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Transaction Analysis 3/2 and 3/7: First Moves of Spring, Munoz goes AWOL

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Colorado Rockies Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After 13 days of spring training games, the Cards have made some roster moves to thin out the camp a bit. In addition to the cuts made on March 7th, there was actually an addition on March 2nd, and a shocking development that resulted in another player’s subtraction from the team for good on March 7th.

3/2: Invited Kramer Robertson to camp as a non-roster invitee. 73 players in camp (40-man roster + 33 NRIs)

After Yairo Munoz injured his hamstring running to first base in the bottom of the 7th of the February 29th game and Brad Miller was scratched from the starting lineup of the March 1st game due to lower back stiffness, the Cards felt like they needed some more middle infield depth to get through the spring. Miller’s injury was day-to-day, but Munoz’s issue was expected to be more pronounced and his availability for opening day was in doubt. Robertson was drafted by the Cards in the 4th round of the 2017 out of LSU as a 22-year old that would turn 23 in September of 2017. He started immediately with A Peoria in 2017, and advanced one level per year until 2019. Last season he started in AA Springfield, but was pressed into service for 2 stints in Memphis in 2019. The first stint only lasted about three weeks and was caused by Max Schrock going on the injured list. He was sent to Memphis again on the day that the Cards added Tommy Edman to the 40-man roster (June 8th) and stayed there until August 15th. Primarily a shortstop earlier in his career, he saw more action at the other infield positions in 2019. He has absolutely no chance to make this roster and he will be Rule 5 draft eligible in December of 2020.

3/7: Placed UT Yairo Munoz on unconditional release waivers. Optioned 3B Elehuris Montero and LHP Ricardo Sanchez to AA Springfield. Optioned RHP Alvaro Seijas to A+ Palm Beach. Re-assigned RHP Akeem Bostick, RHP Nabil Crismatt, RHP Seth Elledge, RHP Alex FaGalde, RHP Griffin Roberts, RHP Angel Rondon, RHP Ramon Santos, 1B Luken Baker, C Julio Rodriguez and C Alexis Wilson to minor league camp. 40-man roster at 39. 59 remaining in camp (36 40-man roster players + 23 NRIs)

Regular Spring Moves

Let’s take this out of order. As far as the normal spring moves, there were no real surprises here. Montero and Seijas were what is known as “Rule 6(e) draft excluded players” because they were added to the 40-man roster after August 15th of the previous season to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. As such, they could not have been optioned to the minors until 20 days before opening day, which was the off-day, March 6th. It has been customary in recent years to not make any roster cuts before that deadline, and neither young player had a shot at making the club anyhow. Sanchez, whom the Cards claimed on outright assignment waivers from the Mariners, has never played above the class AA level. None of the players re-assigned to minor league camp did anything overly exciting.

Munoz goes AWOL

Now for the bombshell. Yairo Munoz played in 6 out of the first 8 spring training games through February 29th, with 16 ABs. In the bottom of the 7th inning of the February 29th game, Munoz grounded into a forceout to end the inning. While he was running to first, his hamstring popped and he started limping. It was reported that Munoz would miss significant time, with his availability for opening day in doubt. Anne Rogers of MLB.com and Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch have reported essentially the following information. Either that day or the next day, Munoz just took off and flew home to the Dominican Republic without telling anyone. John Mozeliak said on March 7th that Munoz flew home “last week,” which must have meant on Sunday March 1st or after the game on Saturday February 29th. He was scheduled for an MRI on Thursday March 5th, but he didn’t show up. The only reason the club even knew he was gone was because Munoz texted a teammate.

Munoz could not have been optioned to the minors because he is hurt. He also did not fall within the narrow exceptions to the restrictions on outrighting an injured player to the minor leagues. The regular 10-day injured list for players is also not available until March 23rd. Still, the Cardinals did not have to make the move they made, and could have put Munoz on the Disqualified List or potentially the Restricted List. The Disqualified List would probably have been the most appropriate, as it is designed for players who have violated their contracts by failing to render services to their clubs. The Restricted List can theoretically be used for the same purpose, as clubs may petition the Commissioner to put a player on the Restricted List if the club certifies that unusual circumstances exist. The Restricted List, however, is typically used in situations where the player has actually communicated with his club that he must be away for an extended period due to something like a family matter that would not qualify for placement on either the Paternity List or Bereavement List. The Restricted List is also used for certain suspensions handed down by the Commissioner’s Office. Munoz himself was placed on the restricted list for one day last season because he took too long to rejoin the team following the birth of his daughter.

Players on either the Disqualified List or Restricted List are not required to be paid and do not count against either the active roster or the 40-man roster. While the players are on either list, they may not play for any Major or Minor League club. In either case, the Cards could have basically kept Munoz out of baseball. They would have had to renew his contract in the next few days, but they would not have had to pay him. Munoz had apparently complained frequently and openly about his lack of playing time (only 181 PAs despite being on the active roster almost all year) last season, as Tommy Edman consumed the bulk of the playing time that he might have otherwise had. It was generally believed after Brad Miller was signed that Munoz would have likely started this season in AAA Memphis. He has one minor league option remaining. But Munoz was not in a position to demand his release just because he didn’t think the Cards played him enough. While it’s a dangerous precedent to just release a player who leaves the club without notice, John Mozeliak said that after talking to Munoz’s agent, it was better to cut ties and he didn’t see a happy ending.

While it ultimately does not make a difference, those of you who are interested in transactions should know that Munoz has actually not been released yet, although it has been reported that way. The official transaction that took place was that the Cardinals put Munoz on unconditional release waivers. A player can not be released until he clears waivers. We are at the point in the calendar where the Commissioner’s Office is considered open on weekends, and the Cards having placed Munoz on unconditional release waivers on Saturday March 7th before 2:00 p.m. EST, clubs have until Monday, March 9th at 1:00 p.m. EST to make a claim.

The reason it ultimately doesn’t matter is that, unlike with outright assignment waivers, Munoz was automatically taken off of the club’s 40-man roster at the moment the request for unconditional release waivers was made. Having decided to release him, the Cards did not need to designate him for assignment. Both types of waivers are irrevocable, so Munoz is gone for good. The rules allow a club to claim Munoz for just $1 and then would be responsible for Munoz’s contract. Most released players are not claimed on waivers, because a club that wanted the player could just wait for the player to clear, and sign the player to the pro-rated major league minimum, leaving his former club on the hook for the balance. Munoz’s case is different, because unlike most released players, he has been tendered a split contract for the minimum or something close to it. That makes it more likely that a team could claim him, but I still think it’s unlikely. Why would a club make a claim on an injured utility infielder who pouted when he didn’t get his way and left his club without telling his manager or his general manager? It would be a weird situation for a team to claim Munoz anyway because although Munoz was tendered a contract by the Cardinals on December 2nd, we’re not sure if he signed it yet, and the club might have to just renew his contract in a couple of days. If he was claimed, Munoz could actually reject the claim within a certain number of days at which point any contract would be considered terminated and he would be free to sign with any club.

There’s been a little bit of talk in the press about termination pay by MLB.com writer Jesse Jones, and that that may have had something to do with the timing of Munoz’s release. With all due respect, I believe the writer is incorrect. The Collective Bargaining Agreement states that a player on a split contract is entitled to 30 days’ pay as termination pay at the minor league rate if he is released during spring training and on or before the 16th day before Opening Day, which would put the deadline at March 10th. Players with split contracts released in spring training after that date would be entitled to 45 days’ pay, but at the major league rate. By releasing Munoz before March 10th, the argument seemed to be that the club could avoid paying an extra 15 days of termination pay, and be able to pay the termination pay at the minor league rate. Not only was Jones wrong about the timing (he believed the deadline to be March 8th), but I don’t believe the Cardinals will owe Munoz any termination pay at all. The CBA only requires termination pay if the club releases the player under paragraph 7(b)(2) of the Uniform Player’s Contract for failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability. But the Uniform Player’s Contract also sets forth other grounds for release, most notably paragraph 7(b)(3), for failing, refusing, or neglecting to render his services under the contract or in any other manner materially breaching his contract. Paragraph 7(b)(1) also contemplates a release for failing to follow the club’s training rules. Quitting on one’s team without notice and failing to show up for a scheduled MRI should certainly fall under either paragraph 7(b)(3) or 7(b)(1) and the Cardinals have an excellent argument that Munoz is not entitled to any termination pay if they word the notice of release correctly.

It’s still an odd situation, as Munoz made the opening day roster two years running on the strength of his spring training, and while he may not have made it this year, he would certainly have been back in the majors at some point. Munoz never was a world-beater in the minors, and while he had an above average season in 2018 with the bat, he regressed offensively last year when given less playing time, slashing his walk rate and having one of the highest chase rates in the game for someone with as many plate appearances as he had. His good speed, strong arm and theoretical ability to play as many as six positions may cause some team to give him a look, but I wouldn’t look for anyone to swoop him up just yet on anything other than a minor league deal. You really have to wonder what the young man was thinking. As unhappy as he may have been, he was in the majors for almost two years running making a major league salary instead of the minor league one. He would have opened up this season on the major league injured list making his major league salary and earning MLB service time. What kind of confidence could he inspire in another team by randomly quitting on his club without telling them? Maybe a team will claim Munoz and chalk it up to him needing a change of scenery. Good riddance.

CONCLUSION

The Cardinals now have one spot available on the 40-man roster. We have less than three weeks to see if Dylan Carlson will get it. By my count, the Cards now have 59 players left in camp. Some totals include Jordan Hicks, but mine does not because although he might be present, he has not played, will not play and may not play because he is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and already on the 60-day IL. The Cardinals’ Twitter page announcing these transactions claims that only 57 players are remaining in camp. But unless the Cards randomly re-assigned two other players to minor league camp without telling anyone, the club miscounted or their Twitter page has a typo.