The Cardinals signed two players to minor league deals that are very similar.
Today, I’ll be covering old news. Old news that barely registers as news. You see back on November 20th, when teams were finalizing their 40 man roster, the Cardinals also signed a few minor league deals. So this is over a month old news. And it’s covering minor league deals, so these could be described as inconsequential. Moves that the average fan will never need to know because they will never make an impact.
And for the most part, that’s true. The vast majority of minor league deals – and I don’t mean signed by the Cardinals specifically – are players in their late 20s who either never made the majors, or clearly didn’t succeed when they got their shot. They are depth, in case of emergency. A good example of this depth being needed last year was Jose Rondon and Max Moroff. Competent performances by Rondon in 2021 are exactly why teams sign these deals.
And the Cardinals did sign a couple of those deals. They signed left-handed reliever Kyle Ryan, who has appeared in parts of seven seasons for the Tigers and Cubs. He debuted at 22, was underwhelming in a couple seasons with the Tigers, and after he spent most of his age 25 season in the minors, became a free agent. Signed with the Cubs, spent all of his first year in the minors, edged his way into the Cubs plans, and pitched terrible the last two seasons to go out of their plans. Only 30 despite that extensive history but clearly not a guy you want to need in the majors.
They also signed James Naile, who has an extremely unusual career. He was drafted by the Oakland Athletics as an old draftee at 22, and… stayed in their system until he became a free agent at 29-years-old. He never made the majors. I realize that might not sound unusual, but guys don’t typically stay with the same team through age 28 season without ever making the majors.
There’s kind of a reason for that I guess. He looked reasonably promising through age 23, starting in Low A and pitching all the way to AAA, though he only made five combined starts in AA and AAA that year. He got hurt, barely pitched the next year. He wasn’t very good at 25 in AAA the next year, and in an unusual move, the A’s kept him and had him start games in AA next year. He was bad in AA. The A’s kept him for some reason, and he played 2021 in the bullpen in AAA. He wasn’t great. He’s a groundball heavy pitcher.
Two other moves that happened at this time were players already in the Cardinals system. Well, one of them technically wasn’t, seeing as he was a free agent, but he played for the Memphis Redbirds in 2021. That’s outfielder and former 1st round pick Clint Coulter, signed midseason out of independent ball. He was average in 154 PAs with lots of strikeouts. Must be the 1st round pedigree they like. The other was successfully outrighting Ljay Newsome, who they claimed from the Mariners. The injured pitcher is now in their system without having to use a 40 man roster spot on him.
There are two other minor league signings that caught my eye though, and they are similar types of signings. They are both weirdly young for being free agents and both looked like they were progressing just fine, but unexpectedly had terrible 2021s that seemingly came out of nowhere. They were also beneficiaries of being international free agent signings, which meant they qualified for minor league free agency at a young age.
The first was snagged away from the Tampa Bay Rays. Corner outfielder Moises Gomez was signed out of Venezuela at 16-years-old in 2015. According to Fangraphs back in 2019, Gomez was a plus running centerfield prospect at the time. But you know, he was 16. So by 2019, he grew out of that plus speed and became someone limited to the corners. He immediately started playing in the Venezuelan Summer League, which I didn’t know was a thing and must not a difficult league. Only five MLB teams had a team there then. He was clearly too good for it, hitting for a 153 wRC+.
He went to the Gulf Coast league next year, where he was overmatched, with an 81 wRC+. He went to the Appy League next year, saw his numbers improve but he was still below average. At 19-years-old, he hit for a 131 wRC+ in Low A. Which prompted Fangraphs back in 2019 to write about him, placing him #13 in the Rays prospect list, expressing concern that he was limited to LF possibly and that he didn’t have great plate discipline.
In 2019, a promotion to High A saw his strikeouts rise and his power dip, but he also walked nearly 10% of the time. Still, a 106 wRC+ with a 33.5 K% is concerning. We skipped 2020 and he started 2021 in AA. He was quite bad, striking out 38.2% of the time, and just not making good contact when he did, with a 58 wRC+. And that’s where we stand with him today. He is only 23-years-old. As in he will be playing next season at 23.
The other player is a little more intriguing if only because his 2021 struggles are way easier to brush aside. Like Gomez, infielder Anderson Tejada was signed at just 16-years-old. Signed out of the Dominican Republican, he signed in September of 2014, so his first action was at 17 in the Dominican Summer League. Again, continuing the comparison, he was too good for the league, with a 156 wRC+ in 235 PAs. He saw three levels in 2016 and was a great hitter at all of them, starting in the DSL, the AZL, then short season A ball.
Also like Gomez, he started Low A at 19 and played the entire season there. He was slightly above average, striking out a little bit too much. He spent his age 20 season at High A and improved in every way, walking more, striking out less and having more power. Then they kept him in High A for some reason the next year, and he ended up getting hurt and missing most of that season to a shoulder injury. I really don’t know why he didn’t start that year in AA to be honest.
In 2020, he was added to the 40 man roster, being eligible for the Rule 5 draft. He actually ended up seeing extensive time in the majors during the pandemic season, appearing in 23 games. And for a guy who hadn’t played above High A ball, he played exactly how you’d expect actually. He walked once to 30 strikeouts in 77 PAs. But he got quite lucky and ended up with a 93 wRC+. He had an actual wOBA of .306 to an xwOBA of .252. Considering the K rate and the .381 BABIP, I’m inclined to think the latter number is the problem.
Cut to: early in the previous season. Tejada started the year in the minors, but was called up on April 9th when an injury forced him onto the roster. Whatever magic he held in 2020 disappeared, and he struck out 10 times in 17 PAs. He got sent down to AAA and couldn’t make contact there at all, with a 42.3 K%. He was then sent down to AA, where he also couldn’t make contact, with a similar K rate. His 75 wRC+ in AA was considerably better than his 25 wRC+ in AAA.
So as far as that easy to dismiss comment, he was clearly promoted way too soon. When he returned to High A at 21-years-old in 2019, he struck out 32% of the time. And then he was in the majors. And despite being not very good in that season, his first appearance this year was also the majors.
I don’t know, it’s possible and maybe even probable that Anderson Tejada is not good, but his career trajectory serves as a sort of warning to me to not promote players too soon. I realize the pandemic made it to where he could either play there or in a spring training that probably doesn’t tell you much, but he probably should have seen AA before he saw AAA. I’m wondering if the Rangers were fooled by his 2020 or something, because it’s… very bad. Those plate discipline numbers are as bad as you can get.
So two failed prospects of sorts with severe contact issues. Do the Cardinals think they can fix something with these guys? Honestly, it might be as simple as “both will be young for the level they’re at despite having seen some time in the upper minors.” Tejada will be 24 and probably starting in AA and Gomez will be 23 and probably starting in AA, though you could also justify High A.
As far as depth goes, these are the type of players who provide better depth than your late 20s players who failed in another system. Because they’re young enough that something might click. Given how bad they were last year, probably not, but it’s a lottery ticket. It’s the equivalent of buying a $1 lottery ticket. Except in this example, the team is spending that money anyway on somebody to take these roster spots, and you’re not lighting money on fire.