseman David Freese. He has a nice bat and is a more accomplished third baseman, though he seems to lack Mather’s versatility.

Let’s go around the diamond with Mather. We don’t know if he can pitch an inning in a blowout like Miles but he may be able to serve as third-string emergency catcher. Mather played behind the plate in at least one game in 2007 with Memphis.

We also know that he can play all three outfield positions quite handily as well as cover at first base, providing a right-handed hitting reserve to complement the lefty-hitting Duncan behind Albert Pujols.

As La Russa noted, the 6-foot-4 Mather would be a tall second baseman and Joe has apparently never played there. On the other hand, Cal Ripken, the same height as Mather, single-handedly destroyed the myth that shortstop has to be a “short” position.

Mather grew up playing the infield, specifically on the left side, and still considers that his first love. Yet since he has rarely played shortstop professionally, he still has to be considered only an emergency option there.

“In high school, I played third base my junior year and shortstop my senior year. When I signed, my first year with the Cardinals in ’01, I played third and short,” Mather reminded me Thursday.

Third base is really the wild card. While starter Troy Glaus was a durable performer in his first year in St. Louis in 2008, he has had injury problems in the past. Ryan can play the position defensively, but is a bit erratic there and lacks the power of a Mather.

While having manned at the hot corner in the past, it has been a long time for Mather. First, I asked him if the rumors from St. Louis had reached Arizona.

“Yeah, my Dad and my sister got a hold of that and called me right away… I think that would be great. I would definitely welcome it. I grew up playing shortstop and third base so any time I can get in there I’d love it and hopefully I’ll prove I can still play there,” he explained.

Next, I probed a bit more about his third base history. Officially, Mather played some there professionally from 2001 through 2004. I believe his last official regular season game action at third prior to 2008 was a single appearance in 2005 while he was still in A-ball at Palm Beach.

I had forgotten that in one of his 54 major league games last season, the 26-year-old did make his MLB debut at third base. He had no chances defensively, however. I asked Mather his comfort level playing at the hot corner.

“I am pretty comfortable. They put me there in a couple of spring training games at Triple-A. I played third. I ended up getting a couple of balls and made the plays. I think one of those things that I’ve done my whole life to a point I can get back to being decent over there pretty quickly. When it comes to maybe being an all-star, that might take a few years,” he cracked.

“Getting back into it and taking as many reps as I can; I think that with a little work, I can be good enough over there to play in the big leagues,” Mather concluded.

My nagging concern is how he is going to get those needed third base reps in spring camp. Will it be in major league games? If so, how short will his leash be?

Last March, I recall probing this same exact line of thinking, asking La Russa point blank if Mather was going to play at third base in spring games. His reply was a curt, direct, “Not here”.

As noted above, Mather did see some time at third base with Memphis, though not in even one actual game. Still, he is ready to do anything needed to remain with the Cardinals, even if it is as a reserve infielder/outfielder.

“Absolutely, I’ll take that role. Any role in St. Louis is going to be better than a role in the minor leagues. I’ve played in the minor leagues for a few years (starting in 2001),” the outfielder understated.

It is a year later and with different variables, but it seems the pressure could be squarely on Mather early in camp to prove his mettle at third base. Doing so would really improve his chances of making the season-opening MLB roster for the very first time.

At least tangentially, it could also help grease the skids for his pal Rasmus.

“I’m great friends with Colby. We’ve roomed together for I think the last two or three years and it would be great to have us both up there. I know that Colby is chomping at the bit to get up there and prove how good he is,” Mather concluded.

All he wants is a chance to prove himself like Joe Mather did in 2008.

Note: subscribers can listen to the entire Mather audio interview in his own words here. Among the other topics are how and when he was injured, why his problem won’t be coming back, his workout plans in the off-season, a trip back to his old high school that led to a contest and an honor, his plans to attend Winter Warm-up and more!