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Transaction Analysis 11/2: Your 2020 Offseason Cardinals Transaction Roadmap

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals started this offseason with a full 40-man roster, one player on the restricted list and four players on the 60-day IL. We have already seen the shape of that 40-man roster change over the last couple of days. This article will explain the moves the Cardinals made and why they were made at the time they were made. In addition, I will also discuss additional decisions the Cardinals will have to make in the coming months.

I. Article XX-B Free Agents

10/28/20: C Yadier Molina, IF Brad Miller, RHP Adam Wainwright and C Matt Wieters declared free agents. Declined the 1-year, $12.5 million option on 2B Kolten Wong, making him a free agent. 40-man roster at 35.

At 9:00 A.M. EST on the day after the final game of the World Series, all players with 6 or more years of MLB service time who were unsigned for next season were automatically declared free agents, dropping them from the 40-man roster. In the Cardinals’ case, C Yadier Molina, 2B Kolten Wong, RHP Adam Wainwright, IF/DH Brad Miller and C Matt Wieters were all removed from the 40-man. The rules requiring the players to file for free agency were changed years ago. These moves were made automatically and the players were not required to file. The deadline to decide whether options on players would be exercised was the same time (it could have been stipulated by contract to be an earlier time), and the Cardinals elected to pay Wong a $1 million buyout, rather than make him a signed player on a 1-year, $12.5 million deal for next year. I don’t have much to say about that decision other than I don’t think it means Wong is definitely done with the Cards, and if he is, it makes me nervous that Carpenter will end up playing too much of the third base in 2021.

The Cards had exclusive negotiation rights with these players during the so-called quiet period, which expired yesterday, November 1st, at 5:00 EST. The Cardinals were not expected to and indeed did not issue a Qualifying Offer (QO) to any of these players (not that it would have happened, but Wieters was ineligible because he received a QO earlier in his career). Having not extended a QO to any of these players, the Cardinals will not receive any draft pick compensation if these players sign with another club.

I think it’s safe to say that Wieters has seen his last days as a Cardinal. The Cards’ interest in Brad Miller will likely depend on whether the DH will be part of the 2021 rules. A major discussion point this offseason will be whether the Cards will be able to re-sign Wainwright and Molina. Both have indicated that they are not ready to retire, and the Cards have indicated that they would be interested in having both players back. The issues are the price and number of years. Wainwright has signed incentive-laden 1-year deals two years in a row now, but Molina still thinks he’s the best catcher in the game, made $20 million last year and wants to play for a few more years. I personally don’t predict a happy ending for the pair in St. Louis, but anything is possible.

After this series of moves, the Cardinals’ 40-man roster was at 35.

II. Activation of Players from the 60-day IL

10/30/20: Activated RHP John Brebbia, RHP Dakota Hudson and RHP Miles Mikolas from the 60-day IL. Activated RHP Jordan Hicks from the Restricted List. 40-man roster at 39.

By 5:00 p.m. on the 5th day following the conclusion of the World Series, all clubs are required to activate all players from the 60-day IL, regardless of whether those players have spent 60 days on the list. The deadline for this would have been yesterday, November 1st, but the Cardinals went ahead and did it on October 30th. This forced the Cards to add Brebbia, Hudson and Mikolas back to the 40-man roster for the time being. Although Mikolas expects to be ready for Opening Day 2021, Brebbia shouldn’t be available until at least June and Hudson is almost certainly out for the 2021 season. The rules still required the Cards to add them back to the 40-man now, and the Cards may not put them back on the 60-day IL to clear possible spots until the first day that pitchers and catchers report to 2021 spring training some time in February.

Hicks was officially on the restricted list because he opted out of the 2020 season. There was no deadline that I am aware of that the Cards had to meet to activate him, and typically, players on the restricted list are not actually available for activation until October 31st unless the Commissioner approves it. The Commissioner did approve it in this case, and the Cards must have felt it made sense to add him back to the 40-man at the same time as the club activated the other players from the 60-day IL. Because Hicks was considered a high risk case, he got service time credit for the whole 2020 season.

LHP Ricardo Sanchez was also on the 60-day IL, but the Cardinals elected to go another route with him, as I will cover in the next section.

III. Clearing 40-man Roster Space

10/30/20: Outrighted RHP Nabil Crismatt and LHP Ricardo Sanchez to AAA Memphis. Noted the loss of IF Max Schrock to the Chicago Cubs on an outright assignment waiver claim. 40-man roster at 37.

I will ultimately get to the meat of this later in the article, but the Cardinals will have to protect players from the upcoming Rule 5 draft by November 20th. With the 40-man roster only at 39 players, this would have required some 40-man roster trims. The club is probably not done trimming, but they decided to go ahead and clear some space now, deciding that Crismatt, Sanchez and Schrock were not in the club’s plans for next year. Why did the club make these moves now instead of waiting until closer to November 20th? It turns out there is a decent answer for everyone except Schrock.

Sanchez and Crismatt would have been eligible for Rule 55 minor league free agency had they not been on the 40-man roster, because including last season, they spent parts of 7 seasons in the minor leagues. Although there was no minor league season in 2020, all parties agreed that minor league players would get credit for the 2020 season as a minor league season for purposes of this rule. The rules require that if the club is going to outright such a player off of the 40-man roster, it must do so by 5:00 EST on the 5th day after the final game of the World Series. As I will discuss in a later section, all players not on the 40-man roster who have spent parts of 7 seasons in the minor leagues are automatically declared a Rule 55 minor league free agent by 5:00 EST on the 5th day after the final game of the World Series. The purpose of the outright rule I just described is to force teams to remove Rule 55 eligible players from the 40-man roster in time for them to take advantage of minor league free agency. If the Rule was not in place, clubs could wait to outright those players after the declaration of minor league free agents and potentially force those players to stay in the organization.

Although the Cards tried to outright Schrock, the club was not able to do so because the Chicago Cubs claimed him on outright assignment waivers for $50,000. The Cubs had the 9th best regular season record last year, which means that the Cubs only had waiver claim priority over the the Indians, White Sox, Braves, Athletics, Twins, Padres, Rays and Dodgers. Any other club would have had priority over the Cubs for Schrock. With Wong’s option declined, I’m at least mildly surprised the Cards didn’t hang with Schrock a little while longer. Traditionally a low-walk, low-strikeout, high-contact player, he had an abysmal offensive season with AAA in 2018 and a better one in 2019. He was added to the 40-man this past season because of the COVID emergency, but only stuck around for 17 PAs and 3 hits, one of which was a homer. He didn’t walk once. He can’t really play shortstop and perhaps the Cards don’t think his batting-average only approach is going to be good enough to cut it in the majors as a reserve. At the same time, Schrock is still only 26, can play both second base and third base and would have had two minor league options remaining, so he could have been useful insurance.

I can’t give you a good reason why the Cards didn’t at least wait until closer to the deadline to file reserve lists to try to outright Schrock. He has not had enough service time to elect free agency in lieu of a minor league assignment. Because his first minor league season was 2015, he would not be eligible for Rule 55 minor league free agency until after the 2021 season. I’m not sure what the club’s urgency was in getting rid of him.

Crismatt became something of a fan favorite here at VEB, for his cool name if for no other reason. He pitched 6 games for the Cards, had no unintentional walks and struck out 8 batters in 8.1 IP, featuring a nice changeup. But he would not have been on the 40-man roster at all this season if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, Hicks will be back next year, and the club doesn’t see that it will use him enough in the future to justify carrying him on the 40-man roster.

Sanchez is an interesting case because he is injured, having blown out his elbow after only 3 games pitched for the Cards this past season. He had Tommy John surgery just two weeks ago. There are special rules on sending injured players to the minor leagues by either outright or optional assignment. Believe it or not, it is permissible to option an injured player to the minor leagues under the right conditions. The Cards did not want to wait to do that, and Sanchez would not have met the conditions anyhow. The club knows he’s not going to be available at all next season and wanted to clear his spot.

Clubs can wait until after the November 20th deadline to file reserve lists to send some players to the minors by outright or optional assignment and have a window to send them to the minor leagues up through the 15th day prior to the start of the next regular season. The caveat to that rule is that the player must not have accrued any MLB service time the previous season. Sanchez did not qualify for this treatment because he got MLB service time with the Cards this past season. Article XIX C(2)(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement provides the only other outlet to send an injured player to the minor leagues, requiring that the player must be outrighted to the minors by November 20th, and states that it can be done only if the player does not have a contract for the next season.

To make a long story short, Sanchez was permitted to be sent to the minor leagues even though he is injured. It had to be an outright assignment because sending an injured player that had MLB service time had to be done by November 20th, and options aren’t permitted at that time. Even considering those provisos, Sanchez still had to be outrighted by November 1st because he is eligible for minor league free agency, and the outright had to take place in time for him to take advantage of it. Finally, remember I said earlier that Sanchez was on the 60-day IL and normally would have had to be activated along with Brebbia, Hudson and Mikolas. That wasn’t necessary because the Cards decided to remove him from the 40-man roster. Whether you think of Sanchez as having been activated and then removed from the 40-man by outright or just outrighted from a limbo status, the result is that his transaction provided no net change in the 40-man roster number. It was at 39, Sanchez is gone, and both Crismatt and Schrock have been removed, for a total 40-man roster number of 37.

IV. Rule 55 Minor League Free Agency

As I have stated above, all players not on 40-man rosters that have spent parts of at least 7 seasons in the minor leagues were automatically declared Rule 55 minor league free agents yesterday, November 1st at 5:00 EST. The only way to stop such a player from being declared an automatic Rule 55 minor league free agent is either to add the player to the 40-man roster or sign the player to another minor league deal for 2021.

Although this all had to happen by yesterday, this list is not officially released to the public by MLB. What has happened in recent years is that Baseball America gets the official list from MLB and publishes it on their website about a week after the fact. I compiled my own list of eligible players earlier in the year in preparation for this article. The Cardinals have not added any Rule 55 eligible player to the 40-man roster. Unless the Cards convinced the following players to sign minor league deals for 2021, all of the following players will be free agents. I have listed the last level the players played in in parentheses.

MLB: RHP Nabil Crismatt, LHP Rob Kaminsky, RHP Roel Ramirez, LHP Ricardo Sanchez

AAA: C Jose Godoy, RHP Derian Gonzalez, RHP Kevin Herget, IF Jose Alexander Martinez

AA: LHP Liavis Breto, RHP Salvador Justo, RHP Ramon Santos, RHP Ronnie Williams, IF Rayder Ascanio

A+: C Dennis Ortega, OF Andres Luna

When I find out who the Cards actually kept in the organization, if any, I will update you all. Keep in mind that signing these players to a successor minor league contract for 2021 does not protect them from the Rule 5 draft.

V. Rule V Draft Protection

The Rule V draft is always held on the 2nd Thursday in December, which this year falls on December 10th. The basic rule is that a player who was 18 years old or younger on the June 5th prior to signing his contract is eligible for the Rule 5 draft starting with the 5th Rule 5 draft following his signing. If the player was 19 years old or older when he first signed, he is eligible starting with the 4th Rule 5 draft following his signing. This can get a little wonky if the player doesn’t sign until the season of the club to which he is first assigned is already over, but the rule I described covers most situations.

There is both a major league phase and a minor league phase to the draft. Players selected in the major league phase cost $100,000 and must stay on the drafting club’s active roster all year. If a drafting club wants to send a drafted player to the minor leagues, it must first put the player on outright assignment waivers, and then offer the player back to his original club for $50,000. Players taken in the minor league phase cost only $24,000 and have no restrictions.

The significance of this is that by November 20th, every club must file not only it’s major league reserve list (40-man roster) with the Commissioner’s Office, but also all of the reserve lists for all of the minor league affiliates. Players on a minor league reserve list may not be added to a major league club’s 40-man roster beginning with the deadline to file reserve lists on November 20th until after the Rule 5 draft. Clubs will essentially have to make two decisions. First, who will they add to their MLB 40-man roster by November 20th to make sure that a player is protected from selection and not taken in either phase? And second, who will the club put on its AAA reserve list by November 20th, such that if a club decides to take them, they can only be taken in the minor league phase? The minor league phase technically consists of AAA clubs drafting players from reserve lists of AA or lower, so no one can be taken in that phase that is on a AAA reserve list already.

Including the 15 players listed above who are eligible for minor league free agency, the Cards have, by my count, 59 total players in the organization who are eligible for the Rule 5 draft. I will give you the complete list as we get closer to the deadline to file 40-man rosters, but in looking at it, the only players that look like locks to me for Rule 5 protection are C Ivan Herrera and SS Delvin Perez. The whole minor league situation is crazy with teams being contracted, no minor league season last year and teams cutting payroll, so who knows if teams might be more aggressive in trying to acquire some cheap talent. Of course people thought last year that with a planned 26-man roster, more teams would be willing to try to hide a player on the roster all year. Despite that possibility, last year Rule 5 draft activity was the lowest that it had been in years. Considering that there was no minor league season, and only a very small window to examine data from the Alternate Training Sites last season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rule 5 draft activity was light once again.

Depending on how many players the Cards want to add to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, you could see further roster trims. Clubs that have a full 40-man roster are not allowed to make a Rule 5 draft selection, so the Cards might also want some extra space. Rangel Ravelo and Justin Williams, both of whom are out of options, come to mind as immediate possibilities. I would have though Edmundo Sosa might be gone as well with his 4th minor league option just having been burned, but I am less sure now that Wong’s option was declined.

VI. Deadline to Tender Contracts

If a club does not offer a player on its 40-man roster by December 2nd, that player is said to be non-tendered. The player becomes an immediate free agent. This has become more of a nice move, as the Cards haven’t done this in several years. Sometimes this is done when a player is eligible for arbitration and the club doesn’t want to risk going to a hearing with the player and losing. It can also happen when the club wants to cut a player more than the maximum allowable 20% and it thinks the player might sign for less, with a player that the club wants to get rid of by trade but can’t make a deal by the deadline, or with a player the club thinks would be cool signing a minor league deal that it doesn’t want to risk losing on waivers.

I’m not sure anyone will be flat-out non-tendered. The Cards have 6 potential arbitration cases coming up: RHP John Gant, RHP Jack Flaherty, OF Harrison Bader, RHP John Brebbia, RHP Jordan Hicks and RHP Alex Reyes. Flaherty is the most interesting case, as he stood on principle the last two seasons, forcing the Cards to exercise their privilege to renew his contract. He’s indicated that he’s not interested in a friendly extension, so the Cards are going to have to buck up one way or another. But whether they go to a hearing with him or extend him, they’ll stomach whatever happens to keep him. The other guys are not in line for really big money, so I can’t imagine the Cards would just non-tender them.

CONCLUSION

The hot-stove season has now begun with the free agency declarations and the buyout of Wong’s option. I hope I’ve given you enough of a roadmap that can serve as the basis for further discussion. As we get closer to the November 20th deadline to file reserve lists, I’ll be back with a Rule 5 draft preview.