Miguel Socolovich (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images)

How the St. Louis Cardinals might manage their tight 40-man roster this fall.

With free agency and the Rule 5 Draft ahead, we look at some of the 40-man roster decisions likely being faced by the St. Louis Cardinals and what actions they may take.

One of the benefits of a productive minor league pipeline is a wealth of players at or near the major leagues. Each fall, one of the downsides presents itself in the reality that not all can be kept indefinitely. All 30 organizations have to make difficult decisions on who will stay and who may have to go.

Last time, we took a deep dive into the various players eligible for the Rule 5 Draft across the St. Louis Cardinals system. The conclusion was at least eight of the over 50 in this group can make a good protection case.

I ranked the possibility of their protection from the December Rule 5 Draft – by being added to the 40-man roster – as follows. Positions, year-ending club and ranking on the August TCN Cardinals Top 50 Prospect List are included for reference.

Odds My Top 8 Protection List Position 2016 TCN top 50
high Sierra, Magneuris CF Peo 7
high Sosa, Edmundo SS PB 6
high Nielsen, Trey RHS Spr 28
high Wick, Rowan RHR Spr 37
medium Littrell, Corey LHR Mem 39
medium Alvarez, Eliezer 2B Peo 19
low Sherriff, Ryan LHR Mem NR
low Voit, Luke 1B Spr 41

(Since the first article was published, I have learned of an exception case that has made Johnson City shortstop Allen Cordoba Rule 5-eligible each December since he signed in 2013. However, despite his on-field success, Cordoba is just too far away from the majors to be at risk of being selected, so it does not change the conclusions. For more information on his case, click here.)

In this article, we will establish a practical boundary for the quantity of these eight candidates who can be protected. That boundary is simple, but hard-fast - the number of 40-man roster spots that are either available currently or could be opened up soon.

While my entire story can be told by the table that follows, I want to be clear up front that everything beyond the line which indicates that 42 players are currently on the roster represents my predictions. None of it has happened yet and certainly the Cardinals could go in a different direction that what I suggest here.

End of season - 40-man roster full  40
   
Off 60-day disabled list (1) 1
Mitch Harris  
   
Outrighted (3)  
Mitch Harris, Michael Ohlman, Alberto Rosario -3
   
Off 60-day disabled list (4)  
Lance Lynn, Tyler Lyons, Seth Maness, Jordan Walden 4
   
40-man current level 42
   
Free agents (4)  
Matt Holliday - option buyout -1
Brandon Moss - no qualifying offer -1
Jordan Walden - option buyout -1
Jerome Williams - free agent -1
   
Keep  
Jaime Garcia - option exercised 0
   
Outright candidates (3 of 5)   
Anthony Garcia -1
Dean Kiekhefer -1
Jose Martinez 0
Jeremy Hazelbaker 0
Miguel Socolovich -1
   
Arbitration-eligible (6) - all tendered  
Rosenthal, Adams, Maness, Siegrist, C Martinez, Wacha  0
   
Subtotal  35
   
Rule 5 additions (5)  
Magneuris Sierra 1
Edmundo Sosa 1
Rowan Wick 1
Trey Nielsen 1
Corey Littrell 1
   
Subtotal  40

Current numbers

The Cardinals ended the 2016 regular season with a full 40-man roster plus five players on the 60-day disabled list. The latter group does not count against the 40-man limit during the season, but those exemptions disappear in the fall.

Once everyone is restored to the 40-man – even after Mitch Harris, Alberto Rosario and Michael Ohlman were dropped – the total is 42 as we head into the off-season.

Free agency/options

The Cardinals are expected to decline their 2017 contract options for outfielder Matt Holliday and relief pitcher Jordan Walden, paying them buyouts instead. Given the dearth of free agent starting pitching in the free agent market, I predict Jaime Garcia’s option will be exercised. The lefty has considerable value even as a potential trade chip.

The decision with Brandon Moss is whether or not to offer the free agent a one-year qualifying offer of $17.2 million. The benefit would be a first-round draft pick if the outfielder signs elsewhere. When all is said and done, I think the Cardinals will decide that the price of retaining Moss is too rich for the potential benefit - whether he stays or he walks with compensation. After all, the only Cardinal who made more than $17.2 million in 2016 is Adam Wainwright. We will see if that changes for 2017!

http://www.scout.com/player/36659-brandon-moss?s=321

I am assuming veteran pitcher Jerome Williams was on a one-year contract and will leave as a free agent. I cannot imagine a reasonable scenario in which the journeyman stays on the 40-man roster.

Outright candidates

As noted above, three players have already been outrighted this fall. I think at least two and likely three more will be coming soon. In the table above, I listed five further candidates in priority order, based on my perception of their individual ongoing value. Beyond this five, I do not see any 40-man players who should be considered “on the bubble”.

For example, I think if push came to shove, the Cards would keep prospect reliever Sam Tuivailala over Miguel Socolovich, so the former is not listed as an outright candidate. Starter Mike Mayers had a poor MLB debut, but still has promise. Going beyond five looks to move from cutting fat into the bone.

http://www.scout.com/player/133112-anthony-garcia?s=321

Outfielder Anthony Garcia looks like a potential star when hot, but the rest of the time does not appear to be MLB material. I think he will lose his 40-man spot. Dean Kiekhefer has been a career overachiever who in his big-league debut, showed he can get lefties out. However, that is not enough, in my opinion.

Both had been added to the 40-man one year ago and their removal seems a straightforward decision considering performance and roster priority.

http://www.scout.com/player/92131-dean-kiekhefer?s=321

The third choice was more challenging. More on how I came to the decision to make that third cut, Socolovich, follows.

Non-tender decisions

In addition, St. Louis has six arbitration-eligible players currently on the 40-man roster. If the Cardinals decided to let one or more of them go, by non-tendering them or releasing them, they could save roster space.

Of the six, perhaps the most tenuous status might be that of reliever Seth Maness. Yet for a projected salary of $1.6 million via arbitration, it would cost far more to replace the right hander than to keep him. Further, it would not buy much roster help. Assuming he would have to be replaced with another proven major leaguer would only mean temporary 40-man roster relief. Of course, this is dependent on Maness being healthy and able to pitch effectively again.

Bottom line, I do not see the Cardinals creating roster room by letting walk any of this group of Maness, Kevin Siegrist, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, Matt Adams and Carlos Martinez.

Tradeoffs

Here is where the difficult tradeoffs occur.

By implementing the above actions without a third additional outright, the Cardinals would only drop their 40-man down to 36. That would not be enough to accommodate more than four Rule 5 protections.

To go further, the players most likely on the 40-man chopping block would seem to be outfielder Jose Martinez, a solid late-season performer and 2015 Pacific Coast League batting champion, outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker, a power bat off the bench who was red-hot in April and spent much of 2016 with St. Louis, and the reliever Socolovich, who was stuck behind Kiekhefer and Tuivailala in the Memphis shuttle priority despite outpitching them in 2016. (This point about where Socolovich fits in the organization’s reliever hierarchy after two years as a Cardinal is important, in my opinion.)

http://www.scout.com/player/118230-jose-martinez?s=321

None of the three – Martinez, Hazelbaker, and Socolovich – are home-grown Cardinals, either having been signed as minor league free agents (the latter two) or acquired for cash. One could certainly argue that they are all replaceable, just as they had been brought in to replace others.

http://www.scout.com/player/142384-jeremy-hazelbaker?s=321

Cutting deeper than two outrights into the list of five seems the obvious place the Cardinals would go for additional 40-man roster relief.

Positional considerations

The Cardinals are not particularly deep in the outfield, but that has been identified as a potential addition target this winter. The only realistic help coming from the minors soon would be Harrison Bader, who seems at least a half-season away. So keeping one or both of Martinez and Hazelbaker might make sense from a depth perspective.

That is especially appealing, since even if an outfield starter is brought in from the outside, the only other proven outfield reserve on the roster would be oft-injured Tommy Pham. Further, in this scenario, Anthony Garcia would be out of the MLB picture.

On the other hand, St. Louis already has a wealth of pitchers on the 40-man to compete with Socolovich, making him less important in 2017, perhaps. Specifically, I count at least 14 other pitchers already on the 40-man roster who should come to camp to fight for seven bullpen spots. To clarify, the 14 does not include the projected five starters, Kiekhefer and injured Zach Duke. The count does include two promising hurlers who may be out of mind to some after missing all of 2016 due to injury – Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney.

http://www.scout.com/player/159539-miguel-socolovich?s=321

So even though Socolovich has performed well when called up, he could become a victim of numbers - even before the two outfielders. If cut loose entirely, I expect the right-hander would find a new home quickly despite his journeyman status. (The Cardinals are his sixth organization.)

Other considerations

One should also note that this exercise assumes that none of the St. Louis’ impending minor league free agents will be offered a 40-man spot. This group includes such players as Breyvic Valera and David Washington, both solid performers for Memphis this season. For every one of these soon-to-be free agents put on the 40-man, someone else would have to go.

This analysis also does not take into account any free agent signings or trades, actions we expect are on the way this winter. Solely from a roster management perspective, the best process for the club to follow this winter would be to make a trade in which more 40-man roster players depart than are added.

That is one potential way more space could be freed up for the signing of a free agent or two on a major league contract – and/or to make a pick in this December’s Rule 5, as they did with Matt Bowman one year ago.  

What to do?

So, what would you do? Would you let one or more of the trio of Martinez, Hazelbaker or Socolovich go in order to ensure promising lefty Corey Littrell or Peoria second baseman Eliezer Alvarez are not left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft?

Littrell is standing out in the Arizona Fall League prospect showcase and Alvarez is The Cardinal Nation’s 2016 system-wide Player of the Year.

As a result of this analysis of the 40-man roster, I added medium odds candidate Littrell to the four high odds prospects to protect from Rule 5 - at the expense of Socolovich’s 40-man spot.

When all was said and done, I asked myself, ‘Would the Cards rather have the lefty Littrell, who is still on the rise at age 25, or a known quantity that it seems the organization is only lukewarm about in the 30-year-old righty Socolovich?’

http://www.scout.com/player/192919-corey-littrell?s=321

I am reluctantly willing to roll the Rule 5 dice on Alvarez, rather than drop Martinez or Hazelbaker, but I also would not be terribly surprised if the opposite happens.

But those are not the only calls to make.

Would any potential concern about the stamina of Springfield right-hander Trey Nielsen be enough to take the chance of leaving him Rule 5-eiigible, instead? Hard-throwing Rowan Wick has yet to harness his potential as a pitcher. Would another organization be patient enough to stick him in the MLB bullpen and suffer through the inevitable growing pains as he refines his off-speed pitches?

Might you risk leaving top-10 prospects in outfielder Magneuris Sierra and shortstop Edmundo Sosa unprotected in hopes that the fact they are still in A-ball would stifle Rule 5 interest from other organizations? Or that even if taken, they would likely be returned to the Cardinals eventually?

Those are the kinds of decisions likely being pondered in the Cardinals front office currently.

What is next

You have my view. What is yours?

Obviously, we will sit back and watch what moves are made over the upcoming few weeks. In the meantime, if you have another angle on what you think the Cardinals will do, please share your thoughts on the Rule 5 Draft thread on The Cardinal Nation’s Insiders Message Board. I look forward to the discussion.

For more names

Remember that to see the entire Cardinals system in one graphical view with all transactions, free agents and more, check out the Roster Matrix, kept updated at The Cardinal Nation Blog.

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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