Depth a growing concern for St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals will send nine players on to the field Monday at Chase Field in Phoenix for their season opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but they won’t have many replacement options if one, or more, of those players can’t play the entire game.

Ryan Jackson

The team will have a dugout full of bench players, of course, but recent injuries have suddenly taken a lot of talent that would be on the bench and put it into the starting lineup.

The Cardinals already had limited depth at the middle-infield positions once Rafael Furcal found out at the beginning of spring training he couldn’t throw and would need elbow surgery. Pete Kozma suddenly became the team’s first option at shortstop with Ronny Cedeno as the back-up.

But then the team released Cedeno on March 19 after he hit .290 in 16 games with the club.

That left the Cardinals with three middle infielders: Kozma, Matt Carpenter and Daniel Descalso.

Carpenter had all but wrapped up the starting job at second base, but third baseman David Freese eventually succumbed to a sore back that had plagued him much of the spring. Freese will now start the season on the disabled list, and Carpenter will have to take over the third base job in the meantime.

As the game of musical chairs goes, Descalso will fill in at second base, and Ryan Jackson will take the spot on the bench as the team’s back-up middle infielder. However, Jackson has hit .136 so far in spring training and hit .118 in 13 games with the big-league club in 2012.

Granted, that is a very small sample size, and the Cardinals have seen with players such as Kozma how past struggles don’t predict a bad future. Kozma hit .236 in more than five years in the minor leagues before helping spark a late-season surge by the Cardinals in 2012 with a .333 batting average in 26 games.

Still, a player who hasn’t hit above .150 as a major leaguer isn’t much of an insurance plan to open the regular season.

The Cardinals made Freese’s move to the disabled list retroactive to March 22 so he will be eligible to play in the team’s home opener April 8 against the Cincinnati Reds.

So if all goes well, the Cardinals should have their starting third baseman back within the first week of the regular season, which would allow Carpenter to move back to second base and Descalso could become the utility infielder that provides solid production when the starters need a day off.

Right now the Cardinals can’t afford for their starters to take a day off.

And that could be something to keep in mind late in the season when Kozma and Carpenter, who have started a combined 95 games in two seasons, start to feel the fatigue of a full Major League Baseball schedule.

The same could be said for the Cardinals pitching staff, as well. Closer Jason Motte’s injury had a ripple effect through the bullpen and the starting rotation.

Mitchell Boggs will have to fill Motte’s spot at the back of the bullpen, but Motte’s injury also made Joe Kelly more valuable in a relief role instead of the fifth and final spot in the rotation, which went to Shelby Miller, who the Cardinals have groomed to be a starter throughout his minor-league career.

Kelly at least pitched out of the bullpen in college and made 15 appearances as a reliever last season for the Cardinals in the regular season and playoffs combined.

The Cardinals have remarkably sustained success through a multitude of injuries in the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

They’ll have to maintain that resiliency again in 2013, but this time there is no Carpenter, Descalso, Jon Jay or Allen Craig to insert into a key situation late in the game. Those players now must be the team’s foundation instead of its accessories.

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