St. Louis Cardinals Lose Dean Kiekhefer, Jeremy Hazelbaker on Waiver Claims

Aug 21, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Jeremy Hazelbaker (41) hits a home run during the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Cardinals defeated the Phillies, 9-0. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 21, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Jeremy Hazelbaker (41) hits a home run during the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Cardinals defeated the Phillies, 9-0. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cardinals lost two contributors to their 2016 club on Friday.

The St. Louis Cardinals’ front office is faced with creating a rather significant amount of 40-man roster space this offseason, as the team only has a few free agents who are expected to depart, while they’ll have to add several prospects to the 40-man in order to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft. That harvesting process reared its ugly head on Friday, as the Cardinals lost two players who contributed to the big-league club in 2016–lefthanded pitcher Dean Kiekhefer and outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker–as other clubs claimed them on waivers.

Kiekhefer was the first player to be snatched up, as the Seattle Mariners announced during the early afternoon that they had acquired him. The 27-year-old lefty made his major-league debut in 2016, throwing for a 5.32 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, and .273 opponent batting average in 22 innings spanning 26 games. His numbers were much better against lefties, though, as he held them to a .209 average and 1.06 WHIP in 46 plate appearances.

It’s worth noting that pitchers like Kiekhefer (assuming he doesn’t become more effective against righthanded hitters) could be made obsolete this offseason as MLB works on a new CBA. A new rule, designed to cut down on excessive pitching changes, has been discussed that would force each pitcher to face at least two (or maybe even more) batters. That would allow managers the opportunity to write lineups with rotating lefthanded and righthanded hitters, which would eliminate any advantage created by bringing in a pure lefty specialist.

Dean Kiekhefer St. Louis Cardinals
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports /

Still, though, it was a bit surprising to see Kiekhefer removed from the 40-man roster during an offseason where the Cardinals will be trying to replace lefty Zach Duke, who underwent Tommy John surgery last month and will miss all of 2017. Though GM John Mozeliak has recently made it a point to state that the Cards can’t expect lefty Tyler Lyons to be healthy next season, they obviously have some level of faith that he’ll be able to rebound from a knee injury and fill Duke’s role in the ‘pen for the 2017 season.

Otherwise–and maybe even if Lyons is healthy–the Cardinals will have to look at some former starters as potential candidates to complement Kevin Siegrist as lefty relievers. Tim Cooney, Marco Gonzales, and Jaime Garcia could all fit in that type of role if they don’t win spots in the rotation. In addition, lefties Corey Littrell and Ryan Sherriff have been pitching in the Arizona Fall League and could force themselves into the roster conversation, though Sherriff’s numbers aren’t exactly favorable at the moment.

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Later in the day, the Cardinals lost Hazelbaker on waivers to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a club that could use extra outfield depth a season after injuries to lineup anchors AJ Pollock and David Peralta cost them a chance at being competitive.

Hazelbaker’s departure caps off a wild year for the 29-year-old slugger, who unexpectedly made the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster with a dominant spring training, settled into a near-everyday role with a 1.040 OPS during April, was demoted to Triple-A in June, then returned in July to become one of the Cardinals’ most important bench players for the rest of the season.

The fact that Hazelbaker couldn’t hold a 40-man roster spot with the Cardinals sheds light on how little separation there is between second and third-tier position players in Major League Baseball right now. Just a couple seasons ago, a bench player with above-average speed, solid defensive ability and versatility, superior pinch-hitting skills (11-for-41 with four homers, nine RBI, and a walk), and tremendous power–at least in a small sample size–would have been a hot commodity.

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After all, Hazelbaker hit 12 homers in 224 at-bats, and his .245 ISO (isolated power) was the 11th-highest among major-league outfielders with at least 200 plate appearances in 2016. He’s sandwiched between names like Mark Trumbo, Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, and Ryan Braun on that leaderboard. But in a 2016 season that was the second-most power-packed year in the history of the sport, players with that skill are considered replaceable, apparently.

The Cardinals’ decision to jettison Hazelbaker presumably will pave the way for them to acquire an everyday center fielder via trade or free agency this offseason. With Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss seemingly out of the picture for 2017, the Cardinals’ current options as in-house reserve outfielders are Kolten Wong, Tommy Pham, Jose Martinez, and Anthony Garcia (who posted a sub-.700 OPS in the minors this season). If he rediscovers his swing, prospect Harrison Bader could also force himself into the discussion at some point next season, though the Cardinals would likely be cautious about promoting him if he wasn’t going to start consistently.

With Kiekhefer and Hazelbaker gone, the Cardinals currently have 40 players on their 40-man roster. But after they officially decline the options of Holliday and Jordan Walden, refuse to tender a qualifying offer to Moss, and allow Jerome Williams to hit free agency, that number will be reduced to 36.

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In addition, the Cardinals could easily create extra roster space by designating Duke–whose contract expires after 2017–for assignment. If they think there’s any chance of him returning later on, or if they simply want to allow him to rehab at their facilities, they could always re-sign him to a minor-league contract after he cleared waivers.