The St. Louis Cardinals currently have seven such players. In an oddity, only three of them closed the 2011 season as members of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. The other four finished with Double-A Springfield, though all have previously seen Triple-A time. Three are infielders, two are outfielders and two are pitchers.
Three are homegrown Cardinals – Stavinoha, Jones and infielder Donovan Solano. The former two were drafted in 2005, while Solano was signed that year out of Colombia. All began the 2011 season with Memphis, but the latter two were sent down to Springfield during the season.
Three joined the organization in 2011 from the outside – infielder Eric Duncan, pitcher Jeff Lyman and Bynum. The former two became Cardinals after the season was already underway. Rundles was technically both since being a free agent last season. He re-signed with the Cards in January, was released in May and re-signed again in June.
The seven Cardinals farm hands currently slated to become minor league free agents:
|Freddie Bynum||IF||Memphis||FA 1/13/11|
|Eric Duncan||IF||Springfield||FA 4/19/11|
|Daryl Jones||OF||Springfield||2005 3rd round|
|Jeff Lyman||RHR||Springfield||FA 06/2011|
|Rich Rundles||LHR||Memphis||FA 6/29/11|
|Donovan Solano||IF||Springfield||NDFA 01/2005|
|Nick Stavinoha||OF||Memphis||2005 7th round|
At this point, none have been re-signed for 2012. Duncan, a former Yankees first-round draft pick, has expressed interest in returning. Comments from Stavinoha, holder of a number of Memphis career hitting records, indicate he plans to look elsewhere for future baseball employment.
A longer list?
The minor league free agent list could expand if the Cardinals decide to remove a player or players from their 40-man roster, currently full at 40. Generally speaking, if a player would clear waivers (i.e. not claimed by another organization), he would become free agent-eligible if signed in 2005 or earlier.
One such move that could occur in September would be if the organization decides to bring reliever Eduardo Sanchez off the 60-day disabled list to use him in game action in September.
If a player previously removed then re-added would be removed again, he could elect to become a free agent no matter when he first signed. An example would be Shane Robinson.
In a future article, I will look at potential Rule 5-eligible players and evaluate possible related roster moves that would occur before the end of November.
A look back
Last year at this time, the Cardinals had six minor league free agents, all from the 2010 Memphis club. Rundles was the only one who came back for 2011. The others were pitchers Evan MacLane, Oneli Perez, Matt Scherer, Josh Kinney and infielder Ruben Gotay. The year before, two of nine minor league free agents returned with just one of six in 2009.
The fact the organization is relying more and more on homegrown players is underlined by the declining number of these minor league free agents. The Cardinals had 26 five years ago and 15 four falls ago.
Not yet free agents
The Cardinals could still avert free agency for these players in one of two ways. As noted 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 given to protect drafted players that will otherwise be eligible for the Rule 5 draft. Therefore, this avenue seems unlikely.
The seven 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, 2012 contracts must also have been offered to the players, not a certainty.
Of the seven on the list above, Jones, Stavinoha and Solano are what are called six-year minor league free agents.
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 2005 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 organization control would have been 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.
The remainder of the free agents noted above either originally began play prior to 2005 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-ready depth at certain positions.
Middle infield is an area of ongoing concern. In addition to Duncan and Bynum, during the season, the Cardinals cut loose two other free agent middle infielders signed over the winter, Ramon Vazquez and Ronald Ramirez. Further, Solano was sent down from Memphis to Springfield during the summer. None seemed close to receiving a call to St. Louis, even when injuries struck.
A similar gap exists with left-handed relief. Despite the problems in St. Louis with Trever Miller and Brian Tallet, there was not much in Memphis available to help. Among the lefties tried and abandoned were Ron Mahay (Memphis only) and Raul Valdes (lost on outright waivers). For a period of time while Rundles was away, the Redbirds' pen was entirely right-handed.
My view is that the Cardinals need not sign more minor league free agents – instead they should get on the ball earlier to target and sign better ones to fill key gaps in the player development pipeline. We'll see what the organization does in preparation for the 2012 season, but last winter, they were on the signing sidelines for much of the off-season.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his weekly minor league column on Thursdays at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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