Free agency has officially been underway for a few days now but there’s are a few important deadlines to focus on this week. The first, the Rule 5 protection deadline, is today at 6 PM CT with the non-tender deadline coming up on Friday.
I want to discuss both of those things in this article. I’ll start with the Rule 5 draft protection decisions and then move to the non-tender candidates.
Rule 5 Draft Protection Deadline and Rules
The St. Louis Cardinals have until 6 pm today to announce which prospects they will be protecting from the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft and which prospects they will leave exposed.
Before I go any further, though, let me provide an introduction to the Rule 5 draft and who is eligible for it. We’ll turn to mlb.com for that information.
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.
Which Cardinals Are Available
The list here is pretty extensive but I’ll just list the few names who actually have a non-zero chance of being chosen. Perhaps the most notable names are a pair of prospects that came to the Cardinals at the trade deadline - Adam Kloffenstein and Sem Robberse.
Other prospects of note are Ian Bedell, whose progress has been delayed by injury but is coming off a strong 2023 season, Pedro Pages, who is the best defensive catcher in the Cardinals system, Jeremy Rivas, who just completed an AFL stint, and Inohan Paniagua who was a prospect riser last year but struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness this year.
Honestly, I don’t even know why I included Rivas and Paniagua on this list because they won’t get chosen but there ya go. Really the main candidates are Kloffenstein, Robberse, Bedell, and Pages.
So, which of those players should the Cardinals protect? All of them? None of them? Some of them?
Let’s dive into some trends to figure that out.
Rule 5 Draft Trends
As you may expect from the fact that Rule 5 draft picks must remain on the MLB roster all season, not every team makes a Rule 5 pick.
The players eligible for the draft generally aren’t good enough or MLB-ready enough to make it onto their organization’s 40-man roster (or they simply get squeezed out by other prospects at a position of depth) and players like that tend not to stick in a major league rotation or make great starting position players.
Because of that, teams to focus on guys who can stick in the bullpen, plug a gap on the bench with their versatility, or have the potential to take some DH at-bats. Generally, though, the draft is extremely pitching heavy.
Take last year for example. In the 2022 edition of this draft, 13 of the 15 players chosen were pitchers. This trend holds in the longer term too. In 2020 (the 2021 Rule 5 draft was cancelled), 10 of the 15 selections were pitchers. The 2019 draft was even more pitching heavy with 15 of the 18 picks being hurlers and then it was 8 pitchers to 3 hitters in 2018 and 10 pitchers to 4 hitters in 2017.
Teams target pitching in the Rule 5 draft.
Among the pitchers chosen last year, 12 of the 13 had experience in Double-A with 6 of those also having reached Triple-A prior to being selected. The one pitcher without Double-A experience - Noah Song - was out of baseball for 3 years due to the service requirement of US Naval academy graduates.
Those 13 players were almost exclusively relief prospects too.
There were a few exceptions as Chris Clarke, Mason Englert, and Thad Ward were all starting pitcher prospects but it’s the high strikeout relief archetype that tends to draw the most interest in the Rule 5 draft. Intuitively that makes sense. Teams that are picking players in the Rule 5 draft need them to be able to contribute immediately so pitchers with lots of strikeouts in the minor leagues are generally a better bet when it comes to their stuff translating to the majors.
That last part is important because only 3 of the pitchers drafted last year remain with the team that drafted them with 9 of the other 10 returning to their original team at some point during the season (Wilking Rodriguez, who spent the entire year on the IL, is the only pitcher who didn’t fall into either category).
So, even if a team decides not to protect a player and that player then gets selected, there’s still a good chance that he will get returned to his original team.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the hitters who were selected last year because that’s the group that had real success. Yes, I’m talking about a group of two but those two players - Ryan Noda and Blake Sabol - combined for a solid 2.7 fWAR.
Both had Triple-A experience and an extensive history of minor league success but that tends to be more common amongst the available hitters than the pitchers.
So, what have we learned? Teams tend to target pitchers heavily and those pitchers tend to be high strikeout relievers. Think Riley O’Brien here. On the hitting side, interested teams are more able to find players with a history of success at the plate and Triple-A experience so that tends to be the hitting profile that gets taken.
Who The Cardinals Should Protect
These takeaways make the Cardinals’ decisions pretty straightforward. Sem Robberse and Adam Kloffenstein should both go on the 40-man roster and that’s it. Both pitchers are young starters with Triple-A experience, interesting traits, and recent success and that’s not a profile that appears very often in the Rule 5 draft.
Any team drafting a 25-year-old relief prospect out of Double-A would jump at the chance to nab a 22-year-old Triple-A starter with some bat missing traits. Plus, the Cardinals sought out these prospects at the deadline. They simply aren’t going to let them leave the organization for free. These are two easy calls.
The only other prospects really worth consideration are Ian Bedell and Pedro Pages but those seem to be fairly straightforward decisions to me.
Bedell is a starting pitcher who has yet to reach Double-A and has just over 100 professional innings under his belt. He also profiles as more of a starter long term than a high octane reliever which probably makes it less likely for him to get selected. And even if he does get selected, he’s not likely to stick in a major league bullpen for the full 2024 season.
The Cardinals can leave him unprotected.
Pedro Pages probably doesn’t need to be protected either, though if I had to choose between protecting Pages or protecting Bedell, my choice would be Pages. That’s simply because Pages is the best defensive catcher in the Cardinals system and would likely be at least an above average defensive catcher in the majors.
The problem with taking him is betting on his bat to be good enough to stick. If a bad team is looking for a backup catcher then Pages might get taken but that bad team probably prefers a hitter with a higher upside bat or a cheap controllable bullpen arm. Good teams are likely to value the certainty that comes with signing a cheaper free agent veteran as their backup catcher instead of relying on a catcher who has yet to have success at Triple-A.
I wouldn’t like to lose Pages but I don’t think the Cardinals need to protect him.
My Picks: Sem Robberse and Adam Kloffenstein
Who Should the Cardinals Remove From the 40-Man Roster
If the Cardinals are going to add Robberse and Kloffenstein to the 40-man roster then they will need to clear some room. They opened up one spot last night, outrighting Wilking Rodriguez, last year Rule 5 pick, to Triple-A. That meant that he was offered back to the Yankees, who declined, so Rodriguez then elected free agency.
That brings to the 40-man roster to 39, which means the Cardinals need to clear one more spot (two if they want to protect Pages). My choice would be James Naile, who will be 31 years old next season, but any of the non-tender candidates could be in play here as well as Connor Thomas.
My Pick: James Naile
The Non Tender Deadline.
The non-tender deadline is 6 PM CT on Friday and the Cardinals will have to choose whether or not to tender a contract to their 9 arbitration eligible players by then.
Here’s MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections for the Cardinals. Barnes will be non-tendered.— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) October 6, 2023
Carlson, Romero and Woodford are first year eligible, and Woodford might be a non-tender candidate as well.
Hudson is a candidate for a deal below his number or non-tender. pic.twitter.com/328ZVnnWhC
One additional note before I move forward is that Jacob Barnes has already been removed from the roster so his name can be removed from this list and replaced with John King, who is also eligible for arbitration at a projected $1.25 million
5 of the decisions here seem fairly straightforward. JoJo Romero, Dylan Carlson, Ryan Helsley, Tommy Edman, and Tyler O’Neill should all get contracts. The Cardinals may trade some of these players but they shouldn’t let them go to free agency.
That leaves 4 players up in the air - Jake Woodford, Andrew Knizner, Dakota Hudson, and John King.
Woodford is a non-tender for me. He simply can’t miss bats at the major league level and has a career 4.94 FIP, 4.83 xFIP, and 0.1 fWAR. $1.1 million isn’t all the much but it does gives the Cardinals more money to invest in better pitchers.
Andrew Knizner will get a contract at $2 million. I feel pretty confident about that. The Cardinals love him and they’ve already talked about a competition between him and Ivan Herrera for the job behind Willson Contreras. That decision isn’t going to be made on Friday.
I would much rather have Herrera backing up Contreras but the Cardinals aren’t going to lose their catching depth, especially with how much they like Knizner as the backup.
Dakota Hudson is also someone I would non-tender. If his projected contract was more in line with Jake Woodford’s projected contract then my answer might be different but Hudson’s projected $3.7 million can bring in needed pitching help for the Cardinals.
My answer might also be different if the Cardinals committed to using Hudson as a reliever in 2023 because I do think he could have more success in that role, but that didn’t happen and Hudson probably shouldn’t be on the team next year.
Finally, there’s John King. The lefty reliever also doesn’t miss bats but he gets a crazy amount of ground balls, has good control, and was a solid lefty reliever last year. I would bring him back but I could see the Cardinals going either way if they would rather spend the money elsewhere.
So, by non-tendering Woodford and Hudson, the Cardinals can save an additional $4.8 million that can be used to improve the team. We could also see the Cardinals trade these players before the non-tender deadline if they can find a team that believes in them enough to want to trade for them and tender them a contract. That’s probably unlikely but it is a possibility.
My Non-Tender Picks: Jake Woodford and Dakota Hudson
With a long offseason ahead of us, we’ll finally see some 40-man roster movement this week as the Cardinals decide who to protect from the Rule 5 draft and that will be followed up by the non-tender deadline on Friday.
That will open up some roster spots for incoming acquisitions but it’s also important to note that the Cardinals will need to leave a 40-man spot open prior to the Rule 5 draft if they would like to make a pick.
Let me know what you think of my protection and non-tender picks in the comments!
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Tuesday. I’ll be back with some more player breakdowns next week.