It’s February. The hot stove isn’t all that hot, and we haven’t yet reached that fun part of the offseason where we can overanalyze how everyone’s in the best shape of their careers. To get you one day closer to Cardinals baseball, we’re going to imagine that the MLB is holding an expansion draft, and John Mozeliak is deciding which of their most valuable assets to protect.

First, lets lay out the rules and have a nice chat about the history of the expansion draft. The MLB has held six expansion drafts, the most recent being in 1997 to accommodate the addition of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

That draft yielded five eventual All-Stars, including Bobby Abreu. It also shuffled around quite a few players who did not make an impact on their new ballclub, which can be deemed the likely outcome for most of these guys.

The way it works is by the end of the draft, each team will have protected 21 players from their organization. The following players are automatically ineligible to be drafted, and therefore don’t need to be protected:

  1. Players drafted in the 2015 or 2016 amateur draft
  2. Prospects signed in 2014 who were 18 years old or younger
  3. Players who will be free agents at the end of the 2017 season

FYI, these rules mean that your favorite Cardinals prospects like Harrison Bader, Dakota Hudson, and Delvin Perez are all safe as are upcoming free agents Aledmys Diaz, Jhonny Peralta, Lance Lynn, and Seung-hwan Oh. Everyone else is fair game! Let’s jump in and see who can rest easy come draft day.

The No-Brainers: Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong

I promise not to spend too much time on these guys. They’re the present and future of the franchise, so it’s not hard to make an argument that their names need to be the first on this list. Martinez and Reyes are two guys that can create a devastating 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation for years to come.

Carpenter is in the process of taking over the Cardinals “face of the franchise” role from Yadier Molina, so he’s going to stay put. Wong hasn’t quite put it all together yet, but he’s still young and has loads of potential, so we’re not about to let him go.

The Aging Contributors: Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright

Sure, these two guys might not be your typical franchise building blocks at this stage in their careers, but they’re incredibly valuable clubhouse presences, and they can still hold their own at their respective positions. Molina, in fact, had one of his best seasons in 2016, and will be counted on to mentor Carson Kelly and guide a new wave of young arms in their first taste of the big leagues. Wainwright had a rocky season, but he’s one of the few guys who can be counted on for 200 innings year after year.

The Young Guns: Luke Weaver, Carson Kelly,  Michael Wacha

Aside from Wacha (who is still somehow only 25), we’re looking at a duo that’s had a cup of coffee in the bigs, and will be expected to take big steps forward this year and in the future. Looping Wacha back in now, all of these guys have a lot to prove if they’re going to justify this protection. However, their MLB readiness makes them prime candidates for a budding expansion team, so we need to be careful and not let the future get away.

The Valuable Role Players: Matt Adams, Greg Garcia, Trevor Rosenthal

It’s these sorts of players who usually make up the bulk of expansion picks: guys who are fringe starters or have a big blemish on the back of their baseball card. Adams and Garcia obviously represent the former, while Rosenthal represents the latter.

The truth is, there’s no reason to let bonafide major league talent be stolen from the Cardinals roster. Adams has serious power, Garcia’s versatility is one of the most valuable qualities on the whole team, and Rosenthal is just a year removed from being among the best shutdown closers in the game.

The Outfield and Jedd Gyorko: Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Dexter Fowler, Jedd Gyorko

So I obviously ran out of (sort of) clever names for the groupings, but that should probably only further prove why these guys should be protected: they’re our outfield. And Jedd Gyorko. Grichuk and Piscotty are young, cost-controlled players who have already proven that they can handle the rigors of a 162 game season, and Fowler is our shiny new toy! Of course, we’re not about to let Jedd Gyorko and his out of nowhere 30 homers get away either.

The Up-And-Comers: Jack Flaherty, Magneuris Sierra, Sandy Alcantara, Edmundo Sosa, Eli Alvarez

Now comes the difficult point where Mozeliak decides if he’d rather be sure that some of the complimentary pieces on the current roster are going to stick around, or if he’d be better off protecting some of the top guys in the farm system. If I’m Mozeliak, and in this situation I certainly am, I’m going with the farm. It’s no sure thing that any of these guys pans out, but it’d be a punch in the gut if a guy like Flaherty blossomed into a star so I could keep Zach Duke around. Speaking of which…

Just missed the cut: Kevin Siegrist, Mike Leake, Zach Duke, Brett Cecil, Austin Gomber, Junior Fernandez, John Gant

So, come draft day, this is the group of Cardinals that an expansion team would likely be considering. Luckily, it’s not a stacked group. Sure, you’ve got half of our bullpen in there, but expansion teams can’t usually allocate too many resources to high-powered relief arms.

Yep, there’s Mike Leake. You can have him if you want him. I dare you. Last is the group of prospects that just missed the cut. They’re either pretty far from the majors, or don’t have a high enough ceiling to really warrant a draft pick.

There you go! Now feel free to debate with me on twitter @adamkaufman315 or just destroy me in the comments if that’s more your style.

Photo by © Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

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