Last month, commissioner Rob Manfred commented on the possibility that Major League Baseball, in the midst of record revenue growth, could expand in the not-too-distant future from 30 teams, which has been the template of MLB since 1998, to 32 teams.
Alex Crisafulli has already broken down some of the off-field impacts of the potentially drastic realignment that expansion could cause, but the impacts of expansion go beyond ones of baseball culture. Expansion teams mean an expansion draft, which means that existing MLB franchises are forced to expose players to the new teams.
I went down this road last year, speculating as to which Cardinals the organization would protect in an expansion draft, in a fanpost, but the methodology was very mechanical and was built around one projection system's long-term prognostication for the future of the Cardinals. The reality of the situation is a bit more fluid. This wouldn't make the decisions any easier nor harder: it just changes the end results a little bit.
In order for this hypothetical to be possible, I will work under the assumption that the expansion draft is happening before the 2016 season with existing contracts. Expansion, of course, will not happen that suddenly, but let's say it were to happen in five years. Now, consider the current Cardinals lineup and rotation and where they were five years prior. Of these thirteen players (going off the Cardinals' depth chart):
- Three were on the 2011 Opening Day roster (Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Jaime Garcia)
- Another was with the club but inactive (Adam Wainwright)
- Two were in the minor leagues for the Cardinals (Matt Carpenter in AAA; Carlos Martinez in high-A)
- Three were yet to be drafted by the Cardinals organization (Kolten Wong in 2011; Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty in 2012)
- Three played for different MLB teams (the soon-to-be-replaced Jhonny Peralta with the Tigers; Brandon Moss with the Phillies; Mike Leake with the Reds), and one more (Randal Grichuk) was in the minor leagues with the Angels.
This amalgamation of talent would be impossible to predict; this is merely an attempt to present an idea of what the Cardinals would lose. The Cardinals may not be protecting these literal players, but they would be deciding whether to leave these types of players available for the taking.
Here are the rules of protection, based on the rules of the 1997 Expansion Draft.
- Each team may protect fifteen players from its 40-man roster plus all of its minor league affiliates.
- Automatically protected are all 2014 and 2015 draftees and international signees, as are draftees/signees who were 18 or younger in 2013.
- Players who were free agents in the offseason need not be protected (this includes both re-signed players such as Jonathan Broxton and new acquisitions such as Mike Leake)
The Pre-Extension Young Guns
Randal Grichuk, Carlos Martinez, Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha
Grichuk, Pham, and Piscotty all figure to log considerable playing time in 2016, and each is still a couple years away from salary arbitration, much less free agency. Pham sticks out among the group in that he is nearly three years older than Piscotty and nearly 3 1/2 years older than Grichuk, but the Cardinals can still enjoy several good years from Pham (if he stays healthy) before he reaches free agency.
Martinez and Wacha, both of whom will turn 25 this season (the latter in July; the former in September), have each flashed excellence: Martinez put up a 3.4 fWAR season in 2015, his first year as a regular MLB starting pitcher, while Wacha exhibited signs of superstardom during his 2013 playoff run. And while Carlos Martinez has yet to prove year-in-year-out consistency and Michael Wacha hasn't quite lived up to the arguably unrealistic expectations of him following 2013, both are clearly worth protecting.
Rosenthal is one of the best relief pitchers in the game and he still has three years of arbitration ahead of him. While his price will begin to escalate in the coming years, he has tremendous value to the team and, if nothing else, may have tremendous trade value.
The Club-Controlled Extensions
Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong
Matt Carpenter had had a weird trajectory during his time with the Cardinals, but the fact remains the same: Carpenter has turned into a pivotal part of the Cardinals lineup. Whether he has done it as a walk-drawing leadoff hitter or as a slugger with legitimate 30-homer potential, the Cardinals appear to be getting a bargain with the remainder of Carpenter's contract, as he will make $44 million over the next four seasons, plus a team option for 2020.
If he duplicates his 2015 production levels (which, mind you, was not his best season of 2013), the Cardinals should break even on the contract in first couple weeks of 2017, by Fangraphs contract value metrics. Likewise, Kolten Wong is guaranteed $25.5 million over the next five years, and was worth $18.6 million according to Fangraphs last season alone.
Although neither has a contract that sounds quite as exciting as "makes league minimum" does in the immediate term, each will earn at a level so moderate in the next several years that to part with them would be a legitimate blow for the Cardinals.
Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright
There is very solid logic to not protecting Molina or Wainwright. Both earn a lot; Molina has declined significantly at the plate over the last two seasons, while Wainwright is coming off a nearly season-long injury in 2015. But from a PR standpoint alone, I can't imagine these two being left unprotected. Matt Holliday would be a tough omission, but while he is popular, he doesn't quite have the same long-time Cardinals cache as Molina or Wainwright.
Marco Gonzales, Alex Reyes, Magneuris Sierra, Edmundo Sosa, Sam Tuivailala
Although several of the best prospects in the Cardinals organization were drafted since 2014 and therefore would be exempt from an expansion draft, there are others who are pivotal for the future who would require protection. Top prospect Alex Reyes is a given, and the barely-twenty year old Edmundo Sosa is an intriguing prospect a position, shortstop, where the internal option is aging and is expected to miss the first two months of 2016.
Gonzales and Tuivailala have both shown promise playing in MLB. While neither is an established MLB player, both are young and both have plenty of cost control left. And while Sierra had a poor 2015, he is currently 19 years old and was the Cardinals' minor league player of the year in 2014; his ceiling is among the highest in the Cardinals' system and not protecting him could come back and haunt the Cardinals.
What this would mean
I will be the first to admit that everything about this is speculation. I do feel confident, however, that the fifteen players I selected to protect are players that fans would really hate to lose. But there are so, so many more. The entire bullpen aside from Rosenthal is risked. Matt Adams, frustratingly incomplete as he may be, makes only $1.65 million and is just now entering his arbitration years, and is risked. As is Jaime Garcia. As are several key MLB contributors and several exciting young talents.
Feel free to share what players you would protect in the comments. That a team is limited to fifteen seems almost unfair, and yet if expansion does happen (and it remains an "if" at this point), that could be the reality of the situation.