Potential reasons for a player seeking a new home for next year include a better opportunity for a shot at the majors as well as perhaps a higher salary.
For example, one of the Cardinals minor league free agents last year, infielder Donovan Solano, seemed locked in at Springfield. After his sixth contract renewal with St. Louis, he received a new lease on life by signing with the Marlins for 2012. Solano has logged almost 300 major league plate appearances while batting over .290 for Miami this season.
The Cardinals currently have 13 free agent-eligible players. Eight of them closed the 2012 season as members of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. Three finished with Double-A Springfield, though two of them have previously seen extensive Triple-A time. Three are catchers, three are infielders, six are outfielders with just one pitcher among them.
Interestingly, with the exception of Nick Derba, Chris Swauger and Brock Peterson, every non-40-man roster position player currently with Memphis is free-agent eligible. In other words, there should be plenty of opportunity for players from Springfield's 2012 Texas League champion squad to move up in 2013.
None of the 13 potential free agents have ever been on St. Louis' 40-man roster previously though five have prior major league experience with other organizations. They are a part of a group of minor league veterans brought in to backfill a considerable number of open needs. All except one arrived during the season.
Infielder Eugenio Velez was signed in the off-season and spent all year in Memphis. Outfielder Cedric Hunter was acquired from Oakland in April. Lou Montanez was signed to join the outfield in May. Free agents Lance Zawadzki and Matt Young joined Memphis in August. At times during the final month, Hunter, Montanez and Young made up the Redbirds' outfield.
Springfield's well-traveled minor league free agents are Jamie Romak and Ray Kruml, each of whom also spent considerable time in the outfield. Romak was acquired from the Royals in May. Originally with Memphis, the 26-year-old was sent down to help Springfield starting in June. Kruml, released from the Yankees' Triple-A club, was signed and sent to the Texas League in August.
These players either originally began play prior to 2006 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."
Summarizing the 13 Cardinals farm hands currently slated to become minor league free agents:
|Free agent to be||Pos||Team||Acquire||MLB|
|Luis De La Cruz||C||Palm Beach||NDFA 05/19/06|
|Roberto Espinoza||C||Memphis||NDFA 03/06/06|
|Jose Garcia||IF||Memphis||NDFA 03/06/06|
|Cedric Hunter||OF||Memphis||Trade 04/04/12||yes|
|Ray Kruml||OF||Springfield||FA sign 08/05/12|
|Lou Montanez||OF||Memphis||FA sign 05/21/12||yes|
|Jamie Romak||OF||Springfield||Trade 05/17/12|
|Jorge Rondon||RHR||Memphis||NDFA 07/03/06|
|Rainel Rosario||OF||Palm Beach||NDFA 04/04/06|
|Kleininger Teran||C||Springfield||NDFA 03/06/06|
|Eugenio Velez||IF||Memphis||FA sign 12/21/11||yes|
|Matt Young||OF||Memphis||FA sign 08/17/12||yes|
|Lance Zawadzki||IF||Memphis||FA sign 08/10/12||yes|
|De La Cruz|
Of the 13 on the list above, six 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. 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 2006 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 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Catchers apparently make good coaches. Both Espinoza and Teran were active very little if at all during this past season as they transition into coaching. Teran was taken off Springfield's active roster on June 16 and Espinoza did not have an at-bat for the second consecutive season while working with the Memphis staff.
De La Cruz is still just 23 and was a major league camp invitee as recently as this spring. However, the Dominican has struggled with injury. He cracked our top prospect list in 2008 and was a New York-Penn League All-Star in 2009. De La Cruz has not advanced beyond Palm Beach except for three fill-in games above.
Garcia could be this year's Solano. The right-handed hitter has shown promise with the bat at Springfield, but has shuttled to Memphis for just a month at a time in each of the past two summers. The 24-year-old swiped over 20 bases in four consecutive seasons before dropping to 11 in 2012. His .320 average in 2011 was second in the system, but fell 60 points this season.
Rosario has played six seasons in the US. After spending last season at Palm Beach, the 23-year-old Dominican was promoted to Springfield to open 2012. After a month in which he batted .214, but reached base at a .343 clip, the outfielder was returned to Palm Beach, where he remained the rest of the season.
Not yet free agents
The Cardinals could still avert free agency for these players in one of two ways. A player could 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 very unlikely.
The 13 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, 2013 contracts must also have been offered to the players, not a certainty.
I mentioned Brock Peterson earlier. When the minor league first baseman signed with St. Louis on August 14, his deal covered the remainder of 2012 plus the 2013 season as well. The 28-year-old was acquired from the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League.
Another name that also seemed eligible for this list is Tommy Pham. An organization official would not confirm if the oft-injured outfielder has re-signed for 2013 or has some unique situation, but did make it clear that Pham is not a free agent.
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 2006 or earlier.
Such a move could have occurred last week when the Cardinals brought back Chris Carpenter. In conjunction with that, they outrighted left-handed reliever John Gaub, removing him from the 40-man roster. However, Gaub is not eligible for free agency, having first signed in 2007.
Though I recently outlined other potential outright candidates in this article, I don't expect any further action in this area that would affect free agency.
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
The fact the organization had to rely more heavily on journeymen fill-in players this year is underlined by looking at the surge in these minor league free agents to 13.
Most of these eligible players just move on.
Last year at this time, the Cardinals had seven minor league free agents, none of whom came back for 2012. They were infielders Solano, Freddie Bynum and Eric Duncan, outfielders Daryl Jones and Nick Stavinoha, and pitchers Jeff Lyman and Rich Rundles.
The year before, one of six returned, Rundles. Two of nine minor league free agents came back after 2010 and just one of six following the 2009 campaign.
Going further back, the Cardinals had 26 minor league free agents six years ago and 15 five falls ago. That total dropped as the organization's player development pipeline improved.
Quantity or quality?
In the past, I have questioned the Cardinals for not signing key minor league veterans sooner in the off-season. During 2012, the organization seemed to be major league-ready pitching depth at Memphis. On the other hand, there weren't enough good and ready position players in Memphis to provide much help to themselves (worst offense in the 16-team Pacific Coast League), let alone St. Louis.
One indication is the fact that Velez led the 2012 Redbirds in games played, at-bats, runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, stolen bases and was second in RBI.
It remains to be seen if the key offensive leaders of the 2012 Springfield squad – Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong, Chris Swauger, Greg Garcia and Audry Perez – will all be ready to make the big step up and join returnee Matt Adams for a more potent 2013 Memphis lineup.
Even if so, it seems the Cardinals will need to sign some free agents to provide depth and fill gaps. Hopefully, the organization will step up during the winter and get the players they want instead of scrambling for in-season scraps.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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