The St. Louis Cardinals have six such players, all of whom were members of the 2010 Memphis Redbirds. Five of the six are pitchers, along with infielder Ruben Gotay. Three of them had been on the club's 40-man roster previously, starter Evan MacLane and relievers Matt Scherer and Josh Kinney. Four have past major league experience – Gotay, MacLane, Kinney and lefty reliever Rich Rundles.
The six currently slated to become minor league free agents:
At this point, none have been re-signed for 2011.
A longer list?
One way the minor league free agent list could expand is if the Cardinals would remove a player or players from their 40-man roster, currently full at 40.
It is also fair to note that half a dozen veteran players who would also have been on this list were released during the second half of the season. Those shed include Mark Shorey, Rich Hill, Renyel Pinto, Andrew Brown (the reliever), Nate Robertson and Kevin Howard.
A look back
Last year at this time, the Cardinals had nine minor league free agents, seven from Memphis and two at lower levels of the system. The only two of the nine who came back for 2010 were MacLane and Perez, both re-signed on January 20 of this year. The year before, only one of six minor league free agents returned.
One clear indication that the organization is relying more and more on homegrown players is the declining number of these minor league free agents. The Cardinals had 26 four years ago and 15 three falls ago.
What about me?
Kinney was removed from the 40-man at the start of July amid rumors of a shoulder problem. All he did during the final three months of the season was post a 1.38 ERA in 29 games, pick up 14 saves and register a 28:9 strikeout to walk ratio in 32 2/3 innings. In the playoffs, Kinney added four more scoreless innings and two saves. Apparently that wasn't good enough for the Cardinals.
Not yet free agents
The Cardinals could still avert free agency for these players in one of two ways. As implied above, a player can be kept if the organization adds him to the 40-man roster. Though spots will open up with major league free agency ahead, a higher priority will be to protect drafted players that will otherwise be eligible for the Rule 5 draft. Therefore, this avenue seems unlikely.
The six will not become minor league free agents if they re-sign with the organization prior to the fifth day following the conclusion of the World Series. Of course, for that to be a possibility, 2011 contracts must also have been offered to the players, not a certainty.
Journeymen vs. home grown players
Of the 2010 list above, reliever Matt Scherer is the only home-grown free agent-to-be, originally selected by the Cardinals in the 16th round of the 2004 draft. He is what is called a six-year minor league free agent.
The term actually means that a player can first experience free agency following the sixth renewed year of his minor league contract. That means the first partial season when a player signs and typically joins a short-season club for the remainder of that year does not count.
In other words, players that originally began play in the 2004 season but were not yet added to the 40-man roster may be among those who can become free agents for the first time. Their six seasons of team control would have been 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
The remainder of the free agents noted above either originally began play prior to 2003 and/or were previously released by the Cardinals or another organization. As such, they have the option of becoming a free agent at the conclusion of each subsequent season, hence the term "minor league journeymen".
Quantity or quality?
Some observers have been critical of the Cardinals for not signing more minor league veterans with the resulting impact viewed to be a lack of major league depth, especially in the infield.
My view is different. I believe the Cardinals signed enough veterans, but clearly added the wrong ones. The organization should not sign players in whom they do not have enough confidence that they could be used in the majors if needed.
Specifically, with third base a problem in 2010, the Cardinals had two players in Memphis, neither of whom they even gave a try in St. Louis. Over the winter, they had added well-traveled minor leaguer Kevin Howard and former MLB player Ruben Gotay.
Between the two of them, they started 138 of Memphis' 150 games at third base, yet were not considered viable major league fill-ins despite a crucial need.
The bottom line for me is not to sign more minor league free agents – instead to just sign better ones. We'll soon see what the organization does in preparation for the 2011 season.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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