After two surgeries but only 3 1/3 innings of regular-season pitching in over a year, Ricardo Rincon was unceremoniously given his unconditional release by the St. Louis Cardinals last week, his limited time spent on the field considered a rare misstep by the Walt Jocketty regime. But, we rearview-mirror critics of Rincon's failed two-year, $2.9 million contract may have been a bit too harsh.
You see, Rincon has left behind an idea that may over time become more valuable to the Cardinals than his contributions on the mound could ever have been. This spring, the left-handed reliever from Veracruz, Mexico helped broker an agreement that has put two Cardinals prospects on the field in the Mexican League this season and may offer more return in the future.
Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Baseball Development Jeff Luhnow explains how this came about. "Rincon approached me early in Spring Training and we discussed the new team in Veracruz. He asked me if I'd be willing to meet with them and discuss some sort of potential relationship and I agreed. The executives from the club came to Jupiter (Florida) and we spent a few hours together brainstorming ideas and talking baseball, and they attended one of the Cardinals home games at Roger Dean Stadium."
The first tangible benefit spawned from that meeting became public earlier this week when the Cardinals announced that they have loaned outfielder and Cuban émigré Amaury Cazana Marti and right-handed reliever Chris Russ to the Minatitlán Petroleros.
There is potentially more to the deal coming soon. "We discussed various topics while the team executives were here, including sending them some of our players and sharing some of our expertise in the way of coaches and scouts, which we also plan to do," Luhnow said.
The motivation for Minatitlán is to help get their new team on the Mexican League map. The club, owned by the government of Veracruz, had recently been relocated from another city. The bi-lingual Luhnow senses an environment ripe for collaboration. "Veracruz is an area in Mexico with a rich baseball tradition and one of the baseball strongholds in a soccer-crazy country. The recently elected governor of the state is a baseball fan and has ambitious plans to make Minatitlán competitive. They hired Abelardo Vega, who has a successful history managing and developing players in this league."
With an ever-improving pipeline of minor league prospects, especially in the middle levels of their system, the Cardinals were also motivated to work with the Minatitlán club. Marti and Russ had been on the Double-A working roster during spring training, but would have been hard-pressed to secure the amount of playing time in the outfield and closing, respectively, in Springfield as they are expected to receive in Mexico this season.
Cardinals assistant general manager John Mozeliak helped put it into perspective. "We had two players that might not have fit within what we were trying to do at Double-A and Triple-A. So it allowed us a place for them to play. We retain their rights and our hope is that they improve."
Mozeliak paints this as a win-win proposition for the organization and the two players. "For the player, there is some benefit in terms of financial upside that they wouldn't see in the States and it allows them to still stay under the Cardinals umbrella, where we can keep a pulse on what they are doing. At any time, if we need them back here to contribute to one of our clubs, we have the right to do so," he said.
Russ, a 28-year-old native of Texas, was the first player selected for the new venture, filling Minatitlán's need for a closer with arm strength. Luhnow provides the details on how that came about. "Each club in Mexico has a limit to the number of "foreign" players they can have on the roster, and as of opening day in Mexico the Minatitlán team was at their maximum. Then, one of their foreign players was hurt and that opened the door for Russ," Luhnow said.
Include Mozeliak among the reliever's supporters. "For Russ, it was really a numbers game, but a lot of people really like what he can do. This way, we can make sure he has an opportunity to keep moving forward."
During their trip to spring training, the visitors from Mexico also noted the standout play of the Cuban outfielder Marti. Needing a big bat for the middle of their line-up, they soon secured a Cardinals companion for Russ. Luhnow explained. "Once the visiting executives saw Cazana and heard me talk about him, they created another spot."
Mozeliak sees this as an opportunity for the organization to learn more about the Cuban native's capabilities on the field. "A lot of people are still unsure of what we have with Amaury, being that we had a limited look last summer. In spring training, there were still some questions about his overall playing ability and this allows us to keep him and really see what he can do."
While the Mexican League (LMB) is considered by some to be Triple-A level of competition, it might more of an average than an absolute. "I think there is a wide range of talent down there. There are probably some players down there who can play in the big leagues. I don't mean in the future, like they are being groomed for it, I mean right now. There are some guys down there who can flat out play. But when you look at the league as a whole, it is more of a hybrid or cross between Double-A and Triple-A," Mozeliak said.
While both groups, the Cardinals and the Petroleros, are pleased with the new arrangement, neither is locked into an exclusive agreement. Luhnow explains. "We don't plan to work exclusively with any one club as that limits opportunities for us. That is the same strategy we use in winter ball across Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Our goal is to maintain relationships with as many of the clubs as possible."
Mozeliak doesn't necessarily see any changes in the Cardinals' winter ball plans based on the new agreement. "In winter ball, yes, it is nice to have one team that you know you can get a player to, but at the end of the day, that relationship may not have a need for a particular kind of player and you would be at a dead end. So, making sure we are able to place players in Puerto Rico, Venezuela or the Dominican is still to our advantage."
Even so, Luhnow acknowledges that all relationships are not considered equal. "Of course, there are some clubs whose interests align more closely with ours and in those cases the relationships are stronger. Besides the Petroleros, the Cardinals have strong relationships with both the Potros of Tijuana and the Saltillo Saraperos." The latter club had originally signed Cards pitching prospect Fernando Salas, who is now in Extended Spring Training camp in Jupiter.
Could this be a signal that additional international collaboration is coming? Luhnow neither ruled it out, nor did he hint that anything else is necessarily coming soon. "We will continue to seek strategic relationships with clubs in Latin America and Asia, as long as there is some benefit to our organization. In this case, both sides benefit, which will help the relationship survive over time," said Luhnow in closing.
Back home in Veracruz, Ricardo Rincon is surely nodding his head in agreement.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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