JUPITER, Fla. — In a bizarre twist to the Cardinals' competition for a spot on the bench, Yairo Munoz bolted the team without notice, flew home to the Dominican Republic, and left the Cardinals unsure when, or if, he would return.
So they made the decision for him Saturday morning.
The Cardinals gave Munoz, their utility infielder the previous two years, his unconditional release, allowing him to become a free agent. It is unclear where that leaves Munoz as far as interest from other teams because he went AWOL before he had a hamstring injury examined by the Cardinals. The move leaves the Cardinals with an open spot on the 40-man roster, and it gives an open avenue for players like Tommy Edman, Brad Miller, and prospect Edmundo Sosa to secure or compete for roles on the 26-man roster.
Manager Mike Shildt called Munoz's departure and lack of communication with the team "baffling."
"More opportunities were going to come Yairo's way with the extra (spot) on the bench," Shildt said. "He was going to see more opportunities. I wish him the best. I wish I had a better explanation. It's been baffling."
Shildt said his biggest concern is that Munoz is also OK, adding that no contact with the player is unusual. After talking with the media, Shildt circled back to say that he was thinking of Munoz's well being more than the roster spot.
At least one teammate has been in contact with Munoz, and that was how the Cardinals learned that he had taken a flight home.
Munoz, 25, had been one of the early leaders for spring training at-bats, but in his final appearance with the Cardinals he felt a "pop" in his hamstring. The Cardinals scheduled him for an exam, and even as recently as the middle of this past week the team said Munoz was scheduled for an MRI on Thursday. He never showed. The team says he never gave them notice of his plans.
"Last week, he hopped on a plane and flew to the Dominican Republic, unbeknownst to us," said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. "Trying to determine what is the next, best step, we just decided based on what we're hearing from his agent maybe cutting ties make the most sense. He just wasn't happy here, and was frustrated with how he was used last year. Didn't like the writing on the wall that he was seeing this year."
The Cardinals had set the competition for the bench part to allow for them to option Munoz to Class AAA Memphis, where he would be a starter. The team felt that his development as a player may have stalled with sporadic use in the majors, and the opportunity for more playing time existed at Triple-A.
When previously demoted to Memphis, Munoz's had worn his frustration on his sleeve.
His closest friend on the team, Marcell Ozuna, signed as a free agent with Atlanta this past offseason.
The Cardinals could have played Munoz on the restricted list, as they did a year ago when he was late returning to the team from paternity leave. That would have allowed them to use the spot on the 40-man roster while also retaining the rights to Munoz. The also could have looked to trade Munoz, though his sudden departure from camp, radio silence, and also the unknown severity of his injury would have limited, even erased any interest from other teams.
In addition to releasing Munoz, the Cardinals cut 13 players from camp. They optioned pitchers Ricardo Sanchez and Alvaro Seijas, and optioned infielder Elehuris Montero. The Cardinals also assigned the following players to minor-league camp: Akeem Bostick, Habil Crismatt, Seth Elledge, Alex FaGalde, Griffin Roberts, Angel Rondon, Ramon Santos, Luken Baker, Julio Rodriguez, and Alex Wilson.
In 196 games with the Cardinals, Munoz played six different positions, including shortstop and center field, and he flashed one of the best arms on the team. He hit .273/.331/.391 with a .723 OPS and 10 homers.
This season, the Cardinals populated the roster with even more competition for Munoz, including switch-hitter Edman, who had a breakthrough last season, and lefthanded-hitting Miller, who was signed as camp opened. Sosa had an impressive turn in winter ball and has positioned himself as one of the best options in the field to backup shortstop Paul DeJong.
The Cardinals acquired Munoz from Oakland in the deal that sent Stephen Piscotty to the A's so that he could be closer to his family as they helped his mother through an illness. Max Schrock also came to the Cardinals in that deal, but it was Munoz that asserted himself first as ready for the majors with a strong spring training in 2018.
In 2019, the Cardinals said they wanted to get a lefthanded bat on the bench, and Munoz outperformed that wish and forced his way back onto the bench.
When his playing time remain mostly stagnant, he let teammates know of his frustrations. Mozeliak said he received word from others -- not directly from Munoz -- of the player's disappointment.
Mozeliak agreed that releasing a player who left camp possibly because he was unhappy with his role is an uncomfortable precedent.
"Very dangerous," he said.
"We can either wait this out but I don't feel that's really in our best interests because the likelihood of him coming back and being happy didn't seem to have a very high probability," Mozeliak added. "It's very odd. I knew there was frustration brewing, and last year I knew there were some situations that he really wasn't happy with how he was being used. So in a way I'm not surprised, but I'm completely surprised because this never happens.
"In a way, it is good for him, he's getting what he wants. He can now decide to play for 29 other clubs. I didn't see a happy ending no matter how hard I tried."
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