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Free agents and playing time: How the St. Louis Cardinals wound up with Mark Reynolds

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It's winter, the time of the year when many baseball fans follow the lead of Rogers Hornsby, albeit with a twist. Times have changed since Hornsby's day. Instead of staring outside through a window, waiting for spring, we stare at computer screen windows and rosterbate. At sites like this one, fans share the moves we would make if we were general manager John Mozeliak. Such discussions are a fun to pass the cold days next to a hot stove.

Coming into the 2014-15 offseason the Cardinals had a roster that was largely set for the coming season. The plan was to have players already within the organization fill all eight of the fielding positions, all five of the rotation slots, and the vast majority of the bullpen jobs. There was talk of perhaps adding a reliever or a bench bat, but that was it. Mozeliak moved so quickly to fill the void left in right field by Oscar Taveras's tragic death that there wasn't all that much time to fantasize about who the Cardinals could acquire to play that position. As a result, the bench has been the focus of most of our rosterbation this offseason. Specifically, a righthanded bench bat to complement Matt Adams.

The Cardinals' signing of Mark Reynolds to a one-year, $2 million contract is decidedly meh. Making it worse is all the band that was widthed on options other than Reynolds. Why not Kyle Blanks, John Mayberry, Jr., or ___________?

The funny thing about ballplayers is that they want to play ball. Players don't want to pigeonhole themselves as a bench player. This means they tend to sign with clubs that will give them the most playing time. Furthermore, the goal of making money dovetails with playing time.

I constantly remind myself about the nature of baseball's salary structure. Per the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, players can only make the league minimum until the season after they accrue three years of MLB service time. Then they become eligible for salary arbitration, which result in a raise, to be sure, but players nonetheless still make less than players who have qualified for free agency due to having passed the six years of MLB service time threshold.

Players don't get many chances to enjoy the payday that comes with signing a contract as a free agent. The opportunity to do so usually comes later in his career, which makes maximizing the potential to earn as much money as possible. This means not just seeking out the highest salary for the current deal, but signing with a club that will give the player an opportunity to play and earn as much money as possible during his next contract (if there is one). A person who has chosen playing baseball as his trade has a far more narrow window in which to maximize his earnings in that profession than an insurance salesperson, laborer, teacher, or lawyer.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold reported that the Cardinals experienced the reality that ballplayers want to play ball when exploring the free agent market in hopes of signing a catcher: "The catchers the Cardinals approached were not keen on the little playing time that comes with being Yadier Molina’s backup." This echoed the sentiment Goold reported on a couple years back, when St. Louis was unable to woo shortstop Stephen Drew into signing with the club. The reason? With Rafael Furcal, ulnar collateral ligament strain and all, in the fold, the Cards couldn't give Drew the playing-time guarantee he coveted.

Boston Red Sox shortstop Stephen Drew couldn't list all of the teams that pursued him this winter -- "There were teams everywhere," he said -- but he remembers it came down to two offers and one guiding, all-important requirement.

He needed playing time.

"It was kind of crazy and I didn't really know where I was going to go," Drew said in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse in Fort Myers, Fla., last week. "I know there were other teams out there. I knew there were others in the mix. For me, it all had to do with how I had to come back from the ankle injury. That was going into my free-agent year. I knew that meant teams wanted to see if I could still play.

"I needed the time to show them I could."

Mayberry, Jr. is looking for time to show baseball what he can do. The outfielder, who has played some first base, signed a one-year deal with the Mets. Per Tim Rohan of the New York Times, the Mets envision using Mayberry as an outfield platoon partner for Lucas Duda:

Mayberry should offer the Mets a bit of flexibility; he can play first base and every outfield position. He is expected to play mostly against left-handed pitchers. In those situations, the Mets could start Michael Cuddyer at first base and Mayberry in the outfield, allowing Lucas Duda to sit if he continues to struggle against lefties.

Even if Mayberry's $1.45 million salary with New York is less robust than the $2 million base the Cards will pay Reynolds in 2015, the Times description of Mayberry's role sounds like it may afford him more playing time than what the Cardinals were selling free agents. Since October, Mozeliak has made clear that the Cardinals have not given up on Adams as an everyday first baseman. Goold reported from the post-NLCS press conference that the Cardinals "envision him as a 600 plate appearance player." Manager Mike Mathney echoed that sentiment, as Goold reported from the Winter Meetings:

"I believe we saw Matt Adams put together some fantastic at-bats against lefties in big situations," Matheny said Tuesday. "We can’t get too far away from the fact that this kid is still not really long into his career. Lumping him into this idea that he can’t hit lefthanded pitching isn’t really fair right now."

This assessment of Adams, who hit lefthanded pitching pretty well in the minors and has only 203 plate appearances against southpaws in his major-league career, contributed to the role the Cardinals have put created for a free-agent bench bat. As Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com reported heading into the Winter Meetings, the Cardinals were offering a job to free agents that came with a limited opportunity to play:

"I will tell you that the side of the swimming pool we're in right now anyways is really players that are in that 150 to 300 plate appearances historically."

Reynolds isn't a particularly good player anymore. That's probably why he was willing to accept the circumscribed role the Cardinals were seeking to fill. At $2 million on a one-year contract, if he turns out to be Ty Wigginton redux, the Cardinals can easily enough cut bait and promote Xavier Scruggs, Stephen Piscotty, or Ty Kelly.