Minor league free agency is often disregarded. Major league signings provide all of the excitement and are the ones who have the most impact on winning at the major league level. Still, minor league signings are important. Minor league free agency represents an opportunity to build organizational depth or take a chance on a once-well-regarded but underperforming prospect. The St. Louis Cardinals clearly spent last year with a focus on the former as they signed a large group of minor league arms during the season and focused on upper-level depth in the offseason.
We’ll start out review with players signed in the 2020/2021 offseason.
Signed During the Offseason
OF Matt Szczur
Matt Szczur spent parts of five seasons in the major leagues, with his last appearance coming with the San Diego Padres in 2018. In total, he took 667 plate appearances and compiled 0.6 fWAR. He’s never been more than a defensively-minded fourth or fifth outfielder at best.
The Cardinals signed him to add depth to the Memphis outfield after he tallied a 129 wRC+ at the Triple-A level with the Diamondbacks in 2019. He seemed like a solid depth piece at the time who could help cover for injuries, but the 32-year-old did not play well and was released before the end of June.
UTIL Jose Rondon
Jose Rondon is an example of a minor league signing that worked out for the Cardinals. Rondon dominated winter ball in Venezuela, earning stray MVP votes, after signing with the Cardinals and he then came out strong in Spring Training. Edmundo Sosa edged out Rondon for the final roster spot on Opening Day but Rondon arrived in St. Louis soon enough and put together a good season.
The utilityman played five different positions and was a slightly above average hitter (101 wRC+). His main job, though, was pinch hitting and he excelled, taking nearly half his plate appearances in that role and batting .308 with a 142 wRC+.
There isn’t a spot for him in St. Louis in 2022, but he was everything you could want in a minor league free agent. His ability to cover multiple positions and provide value off the bench made him a high quality signing. These are the signings that every team looks for in the minor league free agent market.
INF Max Moroff
Max Moroff was probably the most highly touted offseason minor league signing. He did not play in 2020, but he had spent time in the bigs in each of the previous four seasons. When he wasn’t in the majors, he was at least an above average hitter in Triple-A.
Like Rondon, Moroff was brought in for infield depth since the team needed a utilityman at the time and none of the options in Triple-A had a major claim on time in the majors. Moroff could have been a more important player for last year’s team if he hadn’t gotten injured and Sosa hadn’t broken out. Moroff started the Triple-A season on fire, batting .538 and slugging over 1.000 with four home runs in 34 plate appearances. He was quickly promoted to St. Louis before suffering a shoulder subluxation that eventually required surgery.
The signing didn’t work out for the Cardinals, but the process was still sound. He was a solid veteran signing who could have had a much bigger impact had he been healthy.
C Tyler Heineman
Tyler Heineman was another minor league singing who didn’t work out. He crushed Triple-A pitching in 2019 and saw time in the majors in both 2019 and 2020. This led to him earning a minor league contract with the Cardinals and an invitation to Spring Training.
He then spent the year in Triple-A. He was signed to provide catching depth behind Ali Sanchez in Memphis, but he was released on July 1 after compiling a wRC+ of just 76 and playing less than Dennis Ortega, who jumped to Triple-A despite having an ugly 53 wRC+ in High-A in 2019.
Like Heineman, Ortega is no longer in the organization, but a depth catcher is not necessary this year. Sanchez will become the backup behind top catching prospect Ivan Herrera in Memphis and Clint Coulter will provide depth as the team’s emergency catcher.
The Cardinals did well in the offseason. One minor league signing made an impact in St. Louis as a strong pinch hitter and versatile defender while another had his potential impact stolen by a season ending injury. Matt Szczur and Tyler Heineman didn’t work out, but that is typical of minor league signings.
The thought processes behind all of these signings were solid, and signing one MLB contributor (and almost another) out of four signings is a good success rate, especially when filling out the organization’s upper level depth.
Signed During the Season
Something that the Cardinals didn’t do in the offseason was sign pitching depth. As pitchers got hurt at the major league level, pitchers came up from the minors and the organization found it’s stable of arms to be empty. This forced the team into signing six minor league free agent arms (not to mention the couple that were brought in with waiver claims or signed major league contracts during the season). This was an oversight, but with the cancelled 2020 minor league season, it was difficult to tell how much pitching depth the Cardinals were lacking in their system.
LHP T.J. McFarland
T.J. McFarland is another success story. The groundball machine had a 2.56 ERA (3.79 FIP) in 38 2⁄3 innings after reaching St. Louis shortly after signing a minor league pact. 2021 was his ninth year in the majors and despite throwing 439 2⁄3 career innings, McFarland compiled 1⁄3 of his career fWAR last season.
He was rewarded with a one-year, $2.5 million contract. It remains to be seen if he can repeat his success, but his uncanny ability to roll ground ball double plays last season helped stabilize the bullpen and helped the team set a club record winning streak. For that, he will be remembered fondly, even if he struggles this year.
LHP Sean Kealey
Sean Kealey is perhaps the most interesting minor league signing last season (besides the players that contributed at the major league level). The left-hander stands at 6’7” and went undrafted and unsigned in the shortened 2020 MLB Draft. He ended up playing some independent ball in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 before latching on with the Redbirds.
Despite his limited professional experience, he ended his season at the High-A level. After signing, Kealey dominated Low-A in 14 2⁄3 innings, striking out a whopping 38.5% of hitters that he faced. His 3.68 ERA was much higher than his 1.82 FIP due to a crazy .455 BABIP.
The poor BABIP followed Kealey to High-A where his 4.76 ERA was again inflated by his .439 BABIP. Still, at the higher level he fanned more than a quarter (26.4%) of the hitters he faced and tallied a 3.64 FIP. He gave up too many hits and walked too many batters (12.7% walk rate at High-A), but this was a strong professional debut that got overshadowed by other pitchers and the fact that he was late in joining the organization.
It will be interesting to see where he begins the 2022 season. He is 24 years old, but with limited professional experience, he may need to start the year in High-A. It’s unlikely that he will ever join a minor league rotation, but he gets a lot of strikeouts and his iffy control could play be better tolerated in the bullpen. This was an intriguing signing by the Cardinals, and even though he is likely at the bottom of the organizational rankings until he has more success, he could be an interesting arm to watch this year.
RHP Paul Schwendel
As a 32-year-old signed to pitch in High-A, Schwendel had very little promise. He did his job, though, as he helped stabilize the bullpen and provide innings in Peoria. He finished the year with a 3.98 ERA (3.87 FIP) and 42.4% strikeout rate in just over 20 innings before being released in November.
LHP Kevin McGovern
Kevin McGovern has a similar story as a 32-year-old who signed a minor league contract and was assigned to Springfield. Unlike Schwendel, though, he didn’t pitch well. The nine-year independent leagues veteran was released in September after compiling a 6.33 ERA in 69 2⁄3 innings out of the rotation.
RHP Cory Thompson
Like Kealey and Schwendel, Cory Thompson was also brought in to pitch for Peoria and he also had a successful season. The right-hander posted a 3.70 ERA (3.57 FIP) in 24 1⁄3 innings out of the bullpen. He fanned 35.2% of hitters while walking 9.5% of the batters he faced en route to receiving a promotion to Double-A where his strikeout rate cratered (14.6%) and his walked rate ticked upward (11.0%). Still, he did a good job of preventing runs (3.44 ERA) even if his FIP wasn’t overly impressive (4.35).
The converted shortstop was pitching in just his fourth professional season and he cruised through the lower minors with the Reds before struggling in his first Double-A stint. The now 27-year-old elected free agency following the 2019 season after pitching in the Arizona Fall League.
Due to the fact that Thompson still needs to master Double-A and the fact that the Cardinals have a crowded pitching depth chart in Memphis, I expect Thompson to open 2022 with Springfield. The strikeout rate spike in High-A and the AFL stint in 2019 make him an interesting arm to watch this year.
RHP Brandon Dickson
Brandon Dickson has only pitched for the Cardinals in his MLB and MiLB career. That’s because he joined the organization in 2006, left for Japan in 2013, and then returned in 2021. He actually made two appearances with the Cardinals last season, but they didn’t go well. Neither did his time in Memphis (8.74 ERA). The 37-year-old is no longer with the organization.
Tyler Pike is yet another semi-interesting minor league signing who played for Springfield. He is already 28, but age matters less for minor league relievers. His ERA of 4.85 was also not promising. But, he posted a FIP of 3.23 and was a completely new pitcher - one who limits walks. The former first round pick was wild throughout his minor league career, but he may have reinvented himself in the independent leagues, where he played since 2019.
Pike walked just 5.4% of the batters he faced last season. As I mentioned in my last article, this is a good skill to have if you are a pitcher in the Cardinals’ organization right now. Besides good control, his strikeout rate was a still decent 23%. The Cardinals chose to bring him back at the start of the offseason, so he will likely repeat Springfield next year.
The left-hander is a former competitive balance round B selection out of high school. He was taken with the 126th pick in the 2012 draft.
OF Clint Coulter
Clint Coulter is the only position player who signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals during the season. He actually played pretty well, tallying a wRC+ of 101 and and ISO of .227. The 28-year-old is primarily an outfielder but he can also catch when needed (which I referenced earlier). He strikes out a bit much (32.4% K-rate), but an average hitter who can be a fourth outfielder and third catcher at the highest minor league level is a good player to have. He will remain in the organization in 2022.
Coulter was actually a first round pick way back in 2012 when he was drafted 27th overall out of high school. He spent seven years in the Brewers organization without reaching the majors. He was moved slowly, inexplicably slowly sometimes. An example of this is when he tallied a 123 wRC+ on a full High-A season in 2015 but then spent the bulk of the next season at the same level. He left the organization as a minor league free agent after 2018 and played the next two years in independent baseball before joining the Cardinals.
He may never debut in St. Louis but he is a great depth piece in Memphis.
The Cardinals actually signed three semi-interesting pitchers in the middle of last season - Sean Kealey, Cory Thompson, and Tyler Pike. The two aren’t well known due to the way that they entered the system, but they are sticking around and could be interesting arms to follow next year. Clint Coulter is less interesting but still solid Triple-A filler. Kealey’s size and strikeout rate make him an interesting pitcher while Thompson’s statistics across two levels make him look like two different pitchers. We will have much more information on the pair after the 2022 season. For a system that was struggling with upper level pitching depth last year, these two could have opportunities to impress as relievers.
Comparing Last Year’s signings with This Year’s Signings
The Cardinals did not bring in enough pitching depth last winter, but they weren’t going to make the same mistake this year as the team has already brought in four minor league pitchers - LJay Newsome (not technically a minor league signing, but I’ll still mention him), James Naile, Kyle Ryan, and Aaron Brooks. The team also decided to keep Kealey, Thompson, and Pike, which essentially gave them an early start on minor league free agency this year, so there have been plenty of reinforcements to the organization’s pitching depth. Naile, Ryan, and Brooks are veteran type players who may be able to fill out the end of a bullpen if pressed into action by injury. This is a good strategy considering what happened last year. If the Cardinals are crushed by injury again, these pitchers (hopefully) can help in a pinch.
On the position player side, the Cardinals have gone for pedigree and former prospect status instead of ability to help the team next year. Infielder Anderson Tejeda (5th ranked Rangers prospect in 2019) and Outfielder Moises Gomez (10th ranked Rays prospect in 2019) fit the bill as former highly regarded prospects who have lost some of their shine. This is a change from last year when the Cardinals looked for hitters who could make the bench in St. Louis. It is a good strategy, though, because the Cardinals have plenty of young hitters fighting for at-bats in St. Louis. If there are any injuries, the team should have more than enough cover. Taking shots on players like Tejeda and Gomez could yield big rewards if either player figures things out at the plate.
For more on this year’s signings, here is an article I wrote earlier in the winter.