Friday was the deadline for teams to add players to their 40-man roster or risk losing them to the Rule 5 draft.
What is the Rule 5 draft, you might ask? Here’s MLB’s answer:
Held each December, the Rule 5 Draft allows clubs without a full 40-man roster to select certain non-40-man roster players from other clubs. Clubs draft in reverse order of the standings from the previous season. Players signed at age 18 or younger need to be added to their club’s 40-Man roster within five seasons or they become eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Players who signed at age 19 or older need to be protected within four seasons. (Link)
The Cardinals have several intriguing candidates in their minor leagues who are eligible for Rule 5 this season. That included power-hitting corner infielder Juan Yepez, who was added to the 40-man roster late in the season and was active for the Wild Card game. Yepez had an incredible season in both AA Springfield and AAA Memphis before making the Arizona Fall League his personal playground. He is a leading candidate for the DH position in 2022 if it comes to the National League.
The club entered the day with seven spots on their 40-man roster (33). They added three minor leaguers, all of whom seem positioned to be attractive options for teams looking to steal quality roster depth: utility infielder Brendan Donovan and RHPs Jake Walsh and Freddy Pacheco. Their 40-man roster currently stands at 36 players.
Adding just three players, though, leaves several familiar names exposed.
Notable players left unprotected and eligible for the Rule 5 draft: Luken Baker, Kramer Robertson, Jhon Torres, Delvin Pérez— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) November 19, 2021
Let’s look at who the Cardinals kept, why they kept them, and how they might help the club in 2022. Then we’ll consider why the club left players you might know – like Delvin Perez and Luken Baker – exposed for other teams to snag, and if they will be taken.
Donovan hasn’t gotten much play among Cardinal fans. Ahead of him, the Cardinals had high-impact headline prospects – including Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, and Matthew Liberatore. Yepez’s huge bat carried him to minor league stardom this season. But all Donovan has done from the moment he entered the league is hit. And hit. And hit. In his first full season at A-level Peoria in 2019, Donovan played in 113 games, producing a .370 wOBA and a 131 wRC+ with a .266/.377/.405 line. His walk rate was over 13% with a BABIP of just over .320. That earned him a short roster-filler bump to AAA.
Then COVID happened. It didn’t slow Donovan down. The Cards were less aggressive with him than other prospects. He started back in Peoria (which was A+ now) and produced a .371 wOBA and 127 wRC+ in 109 games. The club challenged him with a promotion to AA. He bettered his line in 219 PAs: .388 wOBA and 134 wRC+. He had an 11.4% walk rate. AAA was next. In 131 PAs, Donovan improved again: .390 wOBA, 139 wRC+. He had 12 homers, a walk rate around 11%, and a K rate under 18% on the season.
Donovan has some pop. He can draw walks. He played 2b, 3b, SS, 1b, RF, and LF this season. He had success at every level, including the AFL. He hits lefty. He’s ready now (or soon) for an MLB bench role. He’s exactly the kind of player that a team would snatch up in the Rule 5 draft. The Cardinals had to lock him up or they would have lost him.
Jake Walsh and Freddy Pacheco
We’ll just go ahead and file these two together as I’m going to say pretty much the same thing about both of them. Jake Walsh is a 26-year-old righty reliever who had a very good showing at AA Springfield. In 18 innings, he K’ed 12.50 per 9 innings and walked just 2.5. He didn’t give up a home run and carried an ERA/FIP of 1.50/1.53. He was promoted to Memphis and appeared in just 4 games.
Pacheco is much younger – 23 – but otherwise he has a similar story. He started at A+ and dominated there with 43.5% K rate. That earned him a promotion to Springfield where his K rate jumped to 44.6%. Dominating there, he was off to Memphis for a short run where he also missed bats at an amazing rate. His walk rate fell at both stops in the high minors. He had a 1.83/2.00 ERA/FIP in Springfield.
Walsh and Pacheco, as full-time relievers, barely register on prospect watches but they’ve both shown enough to be intriguing to MLB teams searching for cheap pitching. And every MLB team is searching for cheap MLB pitching. The Cardinals wisely added both and since they’re on the 40-man roster, they are in play for MLB action next season.
Now for a few of the names that were left exposed.
I’m sure a lot of the conversation following these roster decisions will center around Perez, who brought himself back into the picture with a strong showing this spring. The problem was that spring fling didn’t translate to the summer. He spent the full season in AA Springfield where he managed just a .265/.322/.339 line for the full season. That’s a .304 wOBA and an 80 wRC+. While with the MLB camp, Perez showed a faster bat and what looked like more power potential. He did crack 4 HRs in Springfield – doubling his career minor league total – but his ISO was still just .075. He still has speed (24 SBs) and athleticism (reports on his defense remain high) but he’s just not doing enough with the bat to force his way into roster contention. With the rise of Edmundo Sosa, Paul DeJong’s presence, Tommy Edman a possibility at SS, and even Brendan Donovan around as a UT, Perez does not look like he can help the Cardinals. The Cardinals are willing to bet that another team won’t want to occupy a bench spot with a glove-only SS who was well below average in AA.
Baker is sort of the opposite of Perez. Perez plays the right position to be attractive and has the speed and defense for a bench role, but showed he still can’t hit advanced pitching. Baker, on the other hand, hit well enough to be intriguing to MLB clubs but provides very limited usefulness. Baker, a 24-year-old right-handed slugger, crushed 26 HRs in AA Springfield. His overall line of .248/.322/.530 was good for a .367 wOBA and a 121 wRC+. Dude can hit. But he was clearly passed by Yepez on the org’s depth chart and that stopped him from seeing anything more than a fun weekend trip to Memphis. With the DH likely coming to the NL, it seems as if a player like Baker, who is probably ready to face MLB pitchers, would be a hot commodity. The reality is that power-hitting first basemen are a dime-a-dozen in the high minors and without the ability to play third or the outfield, he just doesn’t appeal as a bench option. The right team with the right hole in their system might snag him and make use of him, but my guess is he’ll be back as the club’s starting AAA first basemen and could be challenging for playing time if there’s an injury to Yepez or Goldschmidt.
Kramer Robertson and Jhon Torres
Robertson is a veteran shortstop who had a good season at AAA – a 114 wRC+. He’s a useful player who, like Donovan, can draw a walk and crack a homer. His contact tool, though, is a little lacking. He hit .253/.366/.414 in Memphis at age 26. Someone could snag him as a depth infielder, but he’s really passed his status as a prospect and is relatively easy to replace in the system.
Torres, meanwhile, seems like he’s been in the minors forever. He came to the Cardinals in 2018 in exchange for Oscar Mercado and dreams that he might become, one day, Oscar Mercado. That day isn’t any time soon as he’s only reached A+ (Peoria) and had just an 85 wRC+ there. Sure, he flashes some power and improved his K rate a little, but he’s nowhere close to being an MLB hitter. He’s safe.
40-Man Final Thoughts
For the first time in forever, it seems like the Cardinals are entering the Rule 5 40-man deadline without a mad roster scramble. Their three adds were good ones. The players they left exposed are relatively safe. They have four spots left on the roster with very few holes on the MLB club.
What does that signal? It probably does not signal their intention on being very active in the free agent and trade markets. The club will add at least two pitchers and possibly another utility bat. It probably does signal their desire to leave at least one roster spot open for their high-upside, nearly MLB-ready prospects: Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore. Both players should enter Spring Training with a chance to compete for a significant role with the big club.