The Cards announced the following series of moves in recent days:
8/28/21: Placed LHP Andrew Miller on the 10-day IL (left foot blister), retroactive to August 27th. Recalled RHP Kodi Whitley from AAA Memphis.
9/1/21: Recalled C Ali Sanchez from AAA Memphis. Purchased the contract of RHP Brandon Dickson from AAA Memphis. To make room on the 40-man roster, transferred RHP Ryan Helsley from the 10-day IL to the 60-day IL. 40-man roster still full.
9/3/21: Placed RHP Junior Fernandez on the 10-day IL (right shoulder strain), retroactive to September 2nd. Recalled RHP Jake Woodford from AAA Memphis.
At the outset, it is important to emphasize that MLB clubs are playing under a set of September rules that has never been in operation before. The reserve lists of clubs have been set at 40 since 1921, and clubs have been allowed to have their entire 40-man roster available to play in September games since that year. Going into the 2020 season, it was announced that the rules were changed. The active 25-man roster size was increased to 26, and instead of allowing clubs to have their entire 40-man roster available for September games, clubs would be required to have a 28-man roster for that month. There were also supposed to be other rules in place, including a limitation on the number of pitchers to 13 before September and 14 in September, limitations on position players pitching, and different treatment for days on option and the injured list for position players and pitchers.
Last season, as you all know, the pandemic changed everything. The 2020 season started off with 30-man rosters, which were supposed to be reduced to 28 on the 15th day of the season, with a further reduction to 26 players on the 29th day of the season. As it turned out, the rosters were allowed to stay at 28 players last year starting on the 15th day of the season and continued at 28 players for the playoffs. The other rules on pitcher limitations and options were waived for last season and have not been in operation this season, either.
The planned rules on roster size that were announced in 2020 will operate this season, with two notable exceptions. Clubs were required to have 28-man rosters on September 1st. There will be no limitations on the number of pitchers. Clubs were not supposed to be allowed to recall a “29th man” for September doubleheaders, but that rule has been waived just like it was last year.
Because of the rule change, you will see some things happen that you never saw before in a normal season. The big change is that you will see options and recalls and injured list moves. You used to never see these moves in September. First, there was no need for it because the club had the entire 40-man roster available. Second, clubs were not permitted to option players to minor league clubs whose season (including the playoffs) had ended. With minor-league seasons typically ending in the first week of September, there would often be no place to option a player, even if a club wanted to.
With rosters being fixed at 28 and clubs unable to option players to the minors after the minor league season is concluded, there was a potential for clubs to have real roster problems in September. Without a further rule change, it could have meant that clubs would have been stuck with their 28-man roster after the first week or so of September without an injured list move available. This problem was ameliorated this year, as the AAA season was extended into October after various stops and starts due to COVID.
Clubs were ultimately saved from any roster issues by a rule change. Now, clubs are permitted to option players to their spring training complexes even after all minor league seasons are over. This season, it likely won’t matter much, as the AAA Memphis season extends into October. The AAA season was originally scheduled to conclude on September 19th. If that schedule prevails in a season going forward, and if the Cards need to option a player after that date, they can just option the player to the Florida Complex League club at any time. The Complex League clubs have no roster limit.
A further interesting wrinkle is that a player optioned to the Complex League after all minor league seasons are over gets major league service time credit (but not salary) for the period of that option. Players now also get major league service time credit for options to any club after September 1st if (1) they were continuously on the MLB active or injured list from June 1st through the date of the option; and (2) the option would otherwise deprive the player of sufficient major league service to be eligible for salary arbitration or free agency.
Whitley was substituted for Andrew Miller, who experienced a blister issue on the foot opposite the one that sidelined him during the month of May. Whitley’s season this year has almost mirrored that of Junior Fernandez. Whitley was awful in the majors before his August 28th recall, posting a 17.4% strikeout rate to a 15.3% walk rate, with 7 walks to only 8 strikeouts in 10.1 innings pitched. He was basically dominant in AAA with a 31.8% strikeout rate with a FIP right around 3.00. The club does not expect Miller to be gone longer than the minimum 10 days.
Fernandez is another story. He came into the game in the 2nd inning of J.A. Happ’s disaster start on September 1st, threw 14 pitches, struck out one batter, walked another, and allowed a 2-run homer before exiting with a lat injury. He’s got a grade 2 lat strain, which is more serious than the club originally thought, and he’s done for the year. Woodford made the Cards’ opening day roster as a long man, but pitched in only 2 out of the first 8 games before being optioned in favor of Johan Oviedo. Recalled on April 30th, he was still used sparingly, although he did pitch 9 games in the month of June, often on shorter rest than ever before. Woodford was optioned again on June 28th, but recalled on July 19th after the All-Star Break to take the spot of Carlos Martinez in the starting rotation. That lasted for for 3 starts until the Cards got Jon Lester. Woodford has started 7 games for AAA Memphis this season, and regardless of his role, his peripherals have always been somewhat poor. Not a whole lot of walks, but not a whole lot of strikeouts either. He didn’t experience the home run issues in AAA that he did in the majors both this season and last.
One might look at the Cards’ September 1st roster additions and ask “Why?” For position players, the only players available for recall were Cs Ivan Herrera and Ali Sanchez and OFs Austin Dean and Justin Williams. The official explanation for the choice of Sanchez was to have a third catcher so that Andrew Knizner could pinch hit more. While that might have had something to do with it, the Cards didn’t have any other real choice. Herrera is the AA catcher and they didn’t want to disrupt his development. Justin Williams hasn’t played at all since a July 2nd AAA Memphis doubleheader and has been on the Memphis injured list since August 3rd. And Austin Dean was just optioned to Memphis on August 24th and wasn’t available for recall until September 3rd.
The pitching is a little more curious, although it’s not as egregious as you might think, or as I first thought before taking a closer look. Of the choices on the 40-man roster, Johan Quezada and Brandon Waddell are both on the COVID-19 Related IL and Angel Rondon is on the Memphis 7-day IL. The club had Seth Elledge, Johan Oviedo, Jake Woodford (before Fernandez went down) and T.J. Zeuch available. Instead, the club went for Brandon Dickson. He originally joined the Cards as an undrafted free agent in 2006, and was added to the 40-man and active rosters on June 30th, 2011 to replace Ryan Franklin, who was released. He was a reliable AAA Memphis starter for 3 seasons, made 4 appearances in each of 2011 and 2012, and was released to pursue an opportunity in Japan. Dickson pitched for the Orix Buffaloes in Japan for the past 8 years, most recently as a closer. When he learned that he couldn’t take his family to Japan for a 2nd straight season, he signed a minor league deal with AAA Memphis in mid-June of this year.
In 10.1 IP over 11 games, Dickson has walked 4 batters to only 5 strikeouts and allowed 4 homers. It’s possible he was unusually unlucky with the short left-center field power alley in the Memphis park and he got knocked around for a .410 BABIP. While nothing about Dickson’s performance screamed for a promotion to the majors, take a look at the other choices. In addition to Zack Thompson, Matthew Liberatore and Connor Thomas, AAA Memphis has been using Oviedo, Woodford and Zeuch all in the rotation. Zeuch just started on August 29th, and I’m sure the club would have preferred both Oviedo and Woodford to continue to start games for Memphis, whose season extends into the first few days of October. For a bullpen spot, the choice really came down to Elledge or someone else. Elledge is walking over 15% of the batters he has faced. Jesus Cruz has been up here before and could have been added to the 40-man but he’s walking over 18% of his batters faced. I get that Dickson isn’t the sexiest of choices, but Memphis didn’t really have someone else available, who wasn’t either (1) a rotation option that needed to stay in that role; (2) a prospect for whom it wouldn’t be worth it to start the clock; (3) plain bad; or (4) a combination of all three. The Cards probably didn’t want to recall Woodford to begin with, and if they had recalled Woodford instead of adding Dickson on September 1st, they probably would have turned to Dickson on September 3rd when Fernandez went down. With Dickson, the Cards saw someone who had pitched in at least a foreign professional league for a long time, who they thought could keep the ball down and throw strikes.
Dickson actually should have a minor league option left, as the Cards only used two of his three options in 2011 and 2012 before releasing him. The corresponding roster move to transfer Helsley to the 60-day IL ends his 2021 season, which was already in question because he’s also set to have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee
As of now, the club has a 6-man bench and a 9-man pen.
Wainwright, Kim, Lester, Mikolas, Happ
Cabrera (L), Dickson, Garcia, Gallegos, McFarland (L), Ponce de Leon, Reyes, Whitley, Woodford
Knizner, Sanchez, Carpenter, DeJong, Rondon, Nootbaar