The Risks in Optimizing the Roster for Opening Day

photo: John Gant (Kim Klement/Imagn)

Columnists and fans alike critical of the St. Louis Cardinals front office are calling for the team to roster its best 25 players on Opening Day, without regard to contracts, service time, options and other complicating factors not directly related to results on the field.

On the surface, how can anyone argue with that logic? Yet, in reality, nothing is that simple.

Personally, I find generic discussions very unsatisfying. They are good to rile folks up, but it takes another level of thought to evaluate and assemble the many individual decisions behind building a roster into one coherent plan.

From the get-go, how could the “best 25” players be determined in such a way that everyone would agree? By definition, this task is impossible.

But, let’s put that aside this very real show-stopper and get into details.

As in most things in life, a balance must be struck. In this case, it is between the short term (Opening Day) and the longer term (the entire season). Making what may appear to be optimal decisions for Opening Day can compromise depth later.

Is it worth making every possible attempt to secure more wins in April if it could lead to more losses in May, for example? If there was a magic formula that could optimize all variables to define the best roster moves to win the most games over the entire six-month season, it would provide the ideal answer. In the real world, however, it is just one opinion vs. another vs. another. Some are far more informed and enlightened than others.

One thing I am convinced of is that far, far too much is made of the initial roster, when we all know it will change almost immediately. For example, even if the bullpen numbers just seven on Opening Day, leaving a five-man bench, the relief corps will likely expand to eight once the early open days on the April calendar are past.

Before the first week of the 2018 schedule was completed, two of the seemingly-healthy members of the 25-man Opening Day roster were placed on the disabled list. Over the course of the 162 games, 49 players appeared with St. Louis. Circumstances not under anyone’s control will preclude any team from having its best players active all the time, making depth crucial over a six-month season.

Let’s be even more specific and name names currently prominent in social media and forum discussions.

Chasen Shreve (Steve Mitchell/Imagn)

Exposing pitchers John Gant, Mike Mayers or Chasen Shreve to waivers (from where they would almost certainly be claimed) just because they are out of minor league options might enable the Cards to put some folks’ view of the “best 25” on the roster day one. But then on day two, when injuries strike, the fill-ins will be less proven and likely of lesser quality.

Same with another popular fan proposal – trading Jedd Gyorko to ensure there is room for both Yairo Muñoz and Tyler O’Neill. Then, when Matt Carpenter goes down the next week, you immediately wish you had a third baseman as dependable and proven as Gyorko. Just as fast, the critics’ cry will change on a dime – pointing out how short-sighted the front office was in trading away important depth.

Adam Wainwright (Steve Mitchell/Imagn)

How about the thought of parting ways with disappointing relievers Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson? It seems likely the duo will open the season on the injured list, anyway. Anyone who wants to see Dexter Fowler released is guilty of premature reaction.

Adam Wainwright may or may not be one of the best five starters, but what would the Cardinals do with him instead? To date, the veteran has not pitched himself out of the rotation, but if he does, a proven replacement on the ready would be ideal – like Gant, for example.

Being forceful while being purposely vague about opening with the “best 25” may look quite tasty, but lacks the substance to be satisfying. It leaves the reader/listener open to interpret the specific moves needed to actually make it happen, about which there would never be full agreement. Others do not bother, accepting the rallying cry at face value without thinking through the varied implications.

I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I do believe the people who run the team take the time to thoroughly evaluate the choices, including trying to manage this short-term vs. longer-term balancing act.

Second-guessing is a natural expression for all of us, but in doing so, we also need to mindful that we don’t have all the information and certainly don’t have any stake in the decisions on the table. Suggesting the Cardinals are not trying to win just because they don’t make every transaction each one of us may want is unreasonable and unrealistic.

And the bottom line, proven time and time again, is that whatever roster is set for March 28 will almost certainly change in days, if not hours. But if players are claimed off waivers, traded or released, they will be gone forever.

As the old line says, the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint.

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