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

The Cardinals and minor league free agents

The St. Louis Cardinals have only six minor league free agents this year. What might that tell us?

This is the time of year when those players not currently on Major League 40-man rosters with at least six years of experience or have been a free agent previously have the right to declare free agency. Baseball America has documented the names of all 533 eligible players across the 30 organizations.

Matt Pagnozzi (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)The St. Louis Cardinals have just six of these free agents, by far the fewest across an MLB population that averages 18. I previously outlined St. Louis’ group back on October 5 for The Cardinal Nation subscribers. They are pitchers Oneli Perez, Matt Scherer, Josh Kinney and Rich Rundles and infielder Ruben Gotay. The sixth Cardinals player was added to the group late last week when catcher Matt Pagnozzi was outrighted.

The full list of 533 is a bit of a curiosity, fun to scan in hopes the next Ryan Ludwick can be discovered. The reality is that most of these players will land somewhere next season, but few if any will become future stars.

The reason I am writing about this list today is because of the numbers and what they might tell us. Here is the breakdown by organization.

31 Florida
27 Washington
26 Philadelphia Seattle
24 Dodgers Mets Oakland
22 Baltimore San Francisco
21 Colorado Tampa Bay
20 Houston Yankees
19 Angels Pittsburgh
18 MLB average Texas
17 White Sox Milwaukee Toronto
14 Cleveland San Diego
13 Boston
11 Arizona Cincinnati Kansas City
10 Atlanta Detroit Minnesota
8 Cubs
6 St. Louis

It should be noted that this list is not all-encompassing. Like some other organizations, late in the season, the Cardinals released players not on this list (Nate Robertson, Renyel Pinto, Kevin Howard) or granted free agency via other avenues (Evan MacLane).

Still, what might the count tell us? Why do the Cardinals have so few and is that good or bad?

Remember that this list is a mix of home-grown players and journeymen who began their careers elsewhere. Of the Cardinals’ six, only Scherer and Pags were originally drafted by St. Louis. Further, the Cardinals’ count has dropped steadily over the past four years, from 26 free agents to 15 to nine and now, six.

Critics of the organization are all over the map on the subject of minor league free agents. Here are three of the related concerns I have heard with my commentary following.

“The organization needs to sign more minor league free agents because their prospect pipeline is thin and the major league team may need ready help.”

One fallacy of this line of thinking is an inherent assumption that there are major league impact players lurking somewhere on this free agent list, waiting to be discovered. Gotay having sat all season in Memphis despite an obvious need at third base in St. Louis is a good reminder of the weakness of this argument.

While the organization could go all-out signing veterans, that would limit the at-bats and innings available for prospects who might have at least some additional chance for career upside.

“The system is weak across the board due to recent bad drafts and needs veterans from the outside to shore it up.”

This does point back to the 2004 (Scherer) draft and to a lesser extent, the 2003 (Pagnozzi) class, with the former especially having been among the Cardinals’ poorest in recent years. Many of the players from those years have already been whittled away (the entire remainder of the 2004 class) or have already made it (Daric Barton, Brendan Ryan and Jason Motte from 2003).

The poor 2004 draft is likely at least partially why the Cardinals’ current free agent count is so low. However, as noted elsewhere, subsequent drafts, especially 2005, helped to compensate from the systemwide depth perspective. From that class alone came Colby Rasmus, Tyler Greene, Mitchell Boggs, Nick Stavinoha and Jaime Garcia.

“The organization is overly-focused on winning at the expense of player development.”

In apparent direct conflict with the earlier contentions, one implication of this statement is that the Cardinals already sign more minor league free agents to ensure the upper levels of their system are competitive on the field.

The facts seem to blow away this straw man.

57.3 percent of the 533 are Triple-A players with 26.6 percent from Double-A, or about 84 percent of the total. Without this kind of large influx of minor league free agents, Memphis reached the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Double-A Springfield made it, too.

On the positive side, it seems to indicate that as a whole, the players drafted and originally signed into the system can play competitive team baseball.

Without the volume of players considered future impact MLBers compared to other organizations, this could also reinforce the “quantity versus high upside” concerns over recent Cardinals drafts, however. In other words, the theory goes that the Cardinals did an above-average job in filling the ranks with good players, but a relative too few are projected to be destined for greatness.

Though this free agent data is perhaps a better indicator of quantity rather than quality, it is a concern that may have merit.

What do you think?

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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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