When the San Diego Padres arrive this week for their annual visit to St. Louis, they will do so with a few reminders — of prospects the Cardinals once had and an approach the Cardinals intend to change.
In each of the past two offseasons, the Cardinals have left lower minor-league talents available in the Rule 5 draft and watched as the Padres cherry-picked two players who are on their current roster: Luis Perdomo, Thursday’s starter, and infielder Allen Cordoba, a Class A player a year ago whom San Diego is stashing on the bench. Both players were considered rising prospects by the Cardinals, but they rationalized neither could stick in the majors with a club aiming to win.
That is an outdated bet.
The Padres don’t have to be rational.
“I think definitely some lessons were learned from the last couple of years. At least I hope so,” said John Mozeliak, Cardinals president of baseball operations. “We have to understand the playing field has changed.”
In other words, potential could be more valuable than depth.
Soon after the end of the World Series, all teams must identify eligible minor-league players to protect from the Rule 5 draft by placing them on the 40-man roster. A year ago, the Cardinals opted to keep players closer to the majors, like Breyvic Valera and Anthony Garcia, while leaving a high-ceiling, though far away, prospect such as Cordoba exposed. San Diego took him with the third pick of the Rule 5 draft and the Padres, deep into a rebuild, are a few weeks away from wresting control of his rights away from the Cardinals.
When rosters expand, he’ll have spent the entire season in the majors and becomes the Padres’ in full, eligible to go to the minors next year and develop, without risk of losing him.
Perdomo was the same a year ago.
Twice bitten, the Cardinals are going to take a different look at their protection process this season. There are a few players who must be protected and are obvious additions. Power-arm starter Sandy Alcantara and power hitter Tyler O’Neill will be added. Lefty Austin Gomber and steady starter Matt Pearce must also be added to the 40-man roster to be protected from the Rule 5 draft. Outfielder Oscar Mercado is another. At Class AA Springfield, Mercado has been a revelation this year – a gem the Cardinals thought they had, and now other teams are seeing. Mercado has hit .289 with a .773 OPS, 12 homers and 35 steals.
The Cardinals have ample depth when it comes to outfielders, though a decision on Mercado could be based on future impact, like they didn’t make with Perdomo or Cordoba.
“I think what you have to realize is there is always going to be a team or two that can take the approach to a complete rebuild, or take a chance,” Mozeliak said. “When you go back five, six, seven years ago that wasn’t happening where people are taking four or five Rule 5 players. Now people are being more aggressive in how they think about talent collection.”
The Cardinals would discuss the using the 40-man as protection as much as collection. Perdomo was the Cardinals’ Futures Game representative in 2014, and he dazzled as the best pitcher to appear in it, flashing an upper-90s fastball. The Cardinals gambled that no team could keep a Class A pitcher in the majors all season. San Diego did. He’s now 6-8 with a 4.93 ERA in 22 starts as a fixture of the Padres’ rotation. Cordoba stormed the prospect rankings a year ago with a .362 average and a .922 OPS as a shortstop for the Cardinals’ short-season Johnson City affiliate. A quirk in his contract – it had to be rewritten – made him immediately eligible for the Rule 5 draft, and the Cardinals figured an Appalachian League player hadn’t been taken in years, so they didn’t protect him.
Internally, this caused some debate. The Cardinals ultimately sided with a younger infielder who was closer to the majors, Edmundo Sosa, and a depth infielder, Valera, who was better than any minor-league free agent they could land.
Again, they bet on a big-league team being unable to hide a Class A player.
The Padres could.
Cordoba, 21, started fast for the Padres and hit .308 with a .400 slugging percentage in May. Since June 1, he's 12 for 88 (.136) and has seen his playing time shrink. He has just three at-bats this month. But the Padres, their eye down the road, could dedicate a roster spot to Cordoba. That’s a new use of the Rule 5 to which the Cardinals, a more pragmatic contender, must adapt.
“That balance becomes protection (of a prospect) vs. support, depth,” Mozeliak said. “From an organization standpoint we have to be more cognizant of what talent we’re just not willing to lose.”
VOIT SENT BACK
To keep outfielder Stephen Piscotty in the majors as their fifth outfielder, the Cardinals returned rookie Luke Voit to Class AAA Memphis. The Lafayette High alum and Missouri State standout had seen his at-bats decrease in recent weeks as the Cardinals’ offense surged with the return of Dexter Fowler and rise of others. Voit started once on his past road trip and had three hits overall in Boston, but had just 24 plate appearances this month.
Voit will return as Memphis’ everyday first baseman.
Piscotty, the team’s 26th man for Sunday’s MLB Little League Classic, moved to the 25-man roster Monday, and his role will emerge over time. He had played eight games since his demotion, and since Tommy Pham and Fowler have become change agents for the Cardinals’ lineup. Piscotty had two hits in his return to the starting lineup Sunday.
This time, the handshake line wasn’t organic as the last time Mike Matheny was a part of one in Major League Baseball. In 2004, Larry Walker hatched a plan to have a handshake line, win or lose, at the completion of the National League division series against the LA Dodgers. When LA lost, the Dodgers still lined up. The two teams, including Cardinals catcher Matheny, shook hands near home, similar to the NHL, where a handshake line is tradition after a playoff series.
On Sunday, at the Classic, managers Matheny and Clint Hurdle, along with the urging of MLB, agreed to have their teams meet and shake hands after the game, a nod to Little League.
It got the loudest ovation of the evening from the crowd, which was mostly little leaguers.
But it’s a practice that still cannot get a grip in the big leagues.
“In hockey, even football, you’ll see a sign of respect,” Matheny said. “Midseason, outside of a venue like this, I’m not a big fan of it. Postseason for sure. Guys go at it — acknowledge the other side. I think it’s a good move.”
Memphis set a franchise record with its 84th victory Monday. The Redbirds downed New Orleans 5-1 and improved to 84-45. They’ve won 38 of their past 52 games and clinched the division title earlier this month. … Jordan Schafer, who came to spring training to try to win a job as both a pitcher and outfielder, has returned to the field after Tommy John surgery, but only as an outfielder. Schafer is five games into a rehab assignment with the GCL Cardinals, and he’s hitting .333 with three walks.