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St. Louis Cardinals: 40-Man Scramble

John Mozeliak is very confused

Considering that the St. Louis Cardinals still have a month of baseball yet to play, and are still within reach of a playoff spot, it seems a bit early to start thinking about the offseason. But this is baseball, and part of the fun of being a fan is looking ahead. It’s no secret that the Cardinals have spent most of 2017 with a bit of a jam on the 40-man roster.

Most recently, it was thought that a chief reason for not adding Jack Flaherty to the major league roster was because adding him to the 40-man would require some maneuvering that the team was not yet willing to do. At the time we didn’t know that there was a trade in works, one that would send Mike Leake to Seattle, and that it was playing into the decision. As the team moves through September and into the offseason, the 40-man roster is a topic that fans will hear plenty about.

The Rule 5 Draft

This is boring, but it’s part of the drill. One of the trickiest parts of managing a 40-man roster is protecting prospects from exposure to the Rule 5 draft. This is why in the offseason you see the Cardinals adding a player like Magneuris Sierra, who had not yet reached AA at the time, being added to the 40-man over a player like Harrison Bader, who was one step away from the Majors. Sierra could have easily been taken in the Rule 5 Draft, if left exposed. Bader wasn’t eligible yet.

The past two years the Cardinals have seen the San Diego Padres swipe away two low-level, yet highly regarded, prospects from the Cardinals system in an attempt to replenish their own. With a rebuilding club at the Major League level, the Padres could store these men – Luis Perdomo and Allen Cordoba, respectively – on the big league roster all year simply to have the talent in the organization for years to come. We saw the Cardinals acquire Matt Bowman via the Rule 5, so it isn’t just for rebuilding teams. It’s simply another tool for acquiring talent.

Generally the Rule 5 Draft is meant to free up players that have been blocked in a particular farm system. Because you must carry the player on the 25-man roster all year, it’s often just a lottery ticket that sometimes works out, but often the player is returned to his original team before Opening Day.

Eligibility for the Rule 5 is based on if the player: was 18 or younger on the June 5th preceding their signing and it is the 5th Rule 5 draft upcoming OR was 19 or older on the June 5th preceding their signing and it is the 4th Rule 5 Draft upcoming.

So, For Example…

Although Jack Flaherty and Austin Gomber were both drafted in 2014, Flaherty was 18 on June 5th while Gomber was 20. The 2017 Rule 5 Draft will be the 4th for both pitchers, but because of the above rules, Gomber will be eligible and Flaherty will not (and is about to be added to the 40-man anyway).

Sometimes, like with Allen Cordoba, the Rule 5 is cruel. As an international signing, Cordoba was just 16 when he became a part of the orginaztion, therefore he was just 21 and playing Rookie-level ball when he was eligible to be plucked away. It is unfortunate that for these young signees, their eligibility for the Rule 5 arrives around the age of 21 or 22, which is often when they are establishing themselves as legitimate prospects.

Who to Protect

With the tedious Rule 5 talk out of the way we can turn over to who the Cardinals must protect this year. First of all, no player already on the 40-man roster can be taken. Also, no one drafted in 2015 or later is eligible yet and is therefore safe. This includes prospects such as Dakota Hudson, Ryan Helsley, and Zac Gallen along with recent international signings like Jose Adolis Garcia and Randy Arozarena. I won’t dig super, super deep into the minor leagues to determine exactly who is eligible and who isn’t. Rather, I will do this in reference to the Top 30 prospects in the system, in particular those put together by our own Kyle Reis, which you can find RIGHT HERE. These are the players that are most “at risk” if left unprotected.

Of the Cardinals Top 30, 10 would be eligible for the Rule 5 based on the age/time requirements. Six of those 10 players are already on the 40-man roster and therefore protected. Of those, only Eliezer Alvarez and Edmundo Sosa have not seen time in the Majors. The four that remain are Tyler O’Neill, Austin Gomber, Sandy Alcantara, and Oscar Mercado. Of those 4, the first three listed are absolute locks to be protected. Mercado might be on the bubble because 2017 has been a breakout year. I assume that he will also be protected. To sum this up, 4 players not currently on the 40-man will HAVE to be added in the offseason. There could be more, should the organization identify a some Rule 5 sleepers, but we’ll keep it at four.

Who Goes?

Right off the bat, the Cardinals have 3 pending free agents – Lance Lynn, Zach Duke, and Seung-hwan Oh – that will be coming off of the 40-man roster. Mike Leake has now been removed from the 40-man roster. His spot will immediately be taken by Flaherty who was announced as the starter for Friday night’s game. Alex Reyes will rejoin the 40-man when he comes off of the 60-day DL. So will Trevor Rosenthal, assuming he does not get non-tendered. That’s a completely different subject, though. So hang with me. Subtracting Free Agents and adding injured pitchers, the Cardinals have 1 open spot. Again, they need 4 just for prospects. We’re not quite there yet.

A few gentlemen currently on the 40-man are pretty obvious cuts. Breyvic Valera was added last season following a very strong minor league season. He regressed this year and his upside is that of a utility infielder. He is likely released. Mike Mayers. Man, I feel for this guy, but he is probably the next man to see his release when a roster spot is needed. Josh Lucas, recently added is just a guy and may be a 40-man victim. Alex Mejia and Rowan Wick are two players that are on the bubble. Mejia may survive as an emergency/injury-replacement infielder. Wick is still intriguing as a hard-throwing, converted outfielder on the mound. To simplify, I will conservatively guess that the first 3 of the 5 players named will be cut. That gives the team 4 open spots, with 4 prospects to protect. Okay, so we’re even.

But What About Signing Free Agents?

Obviously, they can trade big league players for big league players, and break even with the 40-man roster. I believe that will happen. Consider that upon adding Mercado and O’Neill, they will have 9 outfielders. Generally speaking, middle-order bats are easier to find in the outfield. Something will have to give, and I expect to see 1 or 2 of the current outfielders moving in a trade. The Cardinals are intelligent and would likely design any trade to break even, if not clear an extra spot, on the 40-man roster.

Adding free agents is much trickier. This is where the bubble really comes into play. In order to sign free agents, which I think we all agree needs to happen, they must open up additional roster spots. For the sake of conversation, I believe they need 3 open roster spots to comfortably dive into the free agent market. Mejia and Wick would be options to release (in that order) and they could also consider leaving Mercado exposed in the Rule 5. After being burned on Allen Cordoba, I don’t believe they will take that chance. Of those three choices, I’ll say that Mejia is the one to go (even though I said he was safe earlier…priorities.). So that’s 1 spot.

Some one you like probably gets cut.

John Brebbia has been extremely lucky this year and likely isn’t as good as he seems, but he still has minor league options and can serve a nice depth role. John Gant has pitched fairly well in AAA but can’t seem to crack an 8-man (and sometimes 9) bullpen in St. Louis. He is a depth piece that can come in handy, though. Sam Tuivailala hasn’t been able to reach his potential and is out of options going into 2018. Honestly, these three seem more like guys that get released in spring training when a pitcher (from off the 40-man) like Dakota Hudson or Ryan Helsley forces himself into the Major League bullpen picture. Going into the offseason, I’ll say they are safe.

As stated before, Trevor Rosenthal could be non-tendered, and thus become a free agent in the offseason. The reason the Cardinals would do this would be to avoid paying him 6-7 million dollars in arbitration while he missed most, if not all, of 2018. He would then become a free agent anyway. They may work out a creative deal to retain him. We’ll see how that process works out. My bold call for how the Cardinals will free up a spot on the 40-man roster is this: non-tender Kevin Siegrist.

No Way!

Yes way. Siegrist has been hurt or bad for all of 2017. He has had two absolutely dynamite seasons in 2013 and 2015, with an injury-plagued 2014 in-between. Last year, a 2.77 ERA masked some disappointing peripherals. Compared to his best 2 years, his HR rate tripled in 2016, his strikeout rate fell for a 4th consecutive year, and he had a FIP of 4.43 (he had a 2.29 and 2.91 in ’13 and ’15). Where his fastball sat at 95 mph or higher in his first 3 years, it fell to 94 or lower in 2016. He has sat around 92 mph in 2017. This was a pitcher that was likely gassed after 81 appearances in 2015. He piled 67 more onto a tired left arm in 2016. Dealing with a rash of injuries and a severely decreased fastball velocity this year, he is clearly compromised physically.

In his second year of arbitration eligibility, he will likely command right around $2 million. Should the Cardinals commit that money and valuable roster spot to a pitcher that has struggled for 2 years now? Add to the equation that Brett Cecil (I know…) is under contract. Tyler Lyons is effective and out of options. And Ryan Sherriff has the makings of a capable middle reliever. That’s 3 left-handed candidates for the bullpen. Perhaps Austin Gomber makes a push for a role in 2018, as well. Given the situation, I believe that letting Siegrist go will certainly be on the table. So that’s 1 more roster spot, if that happens. I’ll count it.

Feeling Scrambled?

I apologize. I’m incapable of writing short articles. But if you’ve hung with me through this scrambled mess, hopefully you learned something. Hopefully you have a general feel for how the team might manage the 40-man in the offseason. Hopefully I didn’t confuse you more than you already were.

Here’s the summary: 4 prospects must be protected, 2 injured pitchers must be added back on. 3 free agents will leave and 3 “bubble guys” will be released. All square. I asked for 3 opening as the Cardinals dip into the free agent pool. Cutting Mejia and non-tendering Siegrist gives them 2. I guess 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.

…and now I’m craving meatloaf

UPDATE: While sorting through this mess I completely whiffed on Sean Gilmartin as an obviously guy in the bubble that will likely get cut. That’s my mistake, but overall it does fix the math a bit. Dropping Gilmartin gives me the 3 open spots that I wanted to see as they move into free agency.

Update 2: Hours after publishing, the Cardinals designated Kevin Siegrist for assignment. This effectively releases him and removes him from the 40-man. I expected a non-tender, this just accelerated the move by 3 months. Additionally, the team announced that Sandy Alcantara will join the team on September 1st. He will essentially take Siegrist’s roster spot.

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Rusty Groppel
I'm a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I'm also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.
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