With his second consecutive non-roster invitation to St. Louis Cardinals major league spring training camp in hand, left-handed relief pitcher Corey Littrell seemed ready to make his claim for a bigger place in the spotlight.
The 25-year-old has achieved that increased attention, but for the wrong reason.
On Wednesday afternoon, Major League Baseball announced that Littrell has been suspended 50 games in violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, after a second positive test for a drug of abuse.
As a result, instead of throwing pitches alongside Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez, Littrell will likely head where fellow prospect Alex Reyes was banished last spring at this time – Cardinals minor league camp. After his November 2015 suspension for marijuana use, Reyes continued his 2016 in extended spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida, competing against much younger players until his suspension was fully served in late May.
The Cardinals have instructed the left handed pitcher not to report to the Cardinals Spring Training complex until after minor league Spring Training has ended. Littrell will be allowed to participate in Extended Spring Training, which begins in April.
Littrell had been a starter before and after his acquisition from the Boston Red Sox in the John Lackey trade in July 2014. He was moved to the bullpen last spring and quickly progressed from high-A Palm Beach to close 2015 to Triple-A Memphis by mid-May 2016.
Following last season, The Cardinal Nation’s 47th-ranked prospect for 2017 was invited to pitch in the prestigious Arizona Fall League prospect showcase. Littrell was eligible in the major league phase of the December Rule 5 draft, but was not taken.
The Kentucky native has made his second misstep at a particularly inopportune time – as there seems increased opportunity for a left-handed pitcher to impress in Cardinals major league camp.
Fellow lefties Dean Kiekhefer and Tim Cooney left the system during the off-season and Zach Duke is probably out for the year. Tyler Lyons and Marco Gonzales are still working their way back from injuries, and on Wednesday, the Cardinals disclosed they have put Kevin Siegrist on the sidelines with shoulder discomfort, at least temporarily.
Another key left-handed pitcher in big-league camp is free-agent addition Brett Cecil, set to be away from Jupiter while with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic next month. Cecil is expected to join Siegrist on the Opening Day 25-man roster.
The only other lefties in camp are three non-roster invitees, free agent signees Zach Phillips and pitcher-outfielder Jordan Schafer plus Ryan Sherriff. The latter is also committed to pitch in the WBC, for Team Israel. (Edit: Apology for initially omitting promising starting pitcher Austin Gomber, also in MLB camp.)
Littrell's 50 games of suspension will begin with Memphis' Opening Day on April 6 and run through May 27.
Littrell is the Cardinals system's fifth drug-related suspension in the last 18 months. Catcher Cody Stanley, then with St. Louis, took an 80-game penalty in September 2015 and was subsequently released. After Reyes, infielder Luke Doyle was hit twice in 2016. The first was due to an amphetamine and the second was as the result of his refusal to take a subsequent test. Doyle was also released.
Updates: Thursday, February 16
On Thursday morning, the Cardinals named right-handed pitcher Corey Baker as Littrell's replacement as a spring camp non-roster invitee. It is an interesting choice for at least two reasons. First, Baker was not among the 13 pitchers invited to minor league early spring training, known as STEP Camp. In addition, like Sherriff, Baker is on the roster of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, thereby reducing his spring availability.
On Thursday afternoon, Littrell issued the following statement of apology via Twitter:
Check out The Cardinal Nation Blog for the organization’s full history of suspensions back to the start of the program in 2005.
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