Though we will break down the list of eligible players now, the list could shrink or grow in the interim.
If offered a contract, some could re-sign with the Cardinals, as did Jamie Romak last winter. Players could be added to the 40-man before reaching free agency as the Cardinals did with Jorge Rondon last fall. On the other hand, others could join the free agent-eligible ranks if removed from the 40-man roster.
Besides the obvious situation when a free agent is not made an offer, potential player reasons for seeking a new home for the 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 two years ago, 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. Since, Solano has logged more than 600 major league plate appearances while batting over .270 for Miami.
The Cardinals currently have 10 free agent-eligible players, down from 13 one year ago. Seven closed the 2013 season as members of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, including two members of the rotation.
Two finished with Double-A Springfield, though one of them has previously seen extensive MLB time. None are catchers, one is an infielder, three are outfielders with six pitchers making up the majority.
Given the concentration of free agents at Memphis, there should be opportunity for players from Springfield's Double-A squad to move up in 2014.
None of the 10 potential free agents have ever been on St. Louis' 40-man roster, though three have prior major league experience with other organizations. These minor league veterans were brought in during the off-season to backfill several targeted open needs.
Outfielders Justin Christian and Chad Huffman were signed last winter and spent all year in Memphis. Springfield's well-traveled minor league free agent is a former Cardinal minor leaguer (Memphis 2010) and ex-major leaguer in Ruben Gotay. He was signed to play third base during the final week of spring training after Rule 5 addition Matt Cerda abruptly retired. Gotay became a two-time Texas League all-star.
These players either originally began play prior to 2007 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."
The fourth well-traveled player is Jamie Romak. As noted above, Romak re-signed with the Cardinals after becoming free-agent eligible one year ago.
Speaking of the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft, that is also how Jay Voss became a Cardinal last winter. The left-hander, who first reached Double-A in 2009, ended up with Class-A Peoria after struggling in his return from Tommy John surgery.
The other five are homegrown Cardinals – Nick Additon, Richard Castillo, Ramon Delgado, Deryk Hooker and Zack Russell. All five are pitchers. Four were drafted by St. Louis, while the other, Castillo, had first been signed at the age of 17 as a non-drafted free agent from Venezuela.
Summarizing the 10 Cardinals farm hands currently slated to become minor league free agents:
|Free agent to be||Pos||Team||Acquire||MLB|
|Nick Additon||LHS||Memphis||47th round, 2006|
|Richard Castillo||RHS||Memphis||Int'l free agent, 12/07|
|Justin Christian||OF||Memphis||Free agent, 11/12||yes|
|Ramon Delgado||RHR||Memphis||41st round, 2007|
|Ruben Gotay||3B||Springfield||Free agent, 3/13||yes|
|Deryk Hooker||RHR||Memphis||7th round, 2007|
|Chad Huffman||OF||Memphis||Free agent, 2/13||yes|
|Jamie Romak||OF||Memphis||Free agent, 11/12|
|Zack Russell||RHR||Springfield||49th round, 2007|
|Jay Voss||LHR||Peoria||Rule 5 (AAA), 12/12|
Of the 10 on the list above, six are what are called six-year minor league free agents – the five homegrown players plus Voss, who was originally drafted in 2007.
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 immediately after a player signs and typically joins a short-season club does not count.
In other words, players that originally began play in the 2007 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 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
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 likely be given to protect drafted players that will otherwise be eligible for the Rule 5 draft. Therefore, this avenue seems very unlikely.
The 10 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, 2014 contracts must also have been offered to the players, far from a certainty.
One name that would have eligible for this list is Tommy Pham. However, the organization re-signed the oft-injured outfielder for both 2013 and 2014 last winter, so he remains under contract.
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 2007 or earlier.
In future articles, I will look at potential outright candidates (removal from the 40-man roster), Rule 5-eligible players and evaluate possible related roster moves that would occur before the end of November.
A look back
|FA's by year||#||Returnees|
The fact the organization had to rely more heavily on journeymen fill-in players in 2012 is underlined by the surge in minor league free agents to 13 last winter, which dropped to 12 when Rondon was added to the 40-man. Only Romak returned for 2013.
Departees last fall were Luis De La Cruz, Jose Garcia, Cedric Hunter, Ray Kruml, Lou Montanez, Rainel Rosario, Eugenio Velez, Matt Young and Lance Zawadzki. Kleininger Teran and Roberto Espinoza retired and became coaches.
Two years ago 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 2009 and just one of six following the 2008 campaign.
Going further back, the Cardinals had a whopping 26 minor league free agents seven years ago and 15 six falls ago. That total dropped as the organization's player development pipeline improved.
Quality and quantity – position players
In the past, I have questioned the Cardinals for not signing key minor league veterans sooner in the off-season. That changed in preparation for 2013, as the Cards made their key moves before the calendar flipped from 2012 to the New Year.
In addition to Romak, Christian and Huffman leading the Memphis offense, Brock Peterson, signed last August to a deal that included 2013, later earned his way onto the 40-man roster. Even the emergency addition at Springfield, Gotay, became an important contributor.
It remains to be seen if there will be room for all of key prospect offensive leaders of the 2013 Springfield squad – Stephen Piscotty, James Ramsey and Mike O'Neill – to make the big step up to Memphis. It seems likely with the latter two already having seen time at Triple-A and the former two set to play in the Arizona Fall League. Pham should also return to the Redbirds outfield.
The major league readiness of Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong remains in question, so they could be back at Memphis to start next season, as well. Audry Perez, Travis Tartamella and Greg Garcia should be among those Redbirds who will also return.
However, Adron Chambers has no minor league options remaining. If he does not make the Cardinals next spring, he will be at risk of being lost via waivers. The only way Chambers is assured of being in Memphis in 2014 is if he agrees to be there. (Shane Robinson and Pete Kozma do have one remaining option each, unused in 2013.)
Overall, the need for external position player help seems less severe than the year before.
Other relief alternatives?
In recent years, the Cardinals have enjoyed a strong pitching pipeline, so it is unclear if they have future plans for the impending free agent relievers.
Coming out of high school, Hooker was a promising prospect. He lost his way, then re-established his bearings after a drug suspension, but seems to have plateaued the last two years. Russell has an interesting fastball, but has bounced around, making the unusual final-month leap from Peoria, where he dominated, to Springfield, where he struggled.
Delgado was once a rising relief star, having pitched in the Arizona Fall League back in 2010. However, now 27 years of age, the right-hander has been shackled by injury, missing most of the last three seasons. I guess there is a chance Delgado could become the pitching version of Pham, but more likely, his time may be up.
Memphis rotation need?
A year after the Cardinals had lost just one free agent pitcher and added none, they may see six depart this time. As I noted above, free agency of Memphis starters Additon and Castillo may be felt the most. Between the two, they made 47 starts and pitched 280 innings in 2013. Additon led the Redbirds in innings pitched while Castillo was third in the entire system at 147 2/3 frames between Memphis and Springfield.
There may not be room in St. Louis for all of the talented top pitching prospects such as Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons to make the big-league club immediately out of 2014 spring training camp. However, as we saw in 2013, they should not be counted upon to be regulars in Triple-A, either. As soon as needs occur in St. Louis, they will be called upon again.
In other words, I can see the Cardinals needing to sign a few free agents and/or again dip into the minor league Rule 5 draft to provide depth and fill gaps. Hopefully, the organization will once again step up during the winter and get the players they want instead of scrambling for in-season stop gaps as became necessary back in 2012.
October 8 update: Upon his outrighting to Memphis, reliever Victor Marte joins the impending free agent list.
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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