Cardinals Potential Minor League Free Agents

Nine St. Louis Cardinals farmhands may soon walk away as minor league free agents, seven of whom were members of the 2009 Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. Six of the nine are left-handed pitchers.

Left-handed pitching was identified as a problem area coming into the 2009 season for the St. Louis Cardinals up and down their system.

With no immediate solutions readily available, the organization looked outside for help. This spring, the Cardinals invited a gaggle of castoff left-handed relievers to their major league camp, vying for one open job alongside free agent signee Trever Miller. They also added other veterans to try to fill minor league roles.

The most prominent group of three included Royce Ring, a former top prospect who had bounced from San Diego to the Mets to Atlanta, Ian Ostlund, a career minor leaguer from the Detroit organization, and Charlie Manning, picked up off waivers from the lowly Washington Nationals.

Other lefties given spring cameos included Katsuhiko Maekawa, who lasted only part-way through Memphis' season before being released, and a trio of left-handers that had been sent to the Arizona Fall League for seasoning one year ago. Justin Fiske, Brad Furnish and Tyler Norrick didn't impress last fall, nor did they have a chance this spring, logging just four March major league innings among them.

Not even the top three were particularly effective in training camp and perhaps in reaction, by mid-March, the club signed a second veteran left-hander to join Miller. Dennys Reyes inked a two-year deal with the Cardinals, effectively sealing the fate of all spring contenders.

Ostlund never made the Cardinals 40-man roster, while Ring and Manning were removed from it in late March and May, respectively. With Miller and Reyes healthy all season long, no Triple-A reinforcements were required and all three remained with Memphis for the entire season.

The three lefty relievers have now been joined by three other left-handed pitchers as potential minor league free agents. Two are minor leaguers lower in the system while the other, Evan MacLane, was added via trade during the season to bolster Memphis' rotation.

The other three potential free agents include another pitcher, a right-hander, signed mid-season to shore up Memphis's starting core, an infielder with major league experience and a catcher drafted back in 2003.

Seven of the nine spent a majority of the 2009 season with Memphis.

Cardinals Potential Minor League Free Agents (2009 clubs noted)

Infielder Brian Barden – Memphis/St. Louis
Left-handed pitcher Julio Castellano – Gulf Coast League
Left-handed pitcher Kristhiam Linares – Palm Beach/Springfield
Left-handed pitcher Evan MacLane – Memphis/Reno (Arizona)
Left-handed pitcher Charlie Manning - Memphis
Left-handed pitcher Ian Ostlund - Memphis
Right-handed pitcher Oneli Perez – Memphis/Newark (independent)
Left-handed pitcher Royce Ring - Memphis
Catcher Brandon Yarbrough – Memphis

In fact, both Barden and Ring have already declared and been granted free agency. They had that right after having been outrighted off the 40-man roster a second time in their career.

Averting free agency

Note I said "potential" free agents multiple times above. Free agency can be averted in two ways. The players can be kept if the organization adds them to the 40-man roster. With an upcoming crunch of drafted players that will require protection from the December Rule 5 draft, this avenue seems unlikely.

In addition, the seven remaining players will not become minor league free agents if they re-sign with the organization prior to the fifth day following the conclusion of the World Series. Of course, for that to be a possibility, 2010 contracts must also have been offered to the players.

An uptick in journeymen

Despite the prevailing perception that the Cardinals relied on fewer minor leaguers from outside the organization this year, the number actually increased compared to 2008.

Last fall, the organization had just six minor league free agents. All were minor league veterans from outside the organization, compared to eight outsiders from among the nine this year.

Some of the imports played prominent roles for Memphis this past season. Despite neither having been with the Redbirds to start the season, between them, MacLane and Perez made 34 starts for the club in 2009. Together, Ring and Manning appeared in 94 games in relief for the Pacific Coast League champions.

For reference, the 2008 free agents were Ron Flores, Cliff Politte, Joe Rogers, John Wasdin, D'Angelo Jimenez and Rico Washington. Only Rogers, not surprisingly a lefty, returned to the Cardinals in 2009. He did not survive spring training, coming off an injury-plagued 2008 season.

The upward tick in minor league free agents noted above is really only a one-year trend. The general direction has been for the Cardinals to have a declining number of free agents. They had 26 three years ago and 15 two falls ago before dropping to six last year.

In other words, the Cardinals have been able to supply a growing number of younger, home-grown players for the higher rungs of the system.

The 2003 draft and six-year minor league free agents

Of the 2009 list above, catcher Brandon Yarbrough is the only home-grown free agent-to-be, originally selected by the Cardinals in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. He is what is called a six-year minor league free agent.

The term can be a bit confusing, as a player can actually only experience free agency 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 2003 season but were not yet added to the 40-man roster may be among those who can become free agents for the first time. Their six seasons of team control would have been 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

At this point, the jury is pretty much in on the 2003 draft. It delivered the Cardinals major leaguers Brendan Ryan and Jason Motte, as well as Daric Barton and Anthony Reyes, traded to Oakland and Cleveland, respectively.

The only other potential new minor league free agent from that draft was catcher Matt Pagnozzi, added to the 40-man roster in late September. If removed from the 40-man, he would join this list of nine.

The remainder of the free agents noted above either originally began play prior to 2003 or were previously released by the Cardinals or another organization. As such, they have the option of becoming a free agent at the conclusion of each subsequent season, hence the term "minor league journeymen".

In conclusion

It is reasonable to assume that a vast majority of the nine minor league free agents will not return for 2010. The organization may make a few signings to plug roster holes, especially from the left side again, but levels should remain relatively low as in the most recent years. The 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.

I have concerns about the ability of the middle levels of the system to keep the pipeline flowing smoothly in future years, however. A number of prospects below Double-A did not progress as hoped this season and the clubs struggled on the field as well.

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 signing available free agents to fill gaps.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.

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