While the list of Rule 5 susceptible players is long, 45 players compared to 39 a year before, there are relatively few must-protect players, in my opinion.
I consider that a direct by-product of the fact that the Cardinals played 20 Major League rookies this past season. In other words, most of the younger players that would need protection have already been added.
20 of the 45 were eligible for prior Rule 5 drafts but were not taken.
St. Louis Cardinals Rule 5 susceptible list
40-man roster considerations
Next, let's look at the Cardinals' 40-man roster to determine how many spots may be used for protection of prospects. With the removal of three players last week and after departing free agents, the organization currently has 36 players on its 40-man.
The club could also choose to take several other players off its 40-man whose status may be considered tenuous. For example, 40-man players not called up to St. Louis in September include relievers Keith Butler, Eric Fornataro and Jorge Rondon plus infielder Jermaine Curtis.
Not assuming further changes, however, means the Cardinals could protect as many as four players. That is not optimal because they would then not have any room to add an available player from another organization in the Rule 5 draft.
The Cards may also want to ensure they have enough roster space to sign one or more major league free agents during this off-season, but to accommodate that, they could always drop another 40-man player when needed.
Another alternative that would create space would be to non-tender, or not offer a 2014 contract, to one or more arbitration-eligible players already on the 40-man. As a reminder, those players are highlighted here.
Following are my four candidates for addition to the 40-man in priority order. All are first-time Rule 5-eligible players. My thought process is intertwined with another project I am working on behind the scenes – The Cardinal Nation top prospect list for 2014.
Infielder Greg Garcia, 24, had an impressive spring camp, when he was one of the Cardinals' final cuts. Around a May disabled list stint, the left-handed hitter had a rough start to the season with Memphis, batting just .235 in the first half.
Post-break, Garcia was impressive, with a line of .331/.429/.451/.881 over his final 42 games for the Redbirds. Able to play second, shortstop and third base, Garcia could be well-positioned to play the Daniel Descalso role with St. Louis or return to Memphis for more seasoning in 2014.
Whiting began 2013 with Springfield, then joined Memphis in May. In 27 starts across the two levels, he logged a 3.83 ERA, 133 strikeouts and 47 walks in 136 1/3 innings pitched. Whiting should be back in 2014 to anchor a Triple-A rotation that lost veterans Nick Additon and Richard Castillo to minor league free agency.
Outfielder Mike O'Neill is an on-base machine. After the left-handed hitter posted a .431 mark with Springfield, the organization promoted him to Memphis for the final month. There, the 25-year-old reached base at "only" a .402 rate. Though O'Neill ranks behind Stephen Piscotty and James Ramsey in our Cardinals outfield prospect pecking order, an MLB future seems to be ahead.
A number of others could build a decent case for 40-man consideration, but I cannot forecast protect moves being made for them at this time. In addition, they face a crowded field and an uncertain future in trying to reach St. Louis. Yet the recent success of the Cardinals system is such that some other organization might take a chance on one or more of the unprotected players.
The man who heads this group for the second consecutive year is Tommy Pham. If healthy, the outfielder would generate a definite protect move, but given his injury history, I can't see the Cardinals putting him on the 40-man just yet. Further, I can't see another organization taking a chance on the 25-year-old now.
It might not be entirely fair to characterize Jordan Swagerty as a pitching Pham, but the reality is that the former second-rounder hasn't thrown meaningful innings since 2011. Recovery from Tommy John surgery and subsequent bone chips has consumed the last two seasons, making a gamble that the 24-year-old right-hander would be major league ready in the spring very, very risky.
Right-hander Seth Blair pitched in the Arizona Fall League in 2012, but the former first-rounder has not turned the corner consistency-wise. At Springfield the entire season, the 24-year-old logged a 5.07 ERA and walked 48 in 129 2/3 innings.
One final note. It is important to remember that the best players are not always the ones protected. One also has to take into account the chances of a player being able to hold down a major league 25-man roster spot for an entire season. If he could not do that, he would be returned to the Cardinals, even though selected in the Rule 5.
I will be back around the 20th with the Cardinals' Rule 5 protected lists by level. This is an important factor not usually covered elsewhere, but dictates whether players are eligible in the Major League or Minor League phases of the Rule 5 draft.
In future installments, we will look potential targets of the Cardinals in this Rule 5 Draft, plus the organization's past history in Rule 5 drafts in the major and minor league phases, both as a supplier and selector of players.
Of course, on draft day, we will break down any Rule 5 activity that affects the Cardinals.
Remember that to see the entire Cardinals system in one graphical view, check out the Roster Matrix, kept updated at The Cardinal Nation Blog.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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