Just minutes before the Cardinals’ August 28th game against the Brewers, the club announced that it had released Drew Robinson. As I discussed in my series on waivers here, a club may not release a player without first placing the player on unconditional release waivers. Placing a player on unconditional release waivers, however, removes the player from the 40-man roster, and the 25-man roster if he is on it. It’s unclear if today was the day that the Cards placed Robinson on waivers or if today was the day that Robinson cleared waivers and the club officially released him. Sometimes clubs report a release transaction as “Club places XYZ player on waivers for the purpose of granting him his unconditional release.” Other times clubs would just report the release, and they have often been reported interchangeably in the past. The Cards’ announcement just says that the club has “granted Drew Robinson his unconditional release.” At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which it is, because Robinson is gone. Note also that Robinson was not designated for assignment. I talk about the DFA both here and here. Presumably the Cardinals did not DFA Robinson because they had no immediate need for either a 40-man roster spot or a 25-man roster spot, and they knew they just wanted to release him.
The Cards traded Patrick Wisdom to the Texas Rangers for Robinson this past offseason, and Robinson actually made the Cards’ opening day roster this season because Jedd Gyorko opened the year on the injured list. Robinson was supposed to be a multi-positional left-handed bat for the Cards, but it did not work out that way.
The Cards decided to option Robinson to AAA Memphis instead of Yairo Munoz on April 5th when Gyorko was activated from the IL for the Cards’ home opener. Munoz was optioned to Memphis before the Mexico series so the Cards could go back to an 8-man bullpen after Alex Reyes faltered. With Munoz having to be sent down again as the 26th man after the Mexico series, Robinson was recalled on April 15th and Giovanny Gallegos was sent down so that Robinson could serve as protection for the then-hobbling Harrison Bader in center field. But it turned out to be a one night stand, as the very next day, the Cards had to place both Tyler O’Neill and Mike Mayers on the IL. Munoz was recalled and Robinson was optioned, with the Cards seeming to preferring Munoz’s bat and powerful arm. The Cards recalled Robinson one more time to add an extra bat to the bench on April 22nd when Michael Wacha went on the 10-day IL. But that was also a one day tour of duty, as Daniel Ponce de Leon was recalled the next day to take Wacha’s spot in the rotation.
Robinson would never make it back to the majors. He was placed on the Memphis 7-day IL on June 11th, activated on June 24th, and put back on the Memphis IL on June 26th, never to return. On August 15th, Robinson had what was described as “partial Tommy John surgery” on his left elbow. Because it was only a partial tear and the injury was not to his throwing elbow, it was reported that Robinson would be ready for action by next spring training. In the 55 games he actually did play for Memphis, he wasn’t terrible, slashing .265/.385/.423 in 234 PA with 6 HR and a 99 wRC+ that doesn’t take park effects into account. Robinson’s walk rate of 15.4% was outstanding, and he had 10 steals in 13 tries. But his 30.4% K rate was way too high for someone with his power profile. Robinson started games at 6 different positions in Memphis, with 14 starts at SS, 4 at 2B, 6 at 3B, 22 in CF, 3 in LF and 2 starts in RF. He was only able to get 7 PA with the Cardinals for 1 base hit and 3 SO. He made no starts in the field for the Cards, logging only 4.1 innings in CF and 1 in RF as a defensive replacement.
With Robinson’s injury and the fact that he will be out of options after this year, he just did not figure into the Cardinals’ plans next year with Tommy Edman and Yairo Munoz available for pretty much the same duties.
Why Release Instead of Outright and Will the Cards Fill the Spot?
The release of Robinson opens a spot on the Cards’ 40-man roster. The most interesting part of this transaction is that it raises the question of why the Cards would make this move now. And why did they just release him now instead of trying to outright Robinson to AAA Memphis? Robinson is making some sort of split salary (meaning one salary for time in the majors and a smaller salary for time in the minors) that has to be paid whether the Cards release him or not, the AAA season is less than a week away from being over and he was on the Memphis IL not accruing major league service time. The club saved no money by releasing him and they weren’t paying him much to begin with. It was not a cost-cutting maneuver.
Normally Robinson would have been a candidate for an outright assignment. The club could easily use multi-positional depth at AAA Memphis in case of an injury, Robinson has never been outrighted before, and he does not have enough service time to elect free agency in lieu of an outright assignment. Starting the day after the Cardinals’ regular season, the Cardinals could outright an injured player off the 40-man roster (assuming he cleared outright assignment waivers) up until the deadline to file Reserve Lists on November 20th. The Collective Bargaining Agreement would have allowed the Cards to do this during this window—despite the fact that a player is injured—because he did not have a contract that covered next season.
In Robinson’s particular case, the rules are a little more tricky because he has spent parts of at least 7 seasons in the minor leagues, which makes him potentially eligible for Rule 55 minor league free agency if he were to be outrighted after the season. Clubs have an even smaller window of time to outright potential Rule 55 minor-league free agents like Robinson that closes at 5:00 p.m Eastern time on October 15th or 5 days after the conclusion of the World Series, whichever is later. The point is that there was a window of time to outright Robinson after the season if they had wanted to. That they decided to make this move now indicates that they made it to clear a 40-man roster spot for another player they wanted to add.
The Club could not have placed Robinson on outright assignment waivers now because doing so during the season is barred if the player is injured and not ready to play. That is why Robinson was released instead, when he otherwise would have been a candidate for an outright assignment to the minors. And the Cardinals released Robinson now because they have a player in mind that they want to add at some point soon. One final theoretical consideration is that by releasing Robinson before midnight on August 31st, they could re-sign him to a minor league deal, invite him to spring training and leave open the possibility that he could come on strong and be added to the major league roster early next year if necessary. Although it’s unlikely it would happen anyway, if the Cards had waited until September 1st to release Robinson, they could not have signed him to a major league deal until May 15th of next season.
Who Might the Cards add to the Roster?
It has been reported that as hot as Texas League Player of the Year Dylan Carlson has been in his recent promotion to AAA Memphis, the Cards will not add him to the 40-man roster, but will instead send him to the Arizona Fall League to start its season on September 18th. Others have speculated that RHP Jake Woodford will be added soon because the Cards have a doubleheader against the Reds coming up on Saturday August 31st. But if you take a look at the respective rotations of both the Cardinals and AAA Memphis, one can see that it probably won’t work out for Woodford to start one of those games.
Here is the rotation outlook for the Cardinals:
8/29: Open date
8/31: Wacha and Wainwright
9/3: Spot start
If the Cardinal hurlers take their regular turns going forward for the next 4 days on which they have games, they will not need a spot start until Tuesday, September 3rd to avoid having Dakota Hudson pitch on 3 days of rest. In addition, although Woodford was scheduled to start for Memphis on August 26th—which would have put him in line for an August 31 start in one of the games of the doubleheader—that game was postponed due to wet grounds and Woodford had to pitch the first game of a doubleheader on Tuesday August 27th, throwing 71 pitches over 5.1 IP. Setting aside the question of whether Woodford’s performance in Memphis warrants a turn in the Cardinals’ rotation, there is no way the club is going to have Woodford make his first major league start on only 3 days of rest. In addition, the Memphis Redbirds are not out of the AAA playoff race, with the magic number for the Iowa Cubs at 1 with 5 games to play. While it’s not a controlling consideration, if the Redbirds are still in the race, the organization might leave Woodford in Memphis to get the September 1st start against Iowa.
The 26th Man
But what if the Cards don’t necessarily want Woodford to start, but they want an additional arm in the bullpen for the doubleheader? The Major League Rules allow clubs that are playing a doubleheader to recall a 26th man from the minors that’s available for both games as long as one of the games is not the continuation of a suspended game or being played one day after the announcement of a postponement. Because the August 31st doubleheader results from the postponement of the Cards’ June 5th game against the Reds, the 26th man will be available for either game or both. Whoever the club does add, it will almost certainly be a pitcher. While a case could have been made to add a bench bat in case Kolten Wong’s issue with his toe prevented him from playing, that went out of the window with Wong’s pinch hit appearance on August 27th and start on August 28th.
I find it much more likely that the Cardinals will not pick Woodford, but will choose one of a few different options. One option would be to recall RHP Junior Fernandez as the 26th man to pitch in the bullpen. Fernandez had a bit of a control problem in his last outing with the Cards, but he did strike out over 30% of the 23 batters he did face in 5 appearances. With his triple-digit heat and biting slider, the Cards could feel comfortable using him in either game of the doubleheader and would have the flexibility to decide which game to use him in as the situation dictated. And although Fernandez was optioned on August 22nd, and would not normally be eligible to be recalled until September 1st—by which point he would have spent 10 days on option—the 10-day rule is waived when the club can recall a 26th man.
Another option would be to recall RHP Daniel Ponce de Leon as the 26th man to make a start in one of the games. Ponce last started on August 25th, and after 5 days of rest, August 31st, the day of the Cards’ doubleheader, would be his regular turn. Although the Cards do not need a spot start until Tuesday September 3rd, starting Ponce in one of the games of the doubleheader would allow the Cards to give both Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty an extra day of rest. After August 29th, the Cards only have 2 more days off for the rest of the regular season and play 30 games in 31 days. An extra day of rest would certainly be beneficial.
In two starts across August 9th and August 15th, Ponce threw 14 IP, allowing just 4 total hits, no runs, 2 BB and 20 SO. But in his last 2 starts, he has been a little wild, and over 11 IP has allowed 9 hits, 1 HR, and 8 BB to only 11 SO. LHP Genesis Cabrera just had a start on August 24th where he threw 7 IP with just 1 hit allowed, 2 BB and 12 SO. While Ponce has been better in the aggregate over the past 4 starts, Cabrera could be a stealth surprise option. It’s much more likely, in my opinion, that the Cards will add one of these 3 players as the 26th man, if for no other reason than that they have done the job for the Cards this season already.
WOODFORD WILL PROBABLY BE ADDED, JUST NOT IMMEDIATELY
Although Woodford will not start one of the games of the doubleheader, and it is unlikely that he will be recalled as the 26th man, there was no real good reason to release Robinson now if the Cards did not plan to add a player to the 40-man roster when rosters expand in September. I initially dismissed the possibility of Woodford being added this season, and immediately thought the Cardinals’ TV crew was wrong in speculating that the Cards might add Woodford. I have to recognize now, however, that if the Cards are going to add a player, Woodford would be the only player that would make sense to add.
Although it has not been made official yet, a rule is supposed to go into effect for next season that will only allow clubs to have 28-man rosters for September instead of 40, with only 14 pitchers permitted on the roster. This season looks like the last one for clubs to take advantage of their depth and promote as many arms to the majors for the stretch run as their 40-man rosters will allow. Dakota Hudson has already thrown more innings this season than in any prior season he had in the minors. Jack Flaherty will almost certainly exceed his career high in innings pitched for a season in his next start. Woodford will have to be added to the 40-man roster in November to avoid his potential loss in the Rule 5 draft. And it is normal for a club that needs to add a player before the next Rule 5 draft to give that player a September cup of coffee in the majors to allow him to get his feet wet.
Woodford’s performance does not necessarily cry out for a promotion right now. His strikeout rate is worse than that of both Cabrera and Ponce de Leon and both Woodford and Ponce de Leon walk right around 12% of the batters they face, with Woodford slightly ahead at 11.9%. Out of 131 pitchers that have pitched at least 50 innings in the Pacific Coast League, Woodford’s xFIP of 6.32 ranks 113th, and his walk rate is 114th. His 5.60 FIP fares a little better and actually beats Cabrera’s performance in AAA for 65th place.
But both Ponce de Leon and Cabrera are surely going to be on the Cards’ active roster by either September 1st when rosters expand or at least by September 3rd if Memphis does not make the postseason. Woodford is definitely not better than Ponce or Cabrera right now, but he’s not really much worse, and he keeps the ball in the ballpark better than Cabrera. If the Cards have to add him to the 40-man roster by November anyway, there’s really no good reason not to add him in September when rosters expand so he can help throw mop-up innings if nothing else. Adding Woodford for 30 days in September will not accelerate his eligiblity for free agency or arbitration one bit, and it could help the pitching staff eat some innings. Sending him home after the Memphis season makes no sense, even if you wouldn’t want him in the rotation right now.
What is more, the Cardinals already have position players in Andrew Knizner, Rangel Ravelo, Edmundo Sosa, Ramon Urias, Randy Arozarena, Adolis Garcia and Justin Williams that are already on the 40-man roster that they could recall if they were so inclined. There is absolutely no need to fill Drew Robinson’s 40-man roster spot with a position player. Thus, while Woodford probably will not be added for the Cards’ doubleheader, there is a strong likelihood that you will see the 22-year old in a Cardinal uniform some time this season when rosters expand.