A major area of contention/concern is the fourth and fifth outfielder positions. Coming into camp, it is generally assumed that Rick Ankiel will be flanked by Chris Duncan and Ryan Ludwick as the starters, though that could certainly change during March.
Four others are seemingly battling for two roster spots vacated by Jim Edmonds (traded to San Diego) and So Taguchi (non-tendered and signed with Philadelphia). The primary combatants are Skip Schumaker, top prospect Colby Rasmus, Rule 5 pick up Brian Barton and veteran slugger Juan Gonzalez.
Schumaker, out of options, and Barton, due to Rule 5 guidelines discussed in detail below, are in the most tenuous situation. Rasmus and Gonzalez could both be assigned to the minor leagues without penalty or risk.
The options, outrighting and 40-man roster status of these players, including Schumaker, has already been explored in another series of articles.
But what about Barton? What choices do the Cardinals have with him? That is the focus of what follows.
Putting stats entirely aside, we could get into a discussion of left-handed versus right-handedness as one consideration as to which outfielders might have an edge. While it would not seal the deal, having more than three left-handed hitters could post a significant match-up problem.
So for example, keeping Schumaker and Rasmus as the fourth and fifth outfielders, putting four left-handed hitting outfielders on the team, seems most unlikely. Being right-handed may help Barton's chances, but that may be a difference-maker only if Gonzalez or Ludwick do not make the club.
Another factor to consider is the ability to play centerfield versus the corners, but nothing stands out there with a number of good defensive alternative combinations available to Manager Tony La Russa.
Given all this, no firm conclusions can yet be drawn.
The Rule 5 angle
Yet another angle getting increased attention across The Cardinals Nation is the Rule 5 status of Barton, who was selected by the Cardinals from the Cleveland Indians in the major league phase of the draft last December. Again, here is a summary of the rules:
The centerfielder must either stick on the Cardinals' 25-man roster for the remainder of the season or be passed through waivers. If claimed by another organization, Barton would be required to remain on that team's 25-man roster for the remainder of the 2008 season, just as if he had remained in St. Louis.
Instead, if Barton clears, his original employers, the Cleveland Indians, have the right to take Barton back if they agree to pay the Cardinals ½ of the initial $50,000 fee when he was taken in December.
Only if Barton passed through all those steps successfully (not claimed, then not wanted back by Cleveland) could the Cardinals option him to the minor leagues this season.
Based on questions I have received, there is some belief that the Cardinals would be able to send Barton down Scot free as long as they worked out a trade with the Indians first. This would be in lieu of the Indians paying $25,000 to take Barton back.
While that could be partially true, it is neither the whole story nor the first step. This would come into play ONLY if Barton clears waivers first, meaning 28 other organizations would have to pass on claiming him.
Be aware that these outright waivers are irrevocable, so the Cardinals have no way of knowing if another organization would claim Barton if they were to waive him, even if a pre-arranged trade is worked out with Cleveland.
The Cardinals picked Barton tenth in the Rule 5 draft, so there are many organizations out there that didn't show their hand on their view of Barton in December. It is also possible that one or more of the nine organizations that picked another player early in the Rule 5 draft, thereby passing over Barton, might take him given the chance again with him effectively being their "second" round one Rule 5 pick.
All it would take is one of the 28 other clubs to claim Barton. The Cards would then be out of the picture and there would be nothing they could do about it. Trying to work a trade with the new claiming team would accomplish nothing, as Barton would have to be restored to the 25-man roster. Not having room there is the same problem that would have caused him to be placed on waivers in the first place.
If the Cardinals were going to try the trade route with Cleveland, meaning they want to keep Barton, but send him down, they most likely would wait until the last possible moment at the end of spring training. At that time, other organizations will also be struggling to make their own final cuts, perhaps decreasing the chances that Barton would be claimed.
The injury angle
Another lower-risk angle in possibly trying to delay a decision on Barton as a major leaguer is injury. Some are already wondering if Barton's knee, surgically-repaired in the off-season, might offer a justification, real or imagined, to send him down to the minor leagues to start the year, thereby relieving some of the immediate outfield logjam.
The Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold recently spoke with Barton about the particulars of the off-season surgery on his right knee. "He had a procedure called "lateral release", and the purpose was to keep the patella from rubbing against the femur. He had a little cartilage damage in there as well, but the chronic pain and clicking he felt was the kneecap grinding against the leg bone. He too has heard the damage in his knee described as both a tiny fracture and a bone bruise."
"The bigger thing is that it's fixed," Barton told Goold. "I have some slight soreness here after working out or running, but nothing like before. I'm getting back in the swing of things."
In a more recent ominous sounding note, MLB.com's Matthew Leach reported on Tuesday that Barton was heading to get his knee checked out that same day.
Even if Barton is actually unable to play as March concludes, the Cardinals' prospective strategy of disabling him could only work for awhile. Once Barton begins to play in minor league games, as a position player he is allowed only 20 days on a rehab assignment before he must be returned to the majors.
If the Cardinals deem that a longer stay on the disabled list might be warranted, Barton would still need to eventually accrue at least 90 days of active time on the major league roster before his Rule 5 status is removed, whether it is this season or even next. Until then, Barton must clear waivers, then be offered back to Cleveland and a deal struck before he could reach the minors via option.
So could the Cardinals delay a decision about Barton at the end of spring training? Yes, they could, but it would only buy them a bit of time.
Still, if that lingering soreness in Barton's knee worsens and with Skip Schumaker's future in the organization potentially hanging in the balance, the approach might be given significant consideration.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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