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Transaction Analysis 10/22/21: Cards Claim a Pitcher Recovering from Tommy John Surgery

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Plus a primer on transactions involving injured players

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the Cards announced the following transaction:

10/22/21: Claimed RHP Ljay Newsome on outright assignment waivers from the Seattle Mariners, and he was transferred from the Mariners’ 60-day IL to the Cardinals’ 60-day IL. 40-man roster remains full.

Newsome was a 26th round draft choice by the Mariners out of a Maryland high school. If the Cardinals did have a goal of finding more pitchers that don’t walk people, Newsome surely fits the bill. In his age-22 season in 2019, he rocketed through three levels of the minor leagues, starting at Class A-Advanced Modesto and ending with one start for AAA Tacoma. In the process, he posted a 2.7% walk rate over 155 innings, which was the lowest in all the minor leagues for pitchers who threw at least 75 innings. He had never been a strikeout guy prior to that point, but struck out a man per inning that year with a career-best 9.8 SO/9. After being invited to the Mariners’ Alternate Training Site in 2020, the club added him to the 40-man and active rosters on August 15th of that year, and he stuck with the club all season. In that shortened season, he only had one walk and one hit batter in 15.2 IP, but allowed four home runs and only struck out nine batters in five games and four starts. Optioned to start the 2021 season, he was quickly recalled on April 7th, made one start and six relief appearances and struck out 16 batters to only three unintentional walks over 14.2 IP. Newsome’s big issue in the major leagues so far is home runs, as he’s allowed 9 balls to clear the fences in only 30.1 IP.

Newsome was listed at the Mariners’ #24 prospect according to Fangraphs, and Eric Longenhagen described him as a pitcher with a low-90s fastball, a plus change and “a short, weird arm action that seems to bug hitters and create abnormally strong results on a fastball, that is, in most respects, barely average.” In addition to his issues with home runs, Newsome has only thrown at least four innings in an outing twice, with most of his appearances lasting two or three innings. And while he doesn’t allow walks, he’s been an extreme flyball pitcher in every season in the minors. He’s also billed as a 5 foot 11, 210-pounder, which is not exactly a typical frame for a starter, and he has been projected for long relief.

What makes this waiver claim unusual is that Newsome is hurt. He went down with elbow inflammation on May 9th, was moved to the Mariners’ 60-day IL a few days later, and had Tommy John surgery at the end of that month. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Newsome will begin a throwing program within the next few weeks and that it is hoped that he might be able to return to action by the middle of the 2022 season. Perhaps some of you are aware of waiver claims of pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, but I have not heard of any, and I’m fairly confident that nothing like this has happened in Cardinal history.

TRANSACTIONS INVOLVING INJURED PLAYERS

This waiver claim also provides a nice opportunity to discuss some little-known rules regarding transactions involving injured players. But first, let’s get a couple of housekeeping matters out of the way. Because Newsome was on the 60-day IL of the Mariners, he was added to the Cardinals’ 60-day IL immediately upon the waiver claim. The 60-day IL can only be used if a club has a full 40-man roster, and the Cardinals 40-man roster is full. Ultimately this all means that the Cards were able to claim Newsome on waivers without making a corresponding roster move with another player. Because players on the 60-day IL do not count against the 40-man roster, the club’s 40-man roster is still at a full 40 players, but the Cardinals did not have to trim anyone to make this happen.

The Cards claimed Newsome on outright assignment waivers, which means that the Mariners at least tried to get waivers to potentially outright Newsome to the minor leagues. Does this comply with the MLB rules? I’m sure many of you have heard that while a player on an injured list may be traded, a player may not be sent to the minor leagues, whether by optional or outright assignment, if he is injured. While that is generally the case, it turns out that there are exceptions.

The default rule is Major League Rule 2(c)(1)(E), which states that except as set forth in Rule 6(g) and Article XIX(c) of the Basic Agreement, a Major League Club may not direct, assign or otherwise transfer a player on a Major League Injured List to a Minor League Club. That includes both optional and outright assignments. In addition, Rule 8(d)(6) provides that a player on a Major League Injured List may not be placed on outright assignment waivers during the regular season unless the minimum period of inactivity has expired and the club seeking to obtain waivers guarantees that the player has recovered from the player’s ailment and is capable of performing at the player’s accustomed level.

Rule 6(g) doesn’t apply to this situation, because that rule covers minor league injury rehab assignments. Notice that Rule 8(d)(6) doesn’t apply either, because the Mariners’ outright assignment waiver request was not submitted during the regular season. That leaves Article XIX(c) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that remains in force until December 1st. Subsection (1) of that provision re-states the default rule, that players on a major league injured list may not be assigned to a minor league club. But subsection (2) goes on to state that as long as a player does not have a contract that covers the next season, he may be assigned to a minor league club during a window that begins on the day after the regular season is over and closes on the date that clubs are required to file Reserve Lists with the Commissioner’s Office, which is usually November 20th (it will be November 19th this year because November 20th falls on a Saturday). Of course, optional assignments aren’t allowed right now because the regular season is over, but it is this provision that allowed the Mariners to place Newsome on outright assignment waivers and potentially outright him to the minor leagues, even though he is injured.

There is another provision within Article XIX(c) that offers another window to outright and even option an injured player to the minor leagues, but it is more restrictive. If the player has less than 3 years of MLB service, he had not just been taken in the immediately preceding Rule 5 draft, and he had no MLB service in the immediately preceding regular season, the club can assign the player to the minor leagues, even if he is injured, during a window that opens on the day immediately after the date clubs are required to file Reserve Lists and closes 15 days prior to the start of the next regular season. The assignment can be an outright assignment if the player had never been outrighted in his career, or it can be an option. Because Newsome played in the major leagues in 2021, the Mariners could only use the first window. It was this same rule that prohibited the Cards from either outrighting or optioning Justin Williams in 2019 when he punched the television set. Because he had one day of MLB service time in 2018, the only thing the club could do with him was place him on the major league injured list until he was ready to play. Some of you may find it interesting that under the right conditions, even an injured player may be optioned to the minor leagues during spring training.

Newsome, who will turn 25 in a couple of weeks, will have all three minor league options remaining because he did not spend at least 10 days on option in 2021. Now that he is on the Cardinals’ 60-day IL, he will have to come off of that list on the 5th day following the day that the last game of the World Series starts. That would add Newsome to the Cards’ 40-man roster unless the club wants to try to risk passing him through outright assignment waivers for some reason. The Cards won’t be able to add him back to the 60-day IL until the first day that clubs may invite pitchers, catchers and injured players to spring training in February.

Stay tuned until next time, when I’ll provide an off-season transaction roadmap and 40-man roster analysis for the Cards. Until then, enjoy the rest of the playoffs!