ST. LOUIS – Most winning ball clubs will have at least one utility player they can plug into any position at any given time that benefits the team.
The St. Louis Cardinals made versatility a priority when constructing their 2023 roster. All but three position players on the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster took the field at multiple positions last year between the big-league and minor-league levels. For many, that trend could continue with the new campaign.
As the designated hitter returns for a second straight year and appears here for good in the National League, there is also the possibility of having a versatile piece fill the DH slot or take the field on a day when someone with a more set position, like Paul Goldschmidt or Nolan Arenado, needs a break from glove work. The lineup and fielding possibilities are endless when there’s an abundance of versatile options.
Here’s a look at some Cardinals who could shuffle around the field this season.
Primary position: 2B
Also plays: 3B, 1B, SS, LF, RF
Brendan Donovan’s rookie campaign came with some historic accomplishments in terms of versatility. He became the first player in history to make his first four MLB starts at each of the four infield positions. Months later, he won the National League’s first “super utility” Gold Glove award for his defensive prowess at multiple spots.
Donovan capped a hot spring with a .296 batting average, four home runs and 10 RBI. He won the job at second base closer to the end of last season, and for now that’s where he projects to play most. That said, it really doesn’t matter much to him.
“I just like being in the lineup, so I don’t really care which one,” Donovan said positions earlier in the offseason. He added jokingly, “If I’m pitching or catching, we’re in big trouble.”
Primary position: 2B
Also plays: 3B
The highly-touted prospect didn’t move around too much in his rookie season last year, but he might need to for regular opportunities in his sophomore season. Gorman, drafted as a third baseman, quickly shifted his development to second base when the Cardinals acquired Nolan Arenado in 2021. He played all but one of his 69 games there last year at the big-league level.
Things looked a bit different this spring. The Cardinals gave Gorman seven starts at third base while Arenado was away for the World Baseball Classic. It was encouraging that Gorman did not commit an error at the hot corner over 39 positions, and his solid spring offensively (.288 average, 4 home runs, 13 RBI) might give more of a reason to get him reps at third base on occasion or if his counterpart Nolan needs more than a few days off.
“I pretty much have the whole field to myself, besides people that are catching for me,” said Gorman earlier in the offseason on defensive preparations. “I’ll take ground balls at short or third base to take longer throws. A lot of arm care. A lot of turns at second base.”
Gorman adds he has specifically been working to improve his quickness and range anywhere around the diamond.
Primary position: SS
Also plays: 2B, 3B, OF
From second base, to the hot corner, then back to second base again, it seems Tommy Edman might finally have a somewhat permanent spot on the diamond. The 27-year-old played more shortstop than second base in three of the final four months last season and thrived with a .994 fielding percentage on more than 300 fielding chances.
The Cardinals’ starting shortstop of the last five years, Paul DeJong, is currently on the injured list with an undisclosed timetable for return. Without another true shortstop on the Opening Day roster, it appears Edman is in for the bulk of opportunities at one of the most demanding positions in baseball.
Primary position: 3B
Also plays: 2B, SS, OF
Here’s a name you probably haven’t heard about much unless you followed spring training closely. The Cardinals invited 33-year-old journeyman Taylor Motter to spring camp this season, and he played well enough to turn it into an MLB promotion.
Motter has not seen regular action since 2017 with the Seattle Mariners, though has his most of his MLB experience at shortstop (49 games). He’ll likely be a bench piece in the early-going for the Cardinals, but he got spring reps at all four infield positions and didn’t commit any errors over 140-plus innings of work. Combining that with a few timely hits made him a viable choice for Opening Day as the Cardinals placed anticipated backup shortstop Paul DeJong on the injured list.
Primary position: RF
Also plays: LF, 1B
Somewhat buried in a pool of talented Cardinals prospects, Alec Burleson has slugged his way to the big leagues since his second-round draft selection in 2020. Burleson’s 16 spring hits were among the team’s top this spring, and for a team always seeking an edge on offense, it was intriguing to find some way he could contribute this year.
Burleson saw roughly two-thirds of his spring action in right field, though handled first base a few times with Paul Goldschmidt away for the World Baseball Classic. Like Gorman, he’ll have to prove through his bat that the Cardinals should find a spot for him in the lineup. Both left-handed youngsters could play key roles against certain right-handed hurlers.
The Cardinals constructed their roster in a way that gives them multiple options to deploy in left field, center field and right field. The expectation is that Tyler O’Neill, largely due to his speed, will get the first cracks at right field. Lars Nootbaar, after stardom in the World Baseball Classic, seems like a lock for right field, though can shift to any of the three positions.
That leaves the Cardinals in a unique position to balance the workload of two recent top prospects. Jordan Walker slotted into left field for most of his spring and is likely the favorite for starts amid his big-league promotion.
Dylan Carlson’s role remains to be determined. The 24-year-old has proven capable in center field, and it seems as if the Cardinals will look for ways to slot him into any of the outfield positions and designated hitters when the matchups are favorable. All considered, Alec Burleson and Taylor Motter might be in line for some occasion outfield work as well.
The Cardinals begin their 2023 season Thursday at Busch Stadium with the home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays. First pitch for the new season is set for 3:10 p.m.