Despite having been assigned to minor league camp over three weeks ago, the career minor leaguer will likely be on the Cardinals' initial roster for Monday's season opener after just the right combinations of factors have apparently come to pass.
Washington, 29, has taken advantage of an injury to backup infielder Brendan Ryan, who is suffering with a strain to his left-side and remained behind to recover in Florida. This spring, Washington hit .333/.400/.412 in 15 at bats in Major League games and also put up a comparable line in a dozen minor league March games with Triple-A Memphis.
Along with the Ryan injury, another factor in Washington's favor was the off-the-field problems of Scott Spiezio, which culminated in his release by the Cardinals earlier this spring. That originally opened up the roster spot which Ryan seemed to have locked up until his recent injury.
The other primary competitor for the job is veteran major leaguer D'Angelo Jimenez. While primarily a middle infielder, Jimenez can cover the corners, too. Like Washington, he is signed to a minor league deal. The similarities end there, though.
For the Cardinals to keep Jimenez in the bigs now, he would have to be given a major league contract. The Cards would commit to paying him a major league salary and would not have the flexibility to send him down to the minors, say when Ryan would be ready.
In all scenarios of trying to send Jimenez down, another team could simply claim him off waivers, leaving the Cards on the hook to cover his salary above the prorated MLB minimum. In other possibilities, once added to the MLB roster, Jimenez could simply elect to walk away as a free agent instead of reporting to Memphis.
None of those complications exist with Washington. With minor league options remaining and no major league service time, he can be sent down and back up virtually all season long if need be. Jimenez can't compete.
Back from minor league camp
Rico had actually been invited to the Cardinals major spring training camp this year as part of his re-signing a minor league deal with the organization over the winter. As a six-year minor league free agent, Washington had the freedom to sign wherever he could negotiate a contract. He chose to return to the Cardinals and they were pleased to have him back.
Many, including this writer, speculated that it simply was a courtesy invitation to big league camp. When Washington was sent out to the minor leagues very early, on March 6, it seemed to bear this out. Rico would head back to the farm for another season as a loyal foot soldier, it seemed.
Yet, on the 12th and 13th, he was back. Not being on the 40-man roster meant he could be used in MLB games even after having been technically sent down. Washington made the best of his spring second chance. A huge hit in extra innings won a game against the Mets on the 13th that helped get the languishing big league club rolling.
Rico was asked to return for MLB at-bats on the 19th and 21st. Then, when Ryan was sidelined, he closed the Florida part of the program with two hits and a walk in seven plate appearances between the 23rd and 25th and spelling starter Troy Glaus at third base.
Instead of remaining in Florida to finish out spring training with the Redbirds as expected, Washington was told to join the major league club for the weekend series with Double-A Springfield. Having played only at home with the big club, his road gray uniform with number 94 on the back doesn't even list his name! Yet, the unnamed third baseman hit an opposite-field home run on Saturday.
By Monday noon, Washington's name may become very well-known, however. That is the time at which the Cardinals are required to set their season-opening roster. At this point, Washington has become the short-term favorite, ahead of Jimenez and Ryan.
It has been an unusually long climb.
Former top prospect fades
Baseball is in Washington's bloodline. The Georgian is a first cousin of former major leaguer Willie Greene and third cousin of longtime MLB outfielder Rondell White.
Rico was originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the tenth round of the 1997 amateur draft out of Jones County High School in Gray, Georgia. By November, 1999, Washington had suitably impressed the Bucs' brass enough to be added to their 40-man roster and was considered a top ten prospect in their system. It was for good reason. Rico had posted an OPS of 1.004 in the Sally League at the age of 21.
It wouldn't last, however. Washington hit just .258 in his first taste of Double-A in 2000 and was labeled as a utility player. Being designated for assignment that November would unceremoniously end his first and only time on a major league 40-man roster - until perhaps now, over seven years later.
Washington may have been down, but he wasn't out. At Double-A in 2001, Rico bounced back, hitting .302. Yet, 2002 brought him back for a third straight season with Altoona, during which he digressed to a career-low .223 batting mark.
Journeyman status earned via hundreds of bus rides
Though his future with the Pirates had become cloudy, Washington was viewed to still have considerable upside as a player. In fact, that winter he was taken by the San Diego Padres in the Minor League Phase of the Rule 5 Draft.
With the Padres, he reached Triple-A at the end of the 2003 season and that fall, in the Arizona Fall League prospect showcase, he played with a Mets up-and-coming third baseman named David Wright. Washington hit a respectable .293 against elite competition there.
Things were looking up for Washington, as he received 23 at-bats in the Padres' major league spring training camp in 2004. But midway through that 2004 season, Rico had another career setback. Stuck on the Triple-A bench with a .192 average, he was demoted to Double-A, where he posted a .291 BA.
That winter, Washington moved on to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a minor league free agent. After another major league spring training look, he would hit .300 in his sixth season at the Double-A level in 2005, before once again becoming a free agent after the season.
With the Cards for years ten, eleven and twelve
Prior to the 2006 campaign, Washington signed a minor league contract with the Cardinals, a year in which he split time between Springfield and Memphis.
In 2007, Washington started the year at Triple-A Memphis, hitting .315/.374/.440 before going down to injury. He then rehabbed in the Gulf Coast League before being assigned to Springfield to help with their run to the Texas League Championship. For the Cardinals' Double-A affiliate, he hit .263/.324/.432.
The 5-foot-9 left-handed hitter has appeared in 1134 minor league games while logging 3980 at bats since his 1997 professional debut. Over his career, Rico has hit .279/.369/.440 with 125 home runs and 587 runs batted in.
In the field, Washington has manned multiple positions in his minor league years. He is considered a solid defender at third and has seen time at first, second, short, the outfield and even behind the plate!
Now, in his 12th year as a professional ballplayer and over seven years since having been on a 40-man roster, Rico Washington is on the verge of making the St. Louis Cardinals. Whether it lasts a day, a week or longer, he has earned it!
Dustin Mattison also contributed to this article.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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