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Cardinals notebook: Club finalizes bench for opening day, continue to debate makeup of 15-man pitching staff

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St. Louis Cardinals report to Spring Training

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar takes live batting practice the day before the official start of spring training on Sunday, March 13, 2022, at the Cardinals training facility in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. — Through a series of moves on their final day in Florida without a game scheduled, the Cardinals gave a peek at the position players and bench they’ll sport on opening day.

The pitching staff remains up for debate.

“I think we might go down to the wire, to Tuesday,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “There is still a little more we want to see. I think we may take this all the way.”

The Cardinals are talking about starting the season with 15 pitchers on their 28-man roster, leaving five spots on the roster for the designated hitters and bench players.

The team optioned infielder Brendan Donovan to Class AAA Memphis after an impressive camp and planned to officially reassign Cory Spangenberg to the the Triple-A roster. That left 13 positions players on the active roster and, after the eight starters, defined the bench as Albert Pujols, Corey Dickerson, infielder Edmundo Sosa, backup catcher Andrew Knizner, and left-handed hitting outfielder Lars Nootbaar.

There are three pitchers — Andre Pallante, Jake Walsh, and lefty Connor Thomas — vying for the 15th and final spot in the staff.

Marmol raved about Donovan’s camp, words backed by the best measure of how the team views a young talent — playing time.

Donovan’s 32 at-bats led all Cardinals, and he got innings at all four infield positions during spring training. He hit .250 and slugged .375. If the Cardinals have a need for a left-handed hitter off the bench or a utility infielder, Donovan leaves spring training positioned for that promotion.

“We were told we were going to love this guy,” Marmol said. “Certain guys are just winning players. You can put him anywhere. He doesn’t scare.”

The Cardinals want to use the Florida innings they have to continue to vet candidates for the fifth starter position or the makeup of the bullpen that could influence that choice. Pallante and Walsh both pitched an inning in the simulated game the Cardinals orchestrated Sunday to give pitchers innings after Saturday’s raining.

Pallante continues to unease batters with a Buzzsaw cutter, and Walsh has impressed with upper-octave velocity. Thomas, who is likely to pitch Monday, has been the most efficient of the three in his groundball-laden four scoreless innings.

Drew VerHagen and Jake Woodford continue to audition for the fifth starter job, though they won’t have a Grapefruit League game to do it, and the Cardinals are discussing creative alternatives to a traditional fifth starter. VerHagen, Woodford, and No. 4 starter Dakota Hudson will all pitch Wednesday morning against minor-league hitters in Jupiter before flying to join the team for opening day Thursday at Busch Stadium.

“You get to take 28 guys and I want to make sure we’re taking our best 15 arms,” Marmol said. “And then that will shape how they’re used at this point. I want to make sure we’re not leaving anything on that table as far as how to best fill that fifth spot.”

That decision could have a downstream effect on the Cardinals’ choice for the final spot. Walsh is the only one of the three players already on the roster, so selecting Pallante or Thomas would mean a 40-man roster move as well. That is a consideration given the short-term availability of a 15-man pitching staff. By May 1, the Cardinals must downsize to a 26-man roster, and the rule limiting the pitching staff to 13 will start.

Bader signs, O’Neill next?

The Cardinals announced a two-year contract extension with center fielder Harrison Bader and remain in talks with Tyler O’Neill about a multi-year deal that could mean he, too, will avoid an arbitration hearing.

O’Neill and the Cardinals have made progress in their discussions, a source confirmed. O’Neill said that he’s comfortable if negotiations on a contract continue into the start of the season. A date for his arbitration hearing has not been set.

Bader, 27, agreed to a contract that will guarantee him $10.4 million over the next two years, including a $1 million signing bonus and a $4.7 million salary in 2022. His contract is set to mimic arbitration and increase for 2023 based on his plate appearances in 2022. If he maxes out incentives, he could elevate his salary to almost $7 million for 2023 — when he hopes to explore a longer deal with the Cardinals.

“I definitely have intensions of having a longer extension in my career,” Bader said. “I think the possibility or the potential of (a hearing) being a distraction was something I wanted to avoid. … It solidifies the relationship with this organization (and) it’s one you want to keep for as long as possible.”

Bader’s signing leaves O’Neill as the Cardinals’ only player bound for a hearing, and the club would like to avoid that with at least a two-year deal. The Cardinals are also discussing a new contract for reliever Giovanny Gallegos and whether one could extend into his free-agent years. The Athletic reported a three-year deal has been discussed.

Ice cream & more

The Cardinals scrapped their plans to have a tournament of baseball feats Sunday but did not cancel the ice cream truck. The rainout Saturday forced the Cardinals to revise their Sunday workout, and instead of the annual contest between players to see who would get ice cream — they all did.

After Sunday’s simulated game, the Cardinals lined up to get ice cream bars, cones, and cups of cherry ice.

• Pittsburgh will start right-hander J.T. Brubaker opening day opposite the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright. The Bucs announced their choice Sunday. Brubaker went 5-13 with a 5.36 ERA in 24 starts in 2021.

Brubaker, 28, said to Pittsburgh reporters about facing Pujols, Wainwright, and Yadier Molina: “It’s awesome because I think I was still in high school when all three of those guys were playing together. Not to date them, by any means.”

• Wade LeBlanc, the veteran lefty who stabilized the Cardinals’ rotation when he joined it in June, told MLB Network he is retiring.

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