Cards on the Minor League Free Agent Bench

A 33-year-old left-handed pitcher is the sole minor league free agent signing by the St. Louis Cardinals this entire off-season to date.

Since the minor league free agent season began at the start of November, organizations have been busily signing players while the St. Louis Cardinals have primarily remained on the sidelines. Across the 30 MLB organizations, almost 250 players have already inked minor league contracts for the 2011 season. That works out to an average of eight per club, with a high of 19.

Q: Why is a seemingly unimportant left-handed pitcher named Raul Valdes such a notable member of the St. Louis Cardinals?

A: The 33-year-old ex-New York Met is the one and only minor league free agent signing by the organization so far this entire winter, back on November 23.

No other organization has come close to adding as few as St. Louis.

Clubs that have signed double-digit quantities of minor league free agents include the expected, such as rebuilders like Seattle, Houston and Washington, but they are joined by successful powerhouses such as the Dodgers, Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox.

Minor league free agents signed, November 2010 through December 18, 2010

19 Seattle
18 Dodgers
16 Texas
13 Florida
12 Washington Houston
11 Yankees
10 Boston
9 Oakland White Sox Cubs Mets
8 Philadelphia Minnesota Detroit
7 Baltimore Toronto Arizona Atlanta Tampa Bay Kansas City
6 Cincinnati
5 Cleveland Pittsburgh
4 San Diego Milwaukee Angels
3 Colorado San Fran.
1 St. Louis
248 Total
8 MLB average

While not every one of the 248 would align with the Cardinals' needs, a number of interesting left-handed pitchers, infielders and outfielders have already found homes for 2011.

Left-handers signed to minor league deals include familiar names such as Dontrelle Willis (Cincinnati), Dana Eveland (Dodgers) and Andrew Miller and Lenny DiNardo (Boston). Middle infielders recently snapped up include Josh Barfield (Philadelphia), Drew Sutton (Boston) and Adam Everett (Cleveland). Third basemen now off the market are Dallas McPherson (White Sox), Sean Burroughs (Arizona) and Jack Hannahan (Cleveland). Unavailable outfielders include Eugenio Velez (Dodgers), Ryan Langerhans (Seattle) and Endy Chavez (Texas).

In-house vs. external sourcing of depth

In the past, the Cardinals have used this route to sign valuable players such as Josh Hancock, Scott Spiezio and Ryan Ludwick. While the organization may have reasons to avoid going all out on signing minor leaguers this year, their almost complete inactivity to date seems unnecessarily risky.

One of the long- and often-stated objectives of the Cardinals is to build a pipeline of low-cost prospects to fuel the needs of their major league club. That is an admirable target for any organization. Given the volume of the natural roster turnover in the game, the mission is never-ending.

For their recent execution, the Cardinals receive anywhere from a passing to a failing grade, depending on whom you ask.

One person who ought to know is Dave Duncan. In June, the no-nonsense pitching guru reportedly made the assessment that the system could not support a championship club.

While some point to the 2010 contributions of rookies Jaime Garcia, David Freese and Jon Jay, those players were already in the majors by the time Duncan made his statement. Just because Memphis had a competitive team didn't mean they had major league-ready reserves.

One would have to assume the organization lacked confidence in the readiness of many of the players in Triple-A as evidenced by in-season additions of fringe major leaguers no longer wanted by other clubs. They included Aaron Miles, Randy Winn, Pedro Feliz and Mike MacDougal, each among the team's seven free agents not expected to be asked back for 2011.

St. Louis bench goes "green" again

The winter additions of major leaguers Jake Westbrook, Brian Tallet, Ryan Theriot, Lance Berkman and Gerald Laird led general manager John Mozeliak to recently declare his big league roster for this coming season basically complete.

Inherent in such a configuration is a very green bench. After the trade of Brendan Ryan, it projects to be the veteran Laird along with youngsters Tyler Greene, Allen Craig, Jay and perhaps rookie Daniel Descalso, with far less experience behind them in Triple-A.

Lack of depth was an exposure for the 2010 Cardinals as they broke camp with three inexperienced outfield reserves in Craig, Joe Mather and Nick Stavinoha. All ended up riding the shuttle back and forth between St. Louis and Memphis. The latter two were removed from the 40-man roster after the season with Mather now property of the Atlanta Braves.

Memphis reserves thin

At the 4-5-6 positions, light-hitting 22-year-old Donovan Solano is the only minor league infielder in the system other than Greene and Descalso with even one game of Triple-A experience. As such, depth appears to be a major issue.

Of course, it is important not to sign just any minor league free agents. Ones that are viewed as having a chance of contributing in the majors should be the clear targets.

That didn't work out well in 2010. The veteran infield reserves in Memphis were a pair of journeymen that didn't receive a call to St. Louis despite obvious need. Kevin Howard was released late in the season and second baseman/third baseman Ruben Gotay was ignored despite a .410 on-base mark with the Triple-A Redbirds.

Perhaps the Cardinals have a plan for minor league free agents and their primary targets are still available. If so, the evidence remains hidden. In the meantime, their competition is busy – some very busy.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Selected TCN content appears at Follow Brian on Twitter.

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