Cardinals Potential Minor League Free Agents

Soon, six St. Louis Cardinals farmhands can walk away via six-year minor league free agency, all members of the 2008 Triple-A Memphis Redbirds.

Once again, the annual time will soon be upon us when a number of minor league players earn the right to taste free agency. While the term is sometimes called "six-year minor league free agency", a player can actually experience free agency only following the sixth renewed year of his minor league contract.

That means the first partial season when a player signs and typically joins a short-season club for the remainder of that year would not count.

In other words, players that originally began play in the 2002 season but not yet added to the 40-man roster may be among those who can become free agents for the first time. Their six full seasons under team control would have been 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Those that originally began play prior to 2002 or ones that were previously released by the Cardinals or another organization have the option of becoming a free agent at the conclusion of each subsequent season, hence adding weight to the term "minor league journeyman".

None of this applies if the minor league player has been added to the organization's 40-man roster. This is the case with three late-season additions from Triple-A Memphis, infielders Brian Barden and Josh Phelps and catcher Mark Johnson.

All three would have appeared on this list had they not been called up and added to the Cardinals' 40-man at the end of the Triple-A season when the major league rosters expanded. One or more may still be removed from the 40-man at the end of the Cardinals season, making them minor league free agents, as well.

Conversely, had he not been designated for assignment earlier this month, infielder Rico Washington would not have been included among the potential free agents. The veteran of 12 minor league campaigns had been added to the 40-man roster to begin the season.

Cardinals Potential Minor League Free Agents

Ron Flores
Cliff Politte
Joe Rogers
John Wasdin
D'Angelo Jimenez
Rico Washington

Four of the six played significant roles for the Memphis Redbirds this season – left-handed reliever Flores and third baseman Washington, along with a pair of veteran MLB players, second baseman Jimenez (right) and right-handed swingman Wasdin.

The other two were non-factors due to injury, pitchers Rogers and long-time major league reliever Politte.

Despite the Cardinals calling up almost a dozen first-time major leaguers this season, of this six, only Washington suited up for St. Louis. That also says something about their futures.

The process

The deadline for the initial decision by the organization (add the player to the 40-man or allow them to test free agency) is the conclusion of the World Series, a change from the previous October 15 date.

Of course, a transaction could work in the other direction, too, increasing the list if another player or players are removed from the 40-man. This could affect Barden, Phelps and/or Johnson as noted above.

One should remember that even if a player becomes a free agent, he could choose to re-sign with the Cardinals for 2009 - if an offer is made by the organization, that is.

Rico the returnee

Washington (right) is the only repeater on this list from the 15 potential free agents last year. He had the opportunity to test free agency, but chose instead to return to the Cardinals organization for 2008.

It turned out to be a very good decision for the 30-year-old, as Brendan Ryan's season-opening injury paved the way for Washington to make his first-ever major league roster after having endured over a decade of minor league bus rides.

In fact, Rico was faced with the same free agency decision 12 months earlier. Two years ago, Washington was one of 26 Cardinals minor league players then eligible for free agency.

His chance of being asked back again for a fourth season in 2009 is complicated by three prospects that play his natural third base position that all have reached the higher levels of the system – David Freese, Allen Craig and Brett Wallace.

Fewer journeymen

One reason for the declining number of free agents, from 26 two years ago, to 15 last year, to six this year, could be a decrease in reliance on minor league journeymen to fill out the rosters, especially at Triple-A.

In other words, the Cardinals have a growing number of younger, home-grown players at the higher rungs of the system. Last year, four of the 15 free agents were at the Double-A level and below. There are none this year.

This trend is generally positive, as long as the minor league clubs can remain competitive with a core of home-grown players. The 2008 Memphis club is a good example of the fact it can be done.

A poor draft means few eligible

Another reason for the decline in the numbers of minor league free agents could be that the remnants of a sparse draft six years earlier are few and far between.

Only one of the six current free agents, Politte (right), was originally drafted by the Cardinals and none remained with the organization throughout. Rogers signed his first professional contract with the Cardinals as a non-drafted free agent, but was well-traveled in the four years between his stints in their system.

Looking the Cardinals draft class of 2002, only two members have reached the majors and both are currently on their 40-man, pitchers Brad Thompson (16th round) and Kyle McClellan (25th).

The Cardinals drafted only 47 players that year, having lost their first two picks as compensation for the signing of free agents Jason Isringhausen and Tino Martinez the previous winter. As an aside, those were the last marquee free agent signings by the organization.

As a result, the Cards' first pick was their third-rounder, 102nd selection overall, shortstop Calvin Hayes, who never reached Double-A. The only other member of this Cardinals draft class still in the organization is outfielder Cody Haerther, taken in the sixth round in 2002.

Exceptions

I noted earlier that players that originally began play in 2002 may be first-timers eligible for free agency. There are several nuances worth noting. One is Haerther.

Though he signed in July, 2002, the California native actually did not begin play in the Cardinals system until the 2003 season. Hence, Haerther is not yet among those eligible for free agency.

Here is another interesting case. One player from the 2001 draft would have been eligible for free agency for the first time this year, except for the fact he is on the 40-man roster.

That is Blake Hawksworth (right). The right-handed pitcher was drafted in the 28th round in 2001, but signed in 2002, as a draft-and-follow. "Hawk" played short-season ball in Johnson City and New Jersey in 2002.

Note the draft-and-follow capability was eliminated in the most recent agreement. Now players must sign by August 15 in the year in which they are drafted.

That 2001 draft was better for the Cardinals, with seven players at least making the bigs, including Dan Haren (2nd round), Joe Mather (3rd) and Skip Schumaker (5th). Mather was among those added to the 40-man for the first time one year ago.

In conclusion

It is reasonable to assume that a majority of the six minor league free agents will not return for 2009. The organization may still make a few signings to plug roster holes, but they should be fewer than past years. The improving farm system with a good core at Memphis, combined with a number of Springfield prospects that look ready to move up would be the primary reason why.

Finishing at 75-67, the 2008 Memphis club experienced a big turnaround from their disappointing 56-88 record in 2007 and there is no reason to believe they cannot put together another solid campaign in 2009.

Organizations, including the Cardinals, are most certainly already working on re-signing players they want to retain and once the Series is over, will look at adding available free agents to fill gaps.

Over the upcoming days, I will stay in touch with the Cardinals on their progress in this area and of course, report back to our readers. Also keep an eye out for the next article in this series, which will forecast those Cardinals prospects eligible to be taken in December's Rule 5 Draft.



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

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