Walton's Cardinals Rule 5 Protection Picks

Which St. Louis Cardinals farmhands may be protected from the Rule 5 draft and why? Brian Walton offers his annual predictions.

With the deadline to file reserve lists for the Rule 5 Draft coming this Friday, November 19, it is once again time for my annual protection predictions for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Pending any further roster gyrations, whether movement, signings or releases, the Cardinals have 43 players currently Rule 5 susceptible, ranging from Triple-A Memphis all the way down to short-season Batavia. I whittled that list down to 14 for which I feel deserve serious consideration.

The feel of the list of eligible players is a bit odd to me, but perhaps a reasonable representation of the Cardinals system as a whole. There are a number of good players there, but none whom future greatness as a major leaguer seems assured.

Before we go any further, we need to look at the Cardinals' 40-man roster to determine how many spots may be used for protection of these prospects. With the recent removal of catcher Matt Pagnozzi, the organization has 32 players on their 40-man.

Technically, that means they could protect as many as eight players. That is unrealistic however, because they would then not have any room to add an available player from another organization in the Rule 5 draft, nor would they have roster space to sign much-needed major league free agents.

My expectation is that the Cardinals will add three major leaguers at a minimum this winter – a starting pitcher replacement for Jake Westbrook, a left-handed reliever to take Dennys Reyes' spot and a proven reserve catcher to step in for Jason LaRue.

The Cardinals will likely bring in at least one veteran infielder and one veteran outfielder to major league camp, as well. That could be done on minor league, make-good contracts, however, without immediately impacting the 40-man.

One action that could help the organization relieve a bit of their 40-man roster pressure would be a trade of multiple players for one, such as a reliever and a shortstop for a better shortstop, for example. Another practical alternative would be to drop another marginal player or two from the 40-man after the Rule 5 draft, if needed.

In fact, I am going to assume that one of the above examples to further reduce the roster will come to pass over the winter. Otherwise, the above math means only five players can be protected and I cannot get my list down below six.

As a footnote, one year ago, the Cardinals protected eight players prior to the Rule 5, but also had 14 open spots on the 40-man with which to work.

Here are my current 14 candidates, broken down by position, with the six I predict will be protected noted. My thought process follows.

It is important to point out that the best players are not always the ones protected. One also has to take into account the chances of a player being able to hold down a major league 25-man roster spot for an entire season. If he could not do that, he would be returned to the Cardinals, anyway.

Top 14 Rule 5 eligibles Pos 2010 Protect
Broderick, Brian     SP Spr
Dickson, Brandon        SP Mem
Kopp, David  SP Spr yes
Delgado, Ramon       RP Spr
King, Blake     RP Spr
Reifer, Adam  RP Mem yes
Sanchez, Eduardo    RP Mem yes
Cruz, Tony C Mem yes
Brown, Andrew IF/OF Spr
Kozma, Pete  SS Spr yes
Solano, Donovan         IF Mem
Chambers, Adron     OF Mem yes
Henley, Tyler OF Spr
Pham, Tommy OF Spr

Starting pitcher. It was extremely difficult to leave unprotected both our Starting Pitcher of the Year for the entire system, Brandon Dickson, and the man who led the system in wins, was our Springfield Starter of the Year and was designated the Cardinals starter in the Arizona Fall League, Brian Broderick. Yet, that is what the numbers require.

Either or both could be taken by another organization, but would likely have to survive the entire 2011 season in a long relief role in the major leagues to stick. That is certainly possible, but maybe not probable.

Oft-injured but very talented right-hander David Kopp has the most upside of the three and as such, he is the one I think will be protected.

Relief pitcher. This is a real problem/opportunity area. More than any other position, relief pitching is one in which the Cardinals as an organization are strong. In addition, it is the role for which it is easiest for a Rule 5-selected player to be kept for the season after being taken. As such, unprotected relievers are especially vulnerable to be lost.

Despite both Blake King and Ramon Delgado having been sent to the AFL showcase, I just don't see room for them on the protected list. The two would yield protected spots to pitchers with greater upside and that have reached a higher level in the system, Eduardo Sanchez and Adam Reifer.

Catcher. The removal of Pagnozzi was a signal to me that Tony Cruz will be protected, as he should. The Cardinals would then be carrying four catchers on the 40-man, with Steven Hill and Bryan Anderson along with starter Yadier Molina. There could be later movement here to accommodate a major league veteran reserve.

Infield. Andrew Brown is a good organizational soldier with a decent bat and some defensive versatility, but is replaceable. Donovan Solano is intriguing and young, but has yet to demonstrate enough offensive consistency to be hidden on a major league roster. As an aside, Solano and Dickson were also Rule 5-selectable one year ago, but were not taken.

Based on his status as a former first-round draft pick in 2007, I expect shortstop Pete Kozma will be protected. The organization would not want to deal with the PR blowback if he was lost while holding out hope for him to eventually approach his expected potential.

Outfield. The emergence of Adron Chambers as a rare speed threat in the organization added another player to the protect list that I would not have expected would be required a few months ago. At this point, there is no indication that Daryl Jones will be removed from the 40-man, despite Jones' career stall and Chambers clearly passing him in the outfield pecking order.

Tyler Henley is coming off Tommy John surgery, leaving another year for the Cardinals to make a decision as to his ultimate upside. Speaking of Tommy, Tommy Pham had a very nice 2010 season and may be on the verge of breaking out, but he has just 121 at-bats at Double-A. As such, this is another place the Cardinals will have to take a calculated risk, I predict.

So there you have it. I will be back soon with the actual protected lists by level. This is an important factor not understood by many. The Cardinals cannot place all 43 Rule 5 eligible players on the Memphis roster. Therefore, some of those players will be eligible to be taken in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 and if so, due to less-restrictive rules below Triple-A, will likely not return in 2011.

I will have more on that next time.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.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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