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Offseason Transaction Preview and Timeline

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MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Cardinals have been eliminated from the postseason, there will still be many transactions to watch for this offseason. In this article, I will give you a preview of what is to come, as well as a timeline. I will outline the transactions that are automatic that will be coming up shortly, as well as offer some players to watch that will be affected by certain transactional rules and deadlines.

The Day After the World Series Ends—6 year free agency

At 9:00 a.m. EST on the day after the World Series ends, all Article XX-B players—that is players who are unsigned for the upcoming year and who have 6 years or more of MLB service time—will automatically be declared free agents. They do not have to file. Thus, the following players will be immediately removed from the 40-man roster at that time:

  • LHP Tony Cingrani, RHPs Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright, OF Marcell Ozuna, and C Matt Wieters

The Cardinals will have exclusive negotiation rights with these players up until the next deadline listed below.

Five Days After the World Series Ends

This will be one of the most important transaction days of the offseason. There are 3 major events that are required to take place by 5:00 EST on this day.

Activation of Players from the 60-day IL

The first thing that must happen is that all players on the MLB 60-day IL must be activated from the IL and added back to the 40-man roster by 5:00 EST time on this day, regardless of whether they have spent 60-days on the list. The Cards currently have four players on the 60-day IL:

  • LHPs Tony Cingrani and Brett Cecil, RHP Jordan Hicks and OF Lane Thomas.

Cingrani is a special case because he is both on the 60-day IL and eligible for free agency. The Rules in his case actually require that he be activated from the 60-day IL on the day after the World Series is over. He would then be removed immediately upon activation as an Article XX-B free agent.

The upshot is that by 5:00 EST on the 5th day after the World Series is over, assuming no other moves have been made by then, the Cardinals’ 40-man roster will be at 39 players.

  • Cingrani will be activated from the 60-day IL and then immediately removed as an Article XX-B free agent, which would result in no net change.
  • Wainwright, Wieters, Wacha and Ozuna will be automatically removed as Article XX-B free agents, which would put the roster at 36.
  • Thomas, Cecil, and Hicks will be activated from the 60-day IL, which will put the roster at 39.

Of the players currently on the 60-day IL, Cingrani will be gone to free agency, Thomas is expected to be fine, only the shadow knows what will happen with Cecil and Hicks is not scheduled to complete his recovery until next July. It is important to note that once these players are activated from the 60-day IL, they may not be placed on the 60-day IL again until the club invites pitchers and catchers to report to spring training in February near Valentine’s Day. This means that until that point, the club will not be able to use the 60-day IL to create a roster spot.

Deadline to Make Qualifying Offers

By the same deadline, the Cardinals will have to decide whether to make a Qualifying Offer (QO) to their Article XX-B free agents. The QO is a 1-year deal only, and is computed as the average of the top 125 major league contracts this season. It has been determined that the QO for this offseason is $17.8 million, which is a $100,000 decrease from last year’s QO, the first time a QO has decreased from one year to the next. According to this article from ESPN.com, the major factor in the decrease is that the recent free agent deals signed by Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Mike Trout included large signing bonuses, which for salary purposes are considered to be pro-rated over the life of the contract. Had their 2020 salaries been used instead, the QO would have increased by $400,000 instead of decreasing by $100,000

Cingrani and Wieters are ineligible to receive QOs from the Cardinals for different reasons. Cingrani is ineligible because he did not spend the entire 2019 season with the Cardinals’ organization. Wieters is ineligible because he received a qualifying offer from the Baltimore Orioles in November 2015 for the 2016 season. Wieters actually took it, becoming only the 2nd player in the history of the QO procedure to take the QO. Beginning with the 2017 offseason, players can now be offered only one QO in their careers. Neither player figured to receive a QO from the Cardinals anyhow, but they couldn’t receive one even if the Cards were inclined to make one.

There’s no way the Carda are making QOs to Wacha or Wainwright. Wacha made $6.35 million in 2019, was bounced back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, was the Cards’ worst starter when he was in the rotation and was left off of the postseason roster because of another shoulder injury. Wainwright earned every bit of the maximum $10 million his incentive-laden deal afforded him the opportunity to make in 2019, but no one would suggest that the circumstances call for the 38-year old to get a $7.8 million raise next season if he decides to pitch. If the Cardinals did offer either pitcher a QO, they would almost certainly take it, which is why the club will not do it.

That leaves Marcell Ozuna. Since this article is focused on upcoming transactions, I won’t debate the merits of the Cardinals making a QO to Ozuna or whether he will or should take it. It’s one of the hottest topics for the Cardinals’ offseason, and there has already been much commentary by the readers in the comments to other articles. I don’t think it’s controversial to predict that the Cardinals will offer it, both because they would actually be willing to pay that much for a 1-year deal for him, and because they want the compensation that comes with it if he signs with another team.

Assuming that the Cards do make a QO to Ozuna, he has 10 days from the date of the offer to accept it. If he accepts it, he is considered signed at that point to a 1-year $17.8 million deal for the 2020 season, and he would have to be added back to the Cards’ 40-man roster immediately. Assuming no other transactions, that would make the Cards’ 40-man roster full. If he declines it, he is free to sign with any team, including the Cardinals. If he signs with another team, the Cardinals would get a compensatory draft pick in the June Rule 4 draft between the 2nd and 3rd rounds after Competitive Balance Round B.

Minor League Free Agency

According to Rule 55 of the Major League Rules, any player who has spent all or parts of 7 seasons in the minor leagues are automatically declared free agents at 5:00 EST on the 5th day following the final game of the World Series, unless they are on a club’s 40-man roster or added to it by that time, or have agreed to a new minor league deal by then. Players are also eligible for minor league free agency if they have been previously released or non-tendered in their careers and their current minor league deal has expired. This type of free agency is automatic and players do not have to file. In addition, clubs losing players to minor league free agency do not receive compensation of any kind if the player signs with another club.

This type of free agency is often referred to as 6-year minor league free agency, but that is misleading. It’s not 6 years of minor league service that triggers the right, but having one’s minor league contract renewed 6 times. Thus it takes service in all or parts of 7 minor league seasons to trigger the right.

According to my research, the following players in the Cardinals’ system will be eligible for minor league free agency:

  • RHP Derian Gonzalez, RHP Kevin Herget, RHP Roel Ramirez, C Jose Godoy, IF Jose Alexander Martinez, RHP Merandy Gonzalez, RHP Mitchell Osnowitz, IF Rayder Ascanio, OF Johan Mieses, RHP Williams Perez, RHP Ramon Santos.

The Cardinals are likely not too concerned with losing most of those players to other organizations, and losing them would not result in any change in the Cards’ 40-man roster. But is is possible that the Cards may think about adding one of them to the 40-man roster to prevent the player from being lost to minor-league free agency. Several of those listed players were the return in trades for other players.

Jose “Not Cafecito” Martinez was the return from the Kansas City Royals for former backup catcher Tony Cruz, and played a good amount of infield for AAA Memphis starting in July of 2019. Ascanio was the only player the Cards received from the Seattle Mariners for Mike Leake. Like Martinez, Ascanio is also only 23 years old, but he played shortstop mostly for AA Springfield this year.

A right handed reliever, Ramirez was the other piece the Cards acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in the Tommy Pham trade, along with Genesis Cabrera and Justin Williams. Pitching mostly for Springfield, his K/9 was almost 10, he generated more than 40% ground balls, kept the ball in the ballpark and had an xFIP of right around 4. I’ll leave it to the writers who spend more time covering the minor leagues to opine on how good he is, but the Cards may want to keep the 24-year old reliever around.

When the Cards decided that Yairo Munoz would win a roster spot over organizational solider Breyvic Valera in 2018, the club traded Valera to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Mieses. After an above average showing for Class-A Advanced Palm Beach in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League over 270 PA in 2018, the then-23 year old outfielder struggled hard at AA Springfield for the rest of the season after a late-June promotion, managing only a 66 wRC+ and a .205/.250./.374 slash line over 233 PA. In a 2019 reunion tour with Springfield, he improved his wRC+ by 30 points and his OBP by 50 points, due mostly to an increased walk rate. 2019 was the third season in a row that Mieses had spent significant time at the AA level, and only in 2019 did he demonstrate anything remotely resembling average offensive numbers. Interestingly, due to several injuries from the Cards’ crop of minor league outfielders, Mieses did get 70 PA with AAA Memphis this season, and he crushed Pacific Coast League pitching to the tune of a .339/.414/.677 slash line with a 158 wRC+. The Cards may find some promise in Mieses and want to keep him in the fold.

I don’t expect the Cards to take a look at keeping the other players I listed for anything more than another minor-league deal, if that. But it is possible that the Cards might want to take a look at adding either Mieses or Ramirez to the 40-man roster.

November 20th—The Deadline to File Reserve Lists for Rule 5 Draft Protection

The “reserve list” is the official name for the major league 40-man roster. All minor league clubs also have a reserve list, which is limited to 38 for AAA clubs, 37 for AA clubs, and 35 for all other clubs. What is the significance of this deadline? When reserve lists for major and minor league clubs are filed, they are frozen, subject to a few exceptions. Once reserve lists are filed, they may not be changed, again, subject to a few exceptions until the Rule 5 draft is over. The Rule 5 draft is scheduled to take place on December 12th.

Clubs may make certain outright assignments of players off of the 40-man roster, they may add players who are Major League or Minor League free agents, and they may release players for the purpose of allowing them to sign a bona fide contract as a foreign professional. Any outright assignments off of the 40-man roster must be accomplished by 5:00 EST on the 3rd day before the Rule 5 draft, and players listed on minor league reserve lists may not be moved to other lists once the deadline has hit.

The most important restriction is that other than adding free agents to the roster, additions to the reserve lists are not permitted beginning on November 20th and ending when the Rule 5 draft is over. This means that clubs wanting to protect players from the Rule 5 draft, must do so by November 20th.

There are actually several decisions that clubs must make in this process. First, they have to decide what players they want to protect from selection in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft. I will discuss the Rule 5 draft in greater detail at a later date, but it will suffice for now to understand that there are two portions to the draft. If an eligible player is selected in the major league portion, the selecting club pays $100,000 for the player and is required to keep the player on the club’s 25-man roster for the entirety of the upcoming season. The club may not send the player to the minors without first securing outright assignment waivers on the player, and then offering the player back to his original club for $50,000. The club may place the player on the injured list if the player is injured, but the player must spend at least 90 days on the active roster, or else the Rule 5 restrictions carry over to the next season until he reaches 90 days.

There is also a “minor league portion” or a “AAA phase” to the Rule 5 draft. This phase allows AAA affiliates of clubs to select players from other clubs who are on reserve lists of AA or lower for $24,000. Players drafted in this portion do not have to remain at the AAA level for the next season, and there are no restrictions on what may be done with those players. There used to be a AA phase, but that has been abolished.

So clubs must first determine what players they want to make sure they protect from the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft by adding those players to the 40-man roster. That will typically require the clearing of one or more 40-man roster spots. There are, by my estimate, 55 players in the Cardinal organization who are eligible for selection in the Rule 5 draft, ranging from players who last played at the AAA level, all the way down to the Gulf Coast League Rookie Club. I will have another article about these players later, but the most prominent names include, in no particular order, RHPs Jake Woodford, Connor Jones, Ryan Meisinger, and Roel Ramirez, 3B Elehuris Montero, OFs Conner Capel and Johan Mieses, IF Max Schrock, 1B John Nogowski, and 1B Yuan Yepez.

Assuming no other transactions take place between now and November 20th other than the automatic ones I listed above, and assuming Ozuna declines the QO, the Cards’ 40-man roster will be at 39 players. The Cardinals will thus need to trim at least one more 40-man roster spot if they want to protect more than one player, much less add any major league free agents. In addition, the club will want to make sure that if it doesn’t protect a player it would rather not lose by adding that player to the major league 40-man roster, it at least adds that player to the 38-man AAA reserve list by November 20th. This will force clubs that might want to draft that player out of the Cardinal organization to do so in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft, which would require the drafting club to carry that player on the 25-man active roster all year. If such players are not placed on the AAA reserve list, they can be taken out of the organization for peanuts with no restrictions.

Candidates for Roster Trimming

For a whole host of reasons, there are several candidates that the Cards might look to to clear 40-man roster space. Of course, the Cards may make a trade or two, but those may not result in a net change in the size of the 40-man roster. Many times players who are out of options are candidates for trimming. RHP Dominic Leone, LHP Tyler Webb and 1B Rangel Ravelo all just exhausted their last minor-league option this season.

I’m not sure how Webb will be affected by the new rule that goes into effect next year that for many purposes eliminates LOOGYs, but I expect him to stick around at least through 2020 spring training. He struggled against righties at times, but he did the job the Cards asked him to do. I do expect the Cards to dump Leone in one way or another. Not only is he out of options, but he’s also eligible for arbitration again, and he was either hurt or in AAA for much of the year. He actually had a good strikeout rate in both AAA and the majors, but I think the Cards will move on from his injuries and homer-itis.

I also predict that Ravelo will be gone, at least from the 40-man roster. He was a nice surprise at times as a right-handed pinch hitter for the big club in 2019. Although he has recorded time at both 3B and the OF in the minors, he’s still basically limited to 1B, and the Cards already have Jose Martinez under contract for 2020 for the “not good outfielder right-handed pinch hitting job.” Believe it or not, Martinez actually has 2 minor league options left if the Cards decide, for whatever reason, that they don’t have room for him. Because of Ravelo’s limitations and his having no minor league options remaining, look for Ravelo to be wearing another team’s colors next season.

There are a few other candidates for roster trimming that come to mind. RHP Mike Mayers was already DFAd by the club this past season after struggling with both control and injuries, but was added back to the 40-man roster on September 1st. He only pitched in 4 games the rest of the season, and did not pitch at all between September 6th and September 25th. RHP John Gant remained on the staff for the whole 2019 season despite already being out of options, but struggled mightily with his control to the point where he was not included on the postseason roster. He has the tools for a possible comeback, but the Cards might look to let him go, as he is now eligible for salary arbitration for the first time.

Many puzzle at the Cards’ seeming fascination with Yairo Munoz, a player who never did hit in the minors, does not excel defensively anywhere, and who got a job primarily on the basis of a strong 2018 spring training. He also has not hit particularly well in the majors and had one of the worst chase rates in baseball in 2019 for players with his amount of playing time. He has been optioned in parts of 3 major league seasons, but he did not spend enough time in the minors this season to burn his last option year. With 1 minor league option remaining, the club will likely hold onto him. The club has not seen fit to give Edmundo Sosa much of a chance thus far, but as I outline in this article, Sosa should be eligible for a 4th minor league option for 2020, reducing the likelihood that the Cards will get rid of him now. Sosa is probably the best defensive option the Cards have at shortstop if they want to rest Paul DeJong, which they should think of doing more next season.

I’m not sure what need the Cards have for catcher Joe Hudson, Andrew Knizner’s backup catcher at AAA Memphis, who was added to the 40-man roster on September 1st of this season. He was only rostered because the Cards wanted to protect themselves after Wieters injured his calf. Hudson has all 3 minor league options remaining, however, so the Cards may keep him for depth or insurance.

These are the likely candidates for removal from the roster any time soon by means other than trade. Although Brett Cecil has basically done nothing for the club since 2017, the first season of his 4-year deal, he’s still under contract for 2020 for $7.25 million, and the club will almost certainly take him to spring training to see if he has anything left. Sorry folks, but they’re not going to DFA Dexter Fowler or Jose Martinez.

December 2nd—the Deadline to Tender Contracts

The final deadline of concern for the Cards is December 2nd, which is the date to offer contracts to players under club control who are unsigned, but not yet eligible for free agency. If a club decides not to offer such a player a contract, the player immediately becomes a free agent, loses any right to salary arbitration if he had it, and may sign with any team. This procedure is known in the trade as “non-tendering” a player.

Clubs will typically try to clear space on the 40-man roster by outright assignment if they need it before the Rule 5 draft to protect the players it needs to protect. If they need additional space after that time, they will sometimes resort to the non-tender, especially if they might have interest in keeping the player in the organization. The non-tender allows a club to re-sign a player to a pay cut of greater than 20%, and it also avoids exposing a player to outright assignment waivers. It can also be used to remove someone from a 40-man roster who the club is barred from outrighting at certain times according to the rules.

Conclusion

I will be keeping you all updated on all of the transactional happenings in the offseason. For now, hopefully, these deadlines and explanations will give you something to chew on in the meantime and you can share your theories with me about who the Cards should protect and who they should dump.