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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

Cardinals youth movement continues through NRIs

The St. Louis Cardinals movement toward a more youthful roster escalates. A year after 11 new players made their major league debut, the 2009 campaign will begin with two more.

As the 25-man opening day roster was set with the assignment of outfielder Joe Mather to Triple-A Memphis on Thursday, it means a total of three non-roster invitees (or NRIs) have made the team. They will be added to the club’s 40-man roster prior to Monday’s opening day game and the total on the 40-man will increase to 37 players in the process.

The three new additions are outfielder Colby Rasmus (pictured) and infielders David Freese and Joe Thurston. When they first take the field in Busch Stadium early in the week, the former two will be making their MLB introductions. Thurston, the “veteran” of the three, is 29 years old, but has just 66 career big league at-bats.

This is the highest number of NRIs to make the team in the last five years. Back in 2004, it was different as all three of the NRI additions that year had previous MLB experience, outfielder Ray Lankford, back for one last run, catcher Cody McKay, the first base coach’s son and second baseman-for-a-year Tony Womack, who like the others came to camp on a make-good minor league deal.

Since Tony La Russa arrived on the St. Louis scene in 1996, there was actually one year, 2003, when four NRIs came north with the Cardinals. Only one of the four, Kiko Calero, was a rookie though.

What makes the 2009 group so interesting to me is that the two farm NRI players made their way onto the team, Rasmus and Freese. This is the most in 11 years, tying the 1997 and 1998 teams for the largest quantity of such players in the La Russa era. Since Tony first joined the Cardinals, they have averaged only one such new NRI addition every two years.

2009 Avg 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996
NRI 26 21 29 19 23 20 24 23 20 22 26 18 16 12 14
NRI made 25-man 3 2 2 0 2 2 3 4 1 3 2 0 3 2 2
First MLB action 2 0.5 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 2 2 0

For the record, in 1997, the pair of newbies added to the roster were pitcher Matt Morris and Rule 5 outfielder Miguel Mejia. The next year, the two were pitchers Cliff Politte and Braden Looper. All except Mejia went on to have long major league careers. Looper remains active.

Now, here is the breakdown of all 26 NRIs in Cardinals camp this spring. This is the first spring in the La Russa years that as few as one MLB veteran pitchers or position players were brought into camp as NRIs that did not make the team. That was catcher Justin Knoedler, given no chance to make the MLB roster. Instead he was pegged for veteran insurance at Memphis, but ended up being released. Thurston was the other such veteran NRI and as noted, will be on the roster.

I don’t know what could be more of an indication of the organization’s turn toward youth.

2009 NRI made 25-man (3) Veteran pitcher cut Veteran hitter cut (1) Rookie pitcher cut (14) Rookie hitter cut (3) Extra catchers (5)
David Freese * none Justin Knoedler Tyler Herron Allen Craig Bryan Anderson
Joe Thurston Clayton Mortensen Jon Jay Tony Cruz
Colby Rasmus * Ian Ostlund Brett Wallace Luis De La Cruz
* 1st MLB action Adam Ottavino Steven Hill
Fernando Salas Matt Pagnozzi
Francisco Samuel
Jess Todd
P.J. Walters
Brad Furnish
Katsuhiko Maekawa
Shaun Garceau
Justin Fiske
Trey Hearne
Hyang-Nam Choi

Supporting information

For the corresponding details on how all of the NRIs in camp each spring in recent years played out, reference my post from February 15, entitled “Cardinals non-roster invitees – an update”.

For the specifics on all first-year players to have worn the Cardinals uniform since 1996, check out the article, “Cardinals first-year players and rookies – 1996–2008”.

While other players made their debuts to start the season, the majority of them were already on the club’s 40-man roster. By default, all these players receive an “automatic” spring training invitation.

Organizations are reluctant to add players to the 40-man roster until absolutely necessary because there are limits on the number of years a player can be sent down and back up to the majors again without risk of losing the player.

In addition, once the player arrives in the majors, he begins to inch closer to becoming arbitration-eligible, therefore increasing his salary, as well as starting his journey toward free-agency at six years of major league service.

The details behind options (sending a player down) and outrighting (removing a player from the 40-man roster) are complicated. In a four-part series on several years ago, I went into these subjects in great detail. Part one, which provides the basics, is free. (Parts two, three and four are subscriber content.)

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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