JUPITER, Fla. -- Though the Cardinals have not yet announced any of their roster decisions, it appears that four pitchers are now competing for the final spot in the bullpen.
Six spots are seemingly occupied already. Trevor Rosenthal is in as closer, and the eighth-inning bridge to him will be filled by lefty Kevin Siegrist and whichever starting pitcher does not win a place in the rotation. That battle has come down to Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez.
Seth Maness will be in the 'pen and could fill a long-relief role, if needed. Randy Choate returns as a lefty specialist. Non-roster invitee Pat Neshek has done all he needs to in order to secure a Major League job, as well.
That seventh spot would belong to Jason Motte, but the right-hander will begin the season on the disabled list as he finishes his Tommy John rehab. That means that the four remaining pitchers in camp -- Jorge Rondon, Keith Butler, Sam Freeman and Scott McGregor -- who are not competing for a starting job are vying for that last opening.
Butler and Freeman each have previous Major League experience. McGregor, a recent addition to big league camp, has been groomed as a starter, so there would be a transition in role should he be called upon to pitch out of the 'pen.
The most impressive this spring, though, has been Rondon. He's gotten into some trouble -- eight hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings -- but he has pitched himself out of every one of those jams. In six appearances, Rondon has struck out six and not been scored upon.
"I think it's been a very, very good spring for Jorge," manager Mike Matheny said. "We approached him with a simplified approach, and he embraced it and did a great job of trying to figure out how to make that work. Our instructions to him were: 'You can help us with your stuff, but you're going to have to be in the strike zone. That's all there is to it.'
"We were very pointed with our instructions. He went to work that day and got up on the mound and took a simplified approach and has continued to work on it. He definitely has done a real nice job with making those adjustments."
Rondon, 26, has made a methodical climb through the organization's farm system since he was signed out of Venezuela in 2006. In '13, he led Triple-A Memphis with 51 appearances. He posted a 3.06 ERA, but he walked nearly as many batters (37) as he struck out (42) in 67 2/3 innings.
Of these four pitchers battling for a big league roster spot, Freeman is the only lefty. Matheny said he has not ruled out carrying three left-handed relievers, but that "it's a matter of who is going to make quality pitches, not left- or right-handedness at this point."
Freeman develops change as primary offspeed pitch
JUPITER, Fla. -- Sam Freeman is still hopeful of breaking camp with the Major League team, but he's just as focused on leaving Spring Training armed with an effective changeup.
Freeman wants his changeup -- a pitch the lefty reliever started throwing as a sophomore in high school -- to replace the slider as his primary offspeed pitch. Not that Freeman has thrown the slider much in recent years, either. He has become fastball-dependent, something he knows has to change if he wants to get a sustained opportunity to pitch in the Majors.
"I want to be as confident with that pitch as I am with my fastball," Freeman said of his changeup. "It's a matter of getting the feel for it and trusting [catcher] Yadi [Molina] to know when it's the perfect time to use it."
Freeman's chances of making his way back to St. Louis will hinge largely on consistency -- and not just of the changeup. He continues to seek a repeatable delivery, something that has been made easier since reducing his leg kick and going to a slide-step motion.
Then there's fastball command and focus, the two being related. It was a lack of focus on Wednesday, Freeman said, that led to him walking Minnesota's Chris Colabello on four pitches.
In 6 1/3 spring innings, Freeman has allowed two runs on six hits and four walks. He has seven strikeouts.
"It's been OK," Freeman said of those Grapefruit League results. "Obviously, the walks have been something that have followed me throughout my career. I'm working to improve that. The next step is just getting more fishing with the fastball. I need to attack with that."
Matheny, Cards discuss pitcher safety
JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals will not have to face Reds closer Aroldis Chapman in at least six of the 19 games the two teams will play in 2014, though that was not the focus in St. Louis' camp the day after Chapman was involved in a scary on-field incident.
Chapman was carted off an Arizona field on Wednesday night after being struck in the face by a line drive. On Thursday, the Reds announced that he will undergo surgery to repair facial fractures and that the recovery will be approximately 6-8 weeks.
The Cardinals face Cincinnati six times over the first two weeks of the season, and then again during a three-game series in late May. Under that recovery timetable, Chapman would miss at least those first two series.
Talk about how best to protect pitchers from continuing to be hit by liners resurfaced in light of this latest event. In January, Major League Baseball approved a padded cap that is now optional for players to wear. No Cardinals pitchers have expressed interest in donning the cap, at least as it is now.
Lance Lynn said he hasn't even seen the cap brought into the clubhouse for pitchers to try.
Because of all the extra padding, the cap is oversize and does not have the same snug fit players are used to. Manager Mike Matheny described the look as "goofy." Additional research is being done to see if the hat can be streamlined.
"It will be interesting to see how baseball evolves," Matheny said. "We start talking about issues like concussions and we start talking about trying to make steps forward, I think that may be something that the game might have to get comfortable with. ... When we start talking about what can happen to these guys, I think you can't take anything off the table."
Chapman's injury isn't all that different from the one that ended the career of Cardinals outfielder Juan Encarnacion. He, too, was hit near the left eye with a ball, but while standing in the on-deck circle. The impact crushed his eye socket, and Encarnacion never fully regained his vision.
Fortunately for Chapman, the prognosis is better. Reds medical director Dr. Timothy Kremchek said on Thursday that he "absolutely" expects Chapman to pitch in 2014.
"It's been happening for a long time, though. Pitchers have been getting hit," Matheny said. "You think maybe guys are getting bigger, stronger, faster, but they've always hit the ball pretty hard, and it's 60-feet, 6-inches away. There's not a lot of time for reaction. You try to teach the guys to prepare, but he didn't have time to get his hand up. It's just one of those scary moments."
"When you look at changes and look at the NFL with concussions, nothing got changed until guys started getting seriously injured," Lynn added. "I guess it's going to take someone getting really, really hurt to where they can't do anything again to go there. But you don't wish that upon anyone to ever get hit. Hopefully, we can keep making the progress that we need."
• Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz is expected back in Cardinals camp on Thursday after making a trip to Mexico to secure a work visa. With that visa in hand, Diaz is now able to play in Grapefruit League games, and Matheny said "you'll probably see him at some point" on Friday. Matheny would not commit to whether Diaz will start Friday's game or come in off the bench.
• Motte is scheduled to throw his third live batting practice on Friday. The Cardinals have not said whether Motte will be cleared to pitch in games once he passes this next step.
• The Cardinals are still hopeful that infielder Mark Ellis (left knee inflammation) will make a weekend return to Grapefruit League play. Ellis, who last appeared in a game a week ago, was able to hit, throw and take ground balls on Wednesday.
• Matheny said he expects the club to finalize its roster before it leaves Florida next Thursday to play an exhibition game in Memphis, home of the organization's Triple-A club.
• ProCamps announced on Thursday that Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter will host a youth baseball camp at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Mo., from 4-7:30 p.m. CT on July 21. For more information about the camp, which is open to boys and girls from grades 1-8, and/or to register, visit MattCarpenterCamp.com.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.