The perfect time for this article to appear would have been on June 25th, but I was not a member of the VEB staff then. Since the timing is close and the Cardinals are playing the Rockies right now, as they were a little more than 5 years ago, I thought I would give you some Sunday reading and turn the clock a bit back to describe an unusual transaction the Cards made that you will never see again. In the process, you can reminisce a bit about Pete Kozma and the 2014 Cardinals and get an understanding of the DFA rule.
On June 23, 2014, the Cardinals placed LHP Jaime Garcia on the 15-day DL with left shoulder inflammation, after he started only 7 games between May 18th and June 20th. After surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, he would be lost for the rest of the 2014 regular season and playoffs, and would not return to action until May 21, 2015. Michael Wacha was also lost to the DL on the same day with a stress reaction in his right shoulder, and he did not pitch again until September 4th.
In the meantime, the Cardinals decided on LHP Marco Gonzales as Garcia’s replacement in the rotation. The Cards had thought about adding AAA Memphis LHP Tim Cooney, but he had just made a start on June 21st and was unavailable to pitch on only 3 days of rest. Gonzalez, however, had last started on June 18th and was fresh. Taken in the 1st round of the 2013 draft, Gonzales pitched 8 games total across the Gulf Coast League Rookie club and Class-A Advanced Palm Beach after his 2013 season at Gonzaga. Starting the 2014 season in Palm Beach, he was promoted to AA Springfield in mid-May after 6 starts in which he posted a 1.43 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 4 in 37.2 IP, while only allowing 1 HR. He basically replicated that success in 7 starts for Springfield, allowed even fewer hits over 38.2 IP with 46 SO to only 10 BB and 2 HR. In 13 starts across the 2 levels, Gonzalez had a 1.89 ERA, 78 SO in 76.1 IP and only 67 H, 3 HR and 18 BB allowed.
On the strength of his 13-start showing, the Cardinals believed that Gonzales and his nasty changeup were ready to skip AAA Memphis and get plugged right into the major league rotation for a start in Colorado where he grew up, and against the organization for which his father served as a pitching coach in the minor leagues. He would be the first Cardinal pitcher to jump straight from AA to the majors to make a start since Jose Jimenez in 1998. But as a player they had drafted just one year earlier, Gonzales was not on the 40-man roster. The Cards had an easy fix for that, as RHP Joe Kelly had been on the shelf for over 2 months already with a hamstring strain, and could easily be transferred to the 60-day DL in a procedural move.
To make room on the active 25-man roster for Gonzales’s planned start on June 25th at Coors Field against the Rockies would prove to be a trickier proposition. The Cards had planned to simply option a reliever, and there were several choices who had options remaining. But the night before, on June 24th, starter Shelby Miller had to leave the game after only 2.2 IP with back tightness and the Cards ended up using 5 relievers: Nick Greenwood, Seth Maness, Sam Freeman, Jason Motte and Randy Choate. This circumstance caused the Cardinals to look in a different direction.
Pete Kozma went into the 2014 season with 1 minor league option remaining. Initially added to the 40-man roster in November of 2010, he was first recalled to the Cardinals on May 18, 2011 when both Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto were on the DL. Getting into 16 games total in 2011 with 3 starts in the infield, Kozma spent almost the entire 2012 season with AAA Memphis before the Cardinals recalled him on August 31st, 2012 to take the injured Rafael Furcal’s place at shortstop for the stretch run and the playoffs. After a magical offensive run at the tail end of 2012, the likes of which he had never seen before or would see again, Kozma spent the entire 2013 season in the majors as the Cards’ primary starting shortstop and slashed .217/.275/.273 with a 49 wRC+ in 448 PA, while occasionally being platooned with Daniel Descalso.
The Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta to a 4-year, $52 million deal in late November of 2013, which ended the Pete Kozma experiment as the starting shortstop. Descalso was preferred as the backup shortstop, and the Cards had signed veteran Mark Ellis to serve as a caddy for Kolten Wong at second base. Kozma would not have cracked the 2014 opening day roster at all had Ellis not gone on the DL with tendinitis in his left knee to start the season. Once Ellis was activated, Kozma was optioned to AAA Memphis on April 15, 2014 after only 13 games. Kozma was recalled to the Cardinals on June 23rd on the same date that Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia were placed on the disabled list, because for the previous 8 days, the Cards had been running with only a 4-man bench, and Kolten Wong had to go on the disabled list just 2 days before. Descalso was the club’s only backup infielder and had been used frequently as a lefty pinch-hitter. If Descalso came in to pinch hit, the Cards had no real emergency infielder.
The Cardinals opened the 2014 season with 12 pitchers, including 7 relievers and a 5-man bench. When they needed to add Gonzales for his June 25th start, they still had 12 pitchers, but 8 of them were relievers with only 4 starters. As I explained above, in the June 24th 10-5 loss to the Rockies, the club had used 5 relievers—everybody but Trevor Rosenthal, Pat Neshek and little-used Eric Fornataro. The bench at the time consisted of backup catcher Tony Cruz, Descalso, Shane Robinson, whoever wasn’t starting between Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos, and Kozma. Carlos Martinez had just made his 2nd career start in the majors on June 16th after spending the entire season up to that point in the bullpen. With Miller also hurting and Gonzales set to make his first career start, the Cards felt like they needed to keep all 8 of their relievers for long relief protection for at least the next week. With Ellis starting at 2B, the Cards thought they could scrape by with Descalso as the only backup infielder, with Cruz filling in in a dire emergency. The best course, they concluded, was to option Kozma after he had spent just 2 days with the club since his June 23rd recall.
But the club had a problem. Kozma first reported to the Cardinals on May 18, 2011, so it was perfectly fine to just option Kozma on April 15, 2014 when Ellis was activated from the DL. But by the point that the club needed to add Gonzalez on June 25th, 2014, it had been more than 3 years since Kozma first reported to the team. As I explained in my earlier series on waivers here, this meant that the Cards could not option Kozma without placing him on optional assignment waivers, even though he still had 1 option remaining.
The problem did not end there. The June 24th game against the Rockies was scheduled for 7:40 p.m. Central time and lasted 3 hours and 55 minutes. You can view the box score on Retrosheet here. First pitch for Gonzales’s June 25th start was scheduled for 2:10 p.m. Central time. Because Gonzales had reported to the Cardinals on June 24th in Colorado the day before his scheduled start, the Collective Bargaining Agreement required that he be added to the Cards’ 25-man active roster no later than 3 hours before the first pitch on the day of his scheduled June 25th start, or else he could not remain with the club. The Cards had not decided to option Kozma until almost midnight the night before. There was simply no way that the Cards could secure the necessary waivers on Kozma by 11:10 a.m. the next morning in time to add Gonzales to the roster. The claiming period for teams is up to 47 hours, as I described in another article in the waiver series describing the entire waiver claim procedure that you can find here. The Cardinals were in a real time box here. What could they do?
The DFA Rule and its Application to Kozma
On June 25th, 2014, the Cardinals actually designated Kozma for assignment without the intention of losing him. How could they do this? Don’t teams DFA a player to get rid of him? Not necessarily, at least in those days. Here is the text of Major League Rule 2(k) in full, which sets forth the procedure:
DESIGNATED PLAYERS. When the Active List and/or Reserve List limits of a particular Major League Club have been reached, and the Club desires to acquire, sign, transfer, recall from an optional assignment or reinstate an additional player, notice must first be given to the Commissioner or the Commissioner’s designee of the Club’s intention to release or assign an equal number of players. The player(s) so designated shall be released or their contracts assigned within 7 days after such notice is given, and they shall not be eligible to participate in a championship season game after having been so designated until they are released or assigned to another Major or Minor League Club. No player obtained from a waiver claim award may be designated if such designation would violate Rule 10(g) (Player Limit).
The Rule is verbose, and it should be revised to make it much more simple and clear. For one thing, the literal text of the rule makes it sound like someone has to be DFAd every time a team wants to make a transaction when their rosters are full. It’s just not true in practice because if the other Major League Rules permit a transaction to be made, then it can be made, even if the roster is full, and a DFA is not needed. If the Cards could have just optioned Kozma without putting him on waivers, they would have done so and a DFA would have been unnecessary.
The most important part of the DFA rule to understand is the sentence that states that once a player has been designated, he is not eligible to participate in a game until he is either released or his contract assigned. To be eligible to participate in a game for a club, a player has to be on both the 40-man roster (the Reserve List) and the 25-man roster (the Active List). Although the rule does not state this explicitly, once a player is designated or DFAd, he is immediately removed from the 40-man roster and also from the 25-man roster if he is on it.
So when the Cards’ DFAd Kozma, the immediate impact was he was no longer on the 40-man roster or the 25-man roster. The Cards only wanted to get Kozma off of the 25-man roster to make room for Gonzales. They were not trying to remove him from the 40-man roster, but that was the byproduct. And they DFAd him because it was the only avenue available to get him off the 25-man roster immediately, aside from placing him on unconditional release waivers, which they did not want to do. They just wanted to option him, but they did not have time to pass Kozma through optional assignment waivers before they had to add Gonzales to the 25-man roster.
With Kozma designated, the Cards had 10 days at the time (the time limit in the current version of the Rule I cited above was changed to 7 days with the 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement) to either release Kozma, or assign him to another Major or Minor League Club. They did not want to release him. An assignment to another Major League Club is a fancy way of saying “trade,” and they did not want to trade him. The only other option was to assign him to a Minor League Club. The most common way to assign a player to the minors after a DFA is an outright assignment, which would require the player to be placed on outright assignment waivers, which are irrevocable. The Cards did not want to do that either, so they had one last choice.
THE DFA FOLLOWED BY AN OPTION
The heading is not a typo. Immediately after designating Kozma for assignment, the Cards placed him on optional assignment waivers, because they wanted to option him to AAA Memphis. The DFA rule just says that the team can assign the player to a Minor League Club. It doesn’t say that the assignment has to be an outright assignment. The official name of an option to the minors under the Major League Rules is an “optional assignment.” So an option was an “assignment” permitted under the DFA Rule.
Although teams have up to 47 hours to make a waiver claim, Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch (and thanks goes to Derrick for giving me the idea for this article) reported in the June 26th, 2014 edition of the paper that Kozma cleared optional assignment waivers shortly before the first pitch of the June 25, 2014 game that Gonzales started. I’m not sure how that happened. The Rules only specifically state that clubs have a certain amount of time to make a waiver claim, and that time period is 47 hours during the season. Perhaps there was a custom in place at least for that type of waiver that allowed teams to file something in the waiver system that indicated they did not want to claim a player, which would allow a player to clear waivers before the claiming period expired.
Regardless, in the course of about 6 hours or so, the Cards were able to purchase the contract of Marco Gonzales, designate Kozma for assignment, activate Gonzales to the 25-man roster, put Kozma on optional assignment waivers and get him cleared. Now here’s the twist. Once Kozma cleared waivers, the Cards then added Kozma back to the 40-man roster and optioned him to AAA Memphis, all within the same time frame. They could do this because they didn’t replace Kozma on the 40-man roster when they DFAd him, as Gonzales took Joe Kelly’s spot when Kelly was transferred to the 60-day DL.
Weren’t the Cards at risk of just losing Kozma? Not really. Aside from the fact that Kozma was, shall we say, not a player that was highly sought after, clubs had a gentleman’s agreement not to make optional assignment waiver claims. Teams didn’t want to be stopped from optioning one of their own players and setting their roster how they saw fit, so they didn’t block other teams from optioning players they wanted to option. Not only have I found no evidence that a player was ever lost to this type of waiver claim, I’ve never seen anything that suggests that a team ever made such a claim. Even if someone had claimed Kozma, optional assignment waivers were revocable, and the Cards could just have withdrawn the waiver request. They would have been forced to restore Kozma to the 25-man roster and option someone else, but that would have happened after Gonzales made his start.
SAVOR THE FLAVOR BECAUSE THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN
Although I can only find the one time the Cardinals used a DFA followed by an option, there was precedent for this before the Cards did it with Kozma. There were several instances where clubs determined that they had to option a player who had first reported to the club more than three years prior, but they needed the roster spot before the player could clear waivers. The DFA in that case was the only way the club could get the player off the roster in time.
Optional assignment waivers, however, were abolished with the 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement. Now as long as a player has minor league options remaining and does not have 5 or more years of major league service, that player can be optioned, and it does not matter when the player first reported. Waivers are never required. For that reason, you will never see a DFA followed by an option again. While it’s theoretically available under the DFA rule, there’s absolutely no need for it, because there is no immediacy any more that would require the player to be removed from the roster before he can be optioned.
So the Cards didn’t get rid of Kozma in this rare 2014 DFA + option. But today, you can assume that if someone is DFAd, they are off the 40-man roster and out of your hair for a good while. Clubs use the DFA when they need a roster spot immediately, and they either haven’t made up their mind whether to trade, release or attempt to outright the player, or if they have decided what to do, they don’t have time. In either case, the DFA is simplest and cleanest because it removes the player from all rosters immediately.
What a difference 5 years makes. In researching this article, I came across the names of players I hadn’t thought about in a while. Here’s what happened to them.
- Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha are currently hanging on in the Cardinals’ starting rotation, but are eligible for free agency at the end of this season. Carlos Martinez was supposed to be in the rotation this year, but he’s our closer, and who knows if he will ever start again? Kolten Wong is still our 2nd baseman, and of all the Cards players that saw any action in 2014 aside from this group I just mentioned, only Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina remain with the Cardinals.
- Marco Gonzales would only make 7 total starts in his Cardinal career: 5 in that 2014 season, where he made 5 other appearances out of the bullpen and was on the Cards’ postseason roster. He made one each in 2015 and 2017 in the course of multiple injuries and being optioned to the minor leagues in 4 seasons. He’s the last Cardinal player to be eligible for a 4th minor league option. We traded him right before the 2017 trade deadline to the Seattle Mariners straight up for Tyler O’Neill. Gonzales has maintained his place in the rotation in 2018 and 2019, with over 3 WAR per season. He gets knocked around a lot with hits, but he doesn’t walk many and keeps the ball in the ballpark.
- Joe Kelly is still throwing heat in the bullpen for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cards traded him at the 2014 trade deadline to the Red Sox along with Allen Craig for John Lackey.
- The Cards non-tendered Daniel Descalso after the 2014 season. He signed a 2-year deal with the Chicago Cubs this past offseason, but was placed on the IL on July 27th, and has been on a rehab assignment with AAA Iowa. He has started 38 games for the Cubs at 2B and played 73 total games. His future in the organization is in doubt.
- Pat Neshek pitched 20 games for the Philadelphia Philllies this season before being placed on the 60-day IL.
- The Cards released Trevor Rosenthal after the 2017 season instead of having to pay him an arbitration level salary to not pitch in 2018 and then watch him walk in free agency after he recovered from Tommy John surgery. He was released by the Washington Nationals on June 23rd of this year, and just elected free agency two weeks ago after being outrighted to AAA Toledo by the Detroit Tigers. The 29-year old Rosenthal can’t find the plate any more.
- Jaime Garcia was traded to the Braves after the 2016 season for 3 pitchers, including John Gant. It looks the 33-year old has hung up his spikes after 27 starts in 2017 (18 with the Braves, 1 with the Twins and 8 with the Yankees) and 14 starts in 2018 (13 with the Blue Jays and 1 for the Cubs).
- The Cards traded Jon Jay to the San Diego Padres for Jedd Gyorko after the 2015 season. He has seen action in 44 games for the Chicago White Sox this season spread between RF, LF and DH, and was activated from the 60-day IL on June 24th.
- Sam Freeman was bounced off of the Cards’ 2014 NLCS roster so the Cards could carry A.J. Pierzynski as a 3rd catcher, and was traded to the Texas Rangers before 2015 opening day. He pitched 1 game with the Los Angeles Angels this season before being outrighted and then released. He’s on a minor league deal with AAA Fresno in the Washington Nationals organization.
- Pete Kozma was recalled by the Cardinals on August 31st, 2014 to make sure he was eligible for the playoffs in case Mark Ellis was unavailable with his oblique strain. Ellis ended up being left off the Cards’ postseason roster and was done in the major leagues. Kozma stayed with the Cards another year, was left off the 2015 NLDS roster, was outrighted to AAA Memphis after the 2015 season, and elected free agency. The 31-year old Kozma is still hanging on with AAA Toledo in the Detroit Tigers organization, and last saw action in the majors with the Tigers last year.
- Peter Bourjos was claimed on outright assignment waivers from the Cardinals after the 2015 season by the Philadelphia Phillies. He was released by the Los Angeles Angels on May 10, 2019.
- “Sugar” Shane Robinson was released by the Cards after the 2014 season. He had the rare distinction at the time of being a player who had been optioned to the minor leagues in 4 seasons, but was also a Super Two. He will be 35 this October, and is still hanging in there on a minor league deal with AAA Lehigh Valley in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. He last saw action in the majors with the Yankees last season.
- Shelby Miller was sent to the Atlanta Braves after the 2014 season in the Jason Heyward trade. His career has since fallen off a cliff. Released by the Texas Rangers in July 2019, Miller is now on a minor league deal with AAA San Antonio in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
- Left off the Cards’ 2014 postseason roster, Jason Motte signed a 1-year free agent deal with the Cubs for 2015, but didn’t pitch for them in the playoffs. He lasted 1 more season each with the Rockies and the Braves, and was done in the majors after the 2017 season. The Cards signed him to a minor league deal and invited him to 2018 spring training but released him before the season. He has since retired.
- Seth Maness was non-tendered by the Cards after the 2016 season when he hurt his elbow. The ground ball machine went to the Royals in 2017, but only pitched 8 games that season, and was released from the organization in 2018. He has clawed his way back to organized baseball, and the Texas Rangers bought his contract from a team in the the Independent Atlantic League in May of this year. He is working as a starter for AAA Nashville.
- The Cards traded Tony Cruz to the Kansas City Royals after the 2015 season for an infielder named Jose Martinez, and it’s not our Cafecito. It’s a different player with the same name and same middle initial, who is currently on the AAA Memphis roster. Cruz is out of baseball, and last saw action briefly with the 2018 Reds.
- Randy Choate was left off the Cards’ 2015 NLDS roster and has been out of baseball ever since.
- Jhonny Peralta was released by the Cards in June 2017 after he only played in 21 games that season. He signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox 10 days later, but lasted about 3 weeks with AAA Pawtucket before being released again.
- Eric Fornataro pitched in 8 games for the 2014 Cardinals before being claimed on outright assignment waivers by the Washington Nationals after that season. He never made it back to the majors and was out of baseball by mid-2016.
- Nick Greenwood, who the Cards got as part of the 3-club deal involving Ryan Ludwick pitched 19 games for the 2014 Cardinals, but was left off the postseason roster. He pitched in 1 game with 0 IP, 2 H and 1 HR in July 2015, but was outrighted that September, and declared minor league free agency. He never did get back to the majors and has been out of baseball since 2017.