14 Cards Minor League Free Agents Gone*

Now that the World Series is over, a group of 14 unsigned former St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguers are testing free agency. Seven of them have major league experience.

Simultaneously when Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek tucked the baseball from Jonathan Papelbon's final-pitch strikeout of Colorado Rockies pinch-hitter Seth Smith into his back pocket at approximately 10:04 P.M. MDT Sunday night, the 2007 World Series was over and baseball's off-season had officially begun.

One of the first milestones of that period leading up to the 2008 campaign is the deadline for declaration of minor league free agency. While the commonly-cited term is called "six-year minor league free agent", actually a player can experience free agency only following the sixth renewed year of his minor league contract.

In other words, that means players initially signed for the 2001 season and not on the 40-man roster are becoming free agents for the first time, as they complete their seventh (at least partial) season. Players originally under contract prior to then could have had the option of becoming a free agent shortly after the conclusion of each subsequent season.

The actual deadline for minor league free agency had traditionally been October 15. However, starting this year, the new date is the conclusion of the World Series. Prior to then, the Cardinals had exclusive negotiating rights with their then-soon-to-be and now free agents.

As I wrote on September 28, the Cardinals headed into their off-season with 15 players eligible for six-year minor league free agency. The 2007 stats of each player can be viewed via the link highlighted in the previous sentence.

The simple way around this free agency risk would be for the Cardinals to add the players in question to their 40-man roster, therefore locking them up. However, this has to be done sparingly, as those roster spots are very limited and should only be used on legitimate major league prospects.

Outfielder/first baseman Joe Mather is one of them. He leveraged his breakout 2007 season into one of the coveted 40-man roster positions this past week as expected. The organization did that to ensure they could keep Mather's services. As a result of being placed on the 40-man, the Cardinals can control his rights via minor league options for at least another three years if they so choose.

The most common approach taken by these six-year minor league players is to test free agency. One of them recently declared his right to do so.

Left-handed reliever Randy Keisler had already been removed from the 40-man roster (outrighted) once in his career. So, when the Cardinals did it again in early September, it allowed Keisler to declare his free agency. He could either do so at the time of the move or wait until the end of the season. The latter is what he chose.

That leaves 13 names still unaccounted-for in terms of plans for 2008. As of the end of the Series, none of them had been re-signed, nor have any in the two days since. All are free to seek deals with any club, including the Cardinals.

* So, to be completely honest, the title of this article is a bit incomplete. While all 14 players are technically gone, some could still come back – if both sides are amenable, that is.

For example, last winter, catcher Brian Esposito could have left the organization, but instead returned. His ultimate reward was his first major league call up, albeit very brief. Still, he can say he made it and no one can take that away from him.

Take infielders Juan Richardson and Rico Washington, men who could be called "organizational players" – no longer considered viable major league prospects, but still providing veteran leadership to Double-A and Triple-A clubs. Both could have departed last off-season, but chose to return to the Cardinals organization for 2007. They again might want to try.

Here is the list of 14 once again.

Name Pos Roster 1st signed MLB debut
Ardoin, Danny  Memphis    6/17/95 (Oak) 8/2/00 (Min)
Bozied, Tagg  1B  Memphis    11/9/01 (SD)
Castellanos, Hugo RHS  Memphis    5/10/00 (Tor)
Cate, Troy LHS Memphis    6/16/02 (Sea) 5/27/07 (StL)
Christianson, Ryan C Memphis    7/18/99 (Sea)
Esposito, Brian Memphis    6/27/00 (Bos) 6/2/07 (StL)
Keisler, Randy LHR  Memphis    7/21/98 (NYY) 9/10/00 (NYY)
Narveson, Chris  LHS  Memphis    6/27/00 (StL) 9/8/06 (StL)
Richardson, Juan  3B  Springfield 7/1/98 (Phi)
Russ, Chris  RHS  Springfield 6/11/01 (NYY)
Sanchez, Julio  RHR  Palm Beach unknown
Smith, Mike RHS  Memphis    6/15/00 (Tor) 4/16/02 (Tor)
Venafro, Mike  LHR  Memphis    6/10/95 (Tex) 4/24/99 (Tex)
Washington, Rico  SS Springfield 6/12/97 (Pit)

In addition, it is important to remember that the Cardinals, like many other organizations, will now begin to add free agents not retained by other clubs. In recent years, the Cards have used this approach effectively, originally signing castoffs like Randy Flores and Abraham Nunez to minor league deals, only to see them make the big club later on and become significant major league contributors.

Or, as in the case of 2005 minor league signee Scott Spiezio, a struggling major leaguer experiences an unexpected return to big league productivity.

Perhaps the 2008 Cardinals can pull another diamond from the rough, but in the meantime, a lot of ballplayers are out there looking for jobs.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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