November 20th at 5:00 EST was the deadline to protect prospects from the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft. Before that deadline on that date, the Cardinals made the following transactions:
Designated RHP Dominic Leone for assignment;
Purchased the contract of RHP Jake Woodford from AAA Memphis;
Purchased the contract of 3B Elehuris Montero from AA Springfield;
Purchased the contract of RHP Alvaro Seijas from A+ Palm Beach
The DFA of Leone
In January of 2018, the Cardinals signed OF Randal Grichuk to a 1-year, $2.6 million deal, avoiding arbitration. The Toronto Blue Jays also avoided arbitration with RHP Dominic Leone by signing him to a 1-year, $1.085 million contract. Leone had just barely qualified for arbitration as a Super Two player. One week after the Cards signed Grichuk, the Cards traded him to the Blue Jays for Leone and RHP Conner Greene.
My colleague Stlcardsfan4 did a good job in recounting Leone’s story on this site in this article. For all practical purposes, his first season with the Cards was lost to injury. After a good rookie season with the 2014 Mariners, Leone struggled after bouncing back and forth between the Mariners, Diamondbacks and minor league teams. In 2017, however, he had a 1.5 fWAR season with the Blue Jays, in which he featured an above-average cutter and appeared to reinvent himself. With Luke Gregerson on the disabled list, Carlos Martinez in the rotation, Bud Norris as a setup man and Greg Holland optioned to the minor leagues to get ready, Leone actually was given the first shot in 2018 to close games out for the Cards. In his first save opportunity on April 3rd, 2018, he gave up back-to-back home runs with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th to the Brewers and took the 5-4 loss. Bud Norris got the next save opportunity a few days later and Holland was recalled from the minor leagues a few days after that to serve as the closer.
Leone was announced as a reliever in the game on May 4th, 2018, but had to leave after throwing only 2 warmup pitches and was placed on the disabled list 2 days later for upper arm nerve irritation. To that point, he had an uncharacteristic and unlucky 20% HR/FB rate, but his K rate, BB rate, and especially his 15:3 KK/B ratio were outstanding. Leone would be transferred to the 60-day disabled list on May 30th to make room for one start of Alex Reyes, and wouldn’t return to pitch in the major leagues until August 26th. The Cards released LHP Ryan Sherriff to make room for him on the 40-man roster. Leone pitched 13 games the rest of the year and allowed no homers, but his K rate went down and his BB rate went up to over 4 men per 9.
Leone started the 2019 season in the Cards’ bullpen again, but was optioned to AAA Memphis in a bullpen shakeup on May 17th. Again, Leone had a very fine 27.6% K rate, but was again plagued by a HR/FB rate of over 20%, his walk rate was over 11% and his ERA was over 8.00. Two of his 21 appearances over that span were disasters where he allowed 6 ER each time in less than 1 IP. Leone was recalled as the 26th man for the 2nd game of a doubleheader on June 14th, but did not pitch and was returned to Memphis immediately following the game.
When Jordan Hicks blew out his elbow in late June, Leone was recalled to the majors despite not really deserving the promotion. He was lucky with a .225 BABIP in Memphis, and his FIP and xFIP were actually worse in Memphis than they were during his earlier stint with the big club due to his K rate and BB rate both being worse. His 14.5% BB was the worst he had had at any stop to that point in his career. Quite frankly, the Cards called him up at that time because they had no other choice with all of their pitcher injuries. Leone, however, would only pitch in 8 games before being optioned to Memphis again on July 21st. Leone wasn’t actually bad during this stretch (only 6 hits allowed in 31 batters faced and 3 walks), but did give up a 2-run HR without retiring a batter the last time he pitched, and the Cards were in an unusual situation where they had to option a reliever to get back to a 4-man bench.
Leone was recalled for the final time to stay on August 22nd. The Cards made a clever use of the Memphis shuttle to option RHP Junior Fernandez and get another bullpen arm to the big club without burning an option on Fernandez due to the September 1st roster expansions. Leone had improved his K rate in Memphis to a total of 32.3% and in the 10 games prior to his final recall, he struck out 23 out of 47 batters faced in 12.1 IP with only 2 walks and 1 home run allowed. But in 12 games pitched the rest of the year, Leone again struggled with his control, walking 8 to only 11 SO in 11.2 IP. It was for this reason that in that stretch, Leone’s ERA was 1.54, while his FIP was 5.61. On the season, Leone walked 12.2% of batters and allowed 9 HR in 40.2 IP and was left off of the postseason roster.
The situation with Leone was quite simple. Leone would have been eligible for arbitration for the 3rd year in a row, and this time he was out of minor league options. While he had shown promise at times with his cutter, he just ran out of chances to prove that he could put it all together for a significant stretch and the Cards have younger, cheaper players with minor league options that they can put in the bullpen. The Cards now have 7 days to decide what to do with Leone, and the money bet is that they will place him on outright assignment waivers and attempt to outright him to AAA Memphis if he clears waivers. As a player with more than 3 years of MLB service time, however, Leone has the option to declare free agency in lieu of accepting an outright assignment if he goes unclaimed. If there’s any interest at all in him from other clubs, you can expect Leone to exercise that option.
Leone’s departure means that the Cardinals now only have one potential arbitration case in John Gant. It also means that the Kent Bottenfield family tree has now officially come to a close. The Cards would end up designating Conner Greene for assignment at this time last offseason. Interestingly enough, after the Royals claimed Greene on outright assignment waivers from the Cardinals, they just designated him for assignment as well. Now let’s take a look at the 3 players the Cards added to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 draft.
RHP Jake Woodford was drafted #39 overall by the Cardinals in the 2015 draft in Competive Balance Round A, which took place after the 1st round. He just turned 23 years old on October 28th, and was the workhorse starter for AAA Memphis last year. If you take a look at his raw 2019 numbers without any context, you could easily wonder why the Cards bothered to protect him, because in isolation they don’t look very good. In 26 G started and 151.2 IP, he walked 4.45 men per 9 innings, and had a 5.54 FIP and a 6.62 xFIP. But if you take a look at the Pacific Coast League as a whole, almost nobody who pitched a lot of innings performed very well.
Woodford was one of only 3 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings. Out of the group of only 25 PCL pitchers who threw at least 100 innings, Woodford did struggle with the 3rd worst walk rate at 11.7%, but his 20.7% K rate was actually the 6th best of the group. His 5.54 FIP was actually the 9th best of that group, and only 3 pitchers in the group had a FIP below 5.00. The xFIP metric must have not believed in his 11.8 HR/FB%, as his 6.64 xFIP was the 4th worst of the group. The median xFIP of the group, however was 5.60, and only 3 pitchers in the group had an xFIP below 5.00. The one silver lining in all of this is that at 22 years old, Woodford was the youngest pitcher of the group, with most members of the group being at least 25 years old. The Pacific Coast League is also known as one of the best offensive environments in the minor leagues. Woodford definitely has some things to work on, but his numbers, when viewed in context based on all the factors I listed, make his season look a little better than it appeared.
Woodford will get a look in spring training, but unless something odd happens, he figures to open the season again as a starter for AAA Memphis.
The Cards signed Montero as an undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic on August 29, 2014 after he had just turned 16 years old 12 days before. He was not eligible to play that season, both because he signed too late and because he would not have turned 17 before the minor league season was over so he “signed for future service” 2 days before the deadline expired to do so. His $300,000 bonus was the largest the Cardinals gave to a position player during that international signing period. Because he signed at a point at which the team to which he was ultimately assigned was over, 2015 was his first “qualified season” for Rule 5 draft purposes. Going into the 2019 season, Fangraphs had him listed as the Cards’ #7 prospect, and MLB.com currently has him as the Cards’ #4 prospect.
After 2 years in the Dominican Summer League starting in 2015 when he was still 16, Montero posted a .277/.370/.468 slash line with a 136 wRC+ in the Gulf Coast League in 2017 as an 18-year old, which triggered his first appearance in full season ball for Peoria in 2018 for his age-19 season. Montero busted out in 103 games for the 2018 Peoria Chiefs, slashing .322/.381/.529 with a 159 wRC+, 15 HR and a .207 ISO. This stretch earned him the MVP of the Midwest League, and he was promoted to A+ Palm Beach on August 7th. As expected, his numbers fell off in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, but he still produced a 110 wRC+ in 106 PA over the final month of the minor league season.
The 2019 season was mostly a lost one for Montero. Assigned to AA Springfield, he landed on the injured list after only 18 games with what turned out to be a broken hamate bone in his left hand. He returned from the injured list on May 19th, but went back on the injured list on May 29th after only 7 more games, and this stint would cost him almost 2 months after surgery. He initially went on a 4-game rehab assignment with the GCL Cardinals and then returned to the every day lineup with Springfield on July 27th.
Montero struggled out of the gate, and never did find his offensive stroke when he came back from the injury. In 136 PA after the injury, he slashed .164/.213/.242 with a 5.9% BB rate, 31.6% K rate and only a 27 wRC+. His full-season numbers don’t look much better, as in 238 total PA for Springfield, his walk rate was the same, his K% was still 31.1%, and he only slashed .188/.235/.317 with a 52 wRC+.
The Cards must be chalking up Montero’s offensive season to his hand injury and the fact that he was only 20 years old playing in AA. His biggest asset seems to be his strong throwing arm. The Cards appear to believe the 6’3” 215 pounder can stick at the hot corner athletically. and that the power he showed with Peoria in 2018 is real. Montero could stand to improve his plate discipline a tad. He has a career 8.7% walk rate in the minor leagues, but since he left the short-season leagues, he has never posted a walk rate higher than 7.8% at any stop. The strikeout rate he showed last year was concerning, but the Cards hope it is an aberration, as his highest rate was 21.1% in his rookie season in the Dominican Summer League, and has usually fluctuated around the 20% range.
In 50 AB in the Arizona Fall League, Montero only slashed .200/.333/.300 with 9 BB and 17 SO. Having turned 21 in August, Montero figures to return to AA Springfield, where hopefully he will have a full healthy season in the Texas League. It will be interesting to watch the dual progression of both Montero and Nolan Gorman, neither of whom have played any position in the minor leagues other than third base. Gorman will turn 20 years old himself on May 10th, 2020 and it is theoretically possible that he will also open the season with Springfield. Even if Gorman has a reunion tour with Palm Beach, one wonders if they will both stay together on the same track, or whether a position change is in order for either or both of them.
RHP Alvaro Seijas was another 16-year old the Cards signed for future service, this time on July 2nd, 2015 out of Venezuela. He just turned 21 last month on October 10th. He pitched only 4 games with the DSL Cardinals in 2016 before moving stateside to the GCL Cardinals for 9 more games, and spent 2017 with Rookie Johnson City.
In his first taste of full-season ball with A Peoria in 2018 at 19 years old, his numbers were nothing to write home about. In 25 games and 22 starts, he threw 129.1 IP. He was 2nd on the squad in strikeouts behind Johan Oviedo with 84, but only he and Oviedo threw more than 88 innings on the season. Those 84 strikeouts amounted to a 14.6% total rate, which was the 5th worst on the team, and the 3rd worst rate in the Midwest League among 68 pitchers that had thrown at least 80 innings. His 10.6% BB rate was right in the middle of the road on the 2018 Chiefs, but 10th worst in the league among the 80 IP group. His 5.21 FIP and 5.00 xFIP were both the 2nd worst in the 80 IP group.
The Cards were hoping that Seijas, who was one of only two 19-year olds in the Midwest League to pitch as many as 120 innings in 2018, would improve. Seijas rewarded their faith in his reunion tour with Peoria in 2019 with improved numbers across the board. This time, in 80 IP and 14 starts, his K rate increased by almost 7%, his BB rate went down by over 2%, and both his FIP and xFIP improved by almost 1.5, all of which certainly helped him earn Midwest League All-Star honors.
The Cards decided to promote Seijas to Palm Beach on July 3rd to close out the 2019 season with 10 more starts, where his peripherals other than his home run rate declined. In 54.1 IP, his K rate went down to 18% and his BB rate went back up to 10.9%. While Seijas’s K rate and BB rate were among the bottom of the Florida State League, Seijas was still young for the league, as only seven 20-year olds pitched at least 50 innings in the league. And Seijas still held his own, with his 3.75 FIP with Palm Beach actually better than his 3.96 FIP with Peoria. His xFIP went up due to his remarkably low 3.4 HR/FB rate. Seijas also impressed the Cards with a 19 IP scoreless streak that lasted for 3 straight starts for Palm Beach on August 9th, 16th and 22nd, and ended after one inning in his final start of the year on August 28th.
While Seijas is not on any of the prospect lists that I can see for the Cardinals, and his numbers were not eye-popping in 2019, you can understand the Cards’ reasoning in protecting him. The Colorado Rockies drafted pitcher Luis Perdomo in the December 2015 Rule 5 draft and traded him to the San Diego Padres, despite the fact that Perdomo had never pitched above Palm Beach, and only had 7 total games even at that level. Perdomo, who managed to stick with the Padres, had similar numbers in his last season before becoming Rule 5 eligible to Seijas’s numbers in 2019. And Seijas has more upside, as 2020 will be Seijas’s age-21 season, while Perdomo was entering his age-23 season in 2016.
The Cards must have felt that there was more than a minimal risk that some team would take a flyer on Seijas and wanted to prevent the possibility of losing the youngster. At a reported 6’1” and 175 pounds, Seijas’s frame is a little slight for starting duty, and some have opined that his frame and his delivery project him as ultimately landing in the bullpen. Up until now, however, he has logged respectable innings as a starter, and may begin next season in Palm Beach as a starter again.
Cards’ 40-man roster is now full
The Cards now have a full 40-man roster, and unless something changes, they will be unable to take anyone in the upcoming Rule 5 draft. The following is the 40-man roster, or the “reserve list” that the Cardinals filed with the Commissioner’s Office as required on November 20th. The number in parentheses represents the number of minor league options the player has remaining. If there is no number, that means the player is out of options. If N/A is in parentheses, that reflects the fact that the player has one or more minor league options remaining, but the player has 5 or more years of MLB service and may not be sent to the minor leagues without his consent.
John Brebbia (2), Genesis Cabrera (2), Brett Cecil, Junior Fernandez (3), Jack Flaherty (2), Giovanny Gallegos (1), John Gant, Austin Gomber (1), Ryan Helsley (2), Jordan Hicks (3), Dakota Hudson (3), Carlos Martinez (N/A), Miles Mikolas, Andrew Miller, Daniel Ponce de Leon (1), Alex Reyes (2), Alvaro Seijas (3), Adam Wainwright (N/A), Tyler Webb, Jake Woodford (3)
Andrew Knizner (2), Yadier Molina (N/A)
Matt Carpenter (N/A), Paul DeJong (3), Tommy Edman (3), Paul Goldschmidt (N/A), Elehuris Montero (3), Yairo Munoz (1), Rangel Ravelo, Edmundo Sosa (1), Ramon Urias (2), Kolten Wong (N/A)
Randy Arozarena (3), Harrison Bader (1), Dexter Fowler (N/A), Adolis Garcia (2), Jose Martinez (2), Tyler O’Neill (1), Lane Thomas (2), Justin Williams (1)
*Note that Edmundo Sosa has burned 3 option years, but as I illustrated in this article, he should be eligible for a fourth minor league option in 2020. In addition, both Giovanny Gallegos and Yairo Munoz were optioned for part of a 3rd season in 2019, but did not spend enough days on option during the 2019 season to burn their final option years. Therefore, both players still have one option year remaining.
With the 40-man roster full, it remains to be seen whether any one is non-tendered on December 2nd. Until the Rule 5 draft, the only other thing to watch out for is free agent signings and trades. I will make an attempt to reach out to the minor league clubs in the meantime to determine who is protected on their various reserve lists, as the information is not currently public, and the most interesting thing to watch in the Rule 5 draft might be who we potentially take and lose in the minor league portion.
What do you think? Did the Cards protect the right guys? Let me know what you think about that and the state of our 40-man roster in the comments.