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TA 11/19: Cards Lose Some Minor League Free Agents and Protect Herrera and Rondon From Rule 5 Draft

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2020 Rule 5 Draft Preview

St Louis Cardinals Photo Day Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I. Minor League Free Agents

In my last piece, I provided an offseason transaction roadmap. I outlined 15 possible players that could declare minor league free agency. It turns out that there should have been 16 possible players, and I made a mistake in omitting RHP Bryan Dobzanski, who started out the season with A+ Palm Beach and pitched 3 games for AAA Memphis, but spent most of his time with AA Springfield in the bullpen.

Shortly after that article, Baseball America published the list of names for all clubs who were declared minor league free agents. The Cards officially lost 10 players to Rule 55 minor league free agency on November 2nd: LHP Liarvis Breto, RHP Nabil Crismatt, RHP Bryan Dobzanski, C Jose Godoy, RHP Derian Gonzalez, RHP Kevin Herget, LHP Rob Kaminsky, OF Andres Luna, IF Jose Alexander Martinez, and LHP Ricardo Sanchez. Crismatt, Kaminsky and Sanchez all pitched for the major league club this past season. We can finally close the book on the Tony Cruz trade, as this Jose Martinez was acquired all the way back on December 2nd, 2015 from the Kansas City Royals for our former backup catcher.

This list of 10 losses also reflects that the Cardinals re-signed 6 players to successor minor league deals who would otherwise have been declared automatic Rule 55 minor league free agents: IF Rayder Ascanio, C Dennis Ortega, RHP Salvador Justo, RHP Roel Ramirez, RHP Ramon Santos and RHP Ronnie Williams. The Cards are still not willing to give up completely on Ramirez, who was another piece of the 2018 deadline deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for Tommy Pham. Ramirez was eligible for automatic free agency last season as well, but the Cards stopped it by re-signing him to a minor league deal for 2020. He was added to the Cards’ 40-man and active roster during the Cards’ COVID-19 crisis and pitched 1 game in which he allowed 4 straight homers to the White Sox.

II. Rule 5 Draft Protection

A. Cards Add Herrera and Rondon to 40-Man

The deadline to file reserve lists for all major and minor league clubs with the Commissioner’s Office for Rule 5 draft protection is tomorrow. Yesterday and today, the Cards took one step towards this task when they announced these transactions:

11/18/20: Purchased the contract of C Ivan Herrera from A+ Palm Beach. 40-man roster at 38.

11/19/20: Purchased the contract of RHP Angel Rondon from AAA Memphis. 40-man roster at 39.

The Cards signed Herrera on July 7th, 2016 as an undrafted international free agent out of Panama. Because he was only 16 years old at the time and would not turn 17 by the time the 2016 season would be finished, he could not play in 2016. Instead, the rules allowed him to “sign for future service” as a 16-year old, with his first season of play being the 2017 season as a 17-year old. Players who are not yet 19 years old when they first sign are eligible for the Rule 5 draft at the 5th Rule 5 Draft following their signing. Even though Herrera couldn’t play until 2017, 2016 counted as the 1st Rule 5 draft following his signing for the purposes of that Rule, which made him eligible for the December 2020 draft.

Herrera is only 20 years old, and the Cards have only 3 years’ worth of minor league play to go on here, 2 of which were entirely in short season leagues. He spent 2017 with the Dominican Summer League club and with the exception of one day and 5 plate appearances with AA Springfield in 2018, spent that entire season with the Gulf Coast League club. After 291 PA with A Peoria in 2019, where he slashed .286/.381/.423 with 35 walks to only 56 strikeouts, he was promoted to A+ Palm Beach. Although Herrera’s numbers there weren’t eye-popping over 65 plate appearances, his .276/.338/.328 line actually translated to a 117 DRC+ according to Baseball Prospectus, and that metric accounts for minor league park and league effects.

Offense has been Herrera’s calling card. Always very young for his levels, Herrera has posted DRC+ numbers that rate as well above average:

2017: Age 17, Dominican Summer League, 146 DRC+

2018: Age 18, Gulf Coast League, 154 DRC+

2019: Age 19, Midwest League, 138 DRC+, Florida State League, 117 DRC+

He hasn’t shown a ton of power, but he doesn’t strike out a ton, and posted the best walk rate of his career (11.2%) in 2019 as a 19-year old while facing full-season advanced competition for the first time. We don’t know a lot about his defense, which has been the key consideration for Cardinal catchers for years. Baseball Prospectus gave him a -1 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) score for his time with Peoria in 2019, and he has never scored higher than 0.7. There was no minor league season at all in 2020, but Herrera was part of the initial Summer Camp Roster and part of the Cardinals’ Alternate Training Site from the beginning, and the reports are that he has improved in that department, especially with his arm strength. I don’t think there was much of a risk that a club would have taken Herrera in the Rule 5 draft, given that he is a position player that has spent no real time above A ball, but the Cards went ahead and protected him nonetheless. Herrera will not turn 21 years old until next June 1st, and my guess is that after a brief trial in spring training, he will be optioned to AA Springfield to serve as the regular catcher there.

The Cards signed Rondon as an 18-year old undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic on January 6th, 2016. Before 2019, he had only pitched 10 games in full-season ball. He pitched 14 games in each season from 2016 and 2017. The entire 2016 season was spent with the Dominican Summer League club, with the majority of 2017 with the Gulf Coast League club. He pitched 2 games for the DSL club and 1 game for Johnson City in 2017. Rondon started the 2018 season with Short-Season State College, and while he was 0-4 in 5 starts, his walk rate was low, he kept the ball in the yard and had a SO/BB ratio over 3.00. He finished the 2018 season with 10 starts for Class A Peoria, where the walks and homers went up a tad, but so did the strikeouts, and he had an even better SO/BB ratio at that level.

As a 21-year old, Rondon started 2019 in the hitter-friendly Florida State League with Palm Beach for 8 starts, where he posted his best full-season strike out rate (26.3%) since his debut season. He was then promoted to AA Springfield, where he shared time in the rotation with Johan Oviedo, Evan Kruczynski, Alex FaGalde, Tommy Parsons and others. Along with Oviedo and Kruczynski, Rondon was one of only 3 pitchers on that 2019 Springfield club with 100 innings pitched or more. Oveideo and Rondon are just 3 months apart in age, while Kruczynski was 3 years older than the other two guys. In only two more innnings pitched than Oviedo, Rondon had 16 fewer strikeouts, but also 22 fewer walks. His FIP and xFIP were better than the other two guys and compared favorably to Austin Warner, who turned 25 that season and was eventually promoted to AAA. While we know that ERA is not the best guide, Rondon’s ERA of 3.21 was the best of the regular Springfield starters, and beat the mark of Oviedo and Kruczynski by over 2 full runs per 9 innings without having crazy BABIP luck (even if Oviedo might have been unlucky with a .364 BABIP). Rondon also had the best K-BB% of the regular Springfield starters.

All Fangraphs had to say about Rondon in their 2020 prospect preview was that he was an “arm-strength only relief type,” but the Cards have not used him in relief since 2017, and he’s only pitched out of the bullpen a handful of times in his career. Rondon was invited to the first spring training in 2020, and re-assigned to minor league camp on March 7th. He was added to the Cards’ Club Player Pool when it was first announced on July 8th, and was part of the first group of players that worked out at the Alternate Training Site in Springfield, staying there all season. While Oviedo was the preferred prospect in the organization, Rondon was not far being him, if at all, in results in 2019, and it was Rondon who was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2019. Rondon will turn 23 years old on December 1st. Let’s hope Fangraphs was wrong and that Rondon could serve as a potential rotation stopgap next year, if necessary.

B. Remaining Rule 5 Draft-Eligible Players

With the addition of Herrera and Rondon, the Cardinals’ 40-man roster is now at 39 players. The Cardinals still have until tomorrow to protect one more player and accomplish that without any 40-man roster trims. If they want to protect more than one player, they will have to drop someone. If the Cardinals’ 40-man roster is full by tomorrow, then they will not be able to take anyone in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft.

By my count, there are 50 players in the Cardinal organization who are eligible for selection in either the major league or minor league phase of the draft. This total includes the players who were eligible for automatic Rule 55 minor league free agency but signed successor 2021 minor league contracts, because re-signing a minor league deal does not save the player from the Rule 5 draft. Players who are on the Cardinals’ AAA Memphis reserve list are only eligible for selection in the major league portion of the draft, which would cost a drafting club $100,000 and require that club to keep the player on their 26-man active major league roster all year. Players who are on the reserve list of AA Springfield or lower classifications may be selected in the minor league portion of the draft, which would only cost a drafting club $24,000 and come with no restrictions. Here is the list, with highest level played most recently. See if you recognize any of the names from past drafts and transactions.

MLB: RHP Jesus Cruz, C Tyler Heineman, RHP Roel Ramirez

AAA: RHP Akeem Bostick, OF Conner Capel, RHP Connor Jones, LHP Evan Kruczynski, IF Irving Lopez, IF Evan Mendoza, IF Kramer Robertson, RHP Anthony Shew, LHP Austin Warner

AA: IF Rayder Ascanio, LHP Patrick Dayton, RHP Alex FaGalde, OF Scott Hurst, LHP Jacob Patterson, OF Chase Pinder, C Julio Rodriguez, RHP Ronnie Williams, 1B Juan Yepez

A-Advanced: LHP Diego Cordero, OF Bryce Denton, IF Imeldo Diaz, RHP Salvador Justo, C Dennis Ortega, LHP Ian Oxnevad, OF Nick Plummer, RHP Ramon Santos, RHP Alvaro Seijas, RHP Enmanuel Solano, RHP Jake Walsh

A: RHP Rodard Avelino, LHP Fabian Blanco, RHP Jacob Bosiokovic, OF Leandro Cedeno, SS Moises Castillo, RHP Noel De Jesus, OF Jonatan Machado, RHP Wilfredo Pereira, SS Delvin Perez, LHP Jacob Schlesener, C Carlos Soto, OF Jhon Torres, 1B Brady Whalen

Rookie: RHP Jordan Brink, C Joyser Garcia, OF Luis Montano, RHP Enrique Saldana, SS Franklin Soto

There are several names on this list that readers might not recognize. I’ll offer some highlights for the players that have yet to actually play a minor league game in the Cardinal organization.

*C Tyler Heineman was just signed by the Cardinals on November 14th to a minor league deal with a spring training invite for 2021. Originally drafted by the Houston Astros in the 8th round of the 2012 draft out of UCLA, Heineman spent 5 years in that organization before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for a player to be named later on April 4th, 2017. After 2 years with that organization, he signed a minor league deal for 2019 with the Arizona Diamondbacks after being declared a Rule 55 minor league free agent. On June 4th of that year, the Diamondbacks traded him to the Miami Marlins for cash. At 28 years old, Heineman finally made his major league debut when the Marlins purchased his contract on June 3rd, 2019. After getting into 5 games with 12 plate appearances and 2 starts behind the plate, the Marlins outrighted Heineman in the offseason, and he was a Rule 55 minor league free agent once again. For 2020, he signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants. When the regular season finally kicked off in late July, the Giants added him to their opening day roster as one of the only two opening day catchers on a 30-man roster. The other catcher was fellow non-roster invitee Rob Brantly. Although Brantly was outrighted a few days later in favor of Chadwick Tromp, Heineman lasted until August 20th, when he was sent down to the Alternate Training Site so the club could promote prospect Joey Bart and keep playing Tromp. Heineman was recalled for the last week of the season when Tromp had to go on the injured list with a shoulder strain. Heineman was then outrighted on November 1st to make room on the roster for the activation of Buster Posey from the restricted list. In total, Heineman got into 15 games in 2020 with 13 starts behind the plate and 50 plate appearances. He’s got 20 games of MLB experience, but 2021 would be his 6th spin with a AAA club. In just over 1000 AAA plate appearances over the course of 5 years, his career slash line at that level is .287/.353/.430. He’s a contact oriented hitter, strikes out rarely and will take a walk. He’s received mostly positive reviews on his defense, except for one awful blip in 2017. Heineman will turn 30 this next June.

*RHP Jacob Bosiokovic, RHP Jordan Brink and RHP Enrique Saldana were all players the Cardinals took in the minor league portion of last year’s Rule 5 draft. I wrote them up for you all in this article after the Cards selected them.

*RHP Akeem Bostick was originally signed in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft by the Texas Rangers out of high school. In January of 2015, he was traded straight up to the Houston Astros for a minor league catcher. The Astros organization released him on August 9th of 2019, after he topped out at 22 games of AAA experience, posting a 7.28 ERA in 2019. The Cardinals signed him to a minor league deal for 2020 and invited him to the first spring training. He was re-assigned to the minor league camp on March 7th and then released later that month. The Cards re-signed him to a minor league deal this past September, and he worked out at the Alternate Training Site as part of the Club Player Pool for the last month of the season.

*RHP Salvador Justo was signed by the Cardinals to a minor league deal on November 26th, 2019. He originally signed with the Colorado Rockies organization as a 19-year old undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic, spending 7 years with the organization and never moving past the Class A-Advanced level, despite 3 spins at that classification. The Cardinals signed him after he was declared an automatic Rule 55 minor league free agent following the 2019 season.

C. AAA Memphis Reserve List

Tomorrow is the deadline for clubs to not only file 40-man rosters, but also to file their reserve lists for all of their minor league affiliates. Once those reserve lists are filed, the players can not be changed to the reserve list of another classification until the December Rule 5 draft is over. The reserve list size of AAA classification clubs is 38 players. The significance of being placed on the AAA reserve list at this stage is that if a Rule 5 eligible player on that list is drafted, he can only be drafted in the major league portion. This would not only cost any drafting club $100,000, but also require that club to keep that player on its active 26-man roster for the entire 2021 season. The drafting club could not send the player to the minor leagues without first putting the player on outright assignment waivers, and then offering him back to the organization from which he was drafted for $50,000.

Although the Cardinal organization has until tomorrow to finalize the list, the Memphis Redbirds have released at least a temporary reserve list of 32 players. Each one of these players is eligible for selection in the Rule 5 draft, but again, having been named to the AAA Memphis reserve list, they can only be selected in the major league phase. You can view the list on their website here (this list does not reflect the addition of Rendon to the Cards’ 40-man roster, a development which took place only a couple of hours ago). With a maximum limit of 38 players, this leaves the organization room to make minor league Rule 5 draft selections or add additional players by tomorrow.

Of the 50 players I outlined above who are Rule 5 draft-eligible, the Cards have left only 5 players open to being drafted in the minor league portion who have experience at the AA level or above. Those players are RHP Anthony Shew, LHP Patrick Dayton, RHP Alex FaGalde, OF Chase Pinder and RHP Ronnie Williams.

*Shew was able to pitch 15 games, including 13 starts for the organization in 2019 across AA Springfield and AAA Memphis, but missed almost the entire 2nd half of the season with an injury.

*Williams missed the entire 2018 season after having primary repair surgery on his right elbow, but pitched 44 games out of the bullpen in 2019 across Palm Beach and Springfield. The Cardinals stopped him from becoming an automatic Rule 55 minor league free agent by re-signing him to a 2021 minor league deal, but as of now Williams is the only Rule 55 eligible player the Cards re-signed but left exposed to being taken in the minor league phase of the 2020 Rule 5 draft.

*FaGalde split 2019 in the rotation between Palm Beach and Springfield, but had a low strikeout rate and home run issues in AA.

*Dayton is a reliever who pitched only 1 game for AA Springfield in 2019, with the rest in Palm Beach. The lefty kept the ball in the yard and had a 3.53 SO/BB ratio.

*In his 3-year minor league career, Pinder has played mostly CF, with a bit of time at the other outfield positions. In his 2nd spin with Palm Beach as a 23-year old in 2019, Pinder slashed .202/.312/.281.

*The Cardinals put the players who are even remotely considered prospects on the AAA reserve list, including Delvin Perez, Jhon Torres and Juan Yepez. Also placed on the AAA reserve list were the 3 players the Cardinals selected in the minor league portion of last year’s Rule 5 draft. Other players at risk of loss to the minor league portion for only $24,000 include OF Bryce Denton, IF Imeldo Diaz, OF Nick Plummer, RHP Enmanuel Solano, LHP Fabian Blanco, OF Leandro Cedeno, RHP Noel De Jesus, OF Jonatan Machado, RHP Wilfredo Pereira, LHP Jacob Schlesener, C Carlos Soto, C Joyser Garcia and OF Luis Mantano. These 13 players have yet to crack AA. Together with the 5 players I mentioned above, there are 18 total players the Cards can possibly lose in the minor league phase of the draft.

CONCLUSION

It is possible that these are the final 40-man roster transactions that you could see going into the Rule 5 draft. Let me know in the comments what you think. Surprised by the additions, either the low number or the names involved? Surprised that more weren’t trimmed from the 40-man? Wistful over earlier draft picks that haven’t panned out?

As always, I’ll keep you updated with any further developments.