Collusion or just getting younger?

I was thinking about some of the dynamics this winter relating to the St. Louis Cardinals 40-man roster, prospects and the market for free agents and how that may represent a cross-section of changes across the game.

Though it is still early in the off-season in terms of player movement, there have been a number of verbal jousts reported in the media between management and agents over the current economic state of the game and its potential impact on signings.

Welle-07-AP-200The Cardinals are among those clubs that may experience the most change as they have nine free agents: pitchers Joel Pineiro, Todd Wellemeyer, John Smoltz, infielders Mark DeRosa, Khalil Greene and Troy Glaus, catcher Jason LaRue and outfielders Matt Holliday and Rick Ankiel.

Most of these veterans are not expected back for 2010. That is probably good, since there is no longer enough roster room for them all.

The youngsters from the farm system continue to push their way up, to the extent that the organization was forced to add eight of them to the 40-man roster or risk losing them in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft.

Here is where the roster stands today. Short of dropping other players off the 40-man, the Cardinals could at most add six more players before reaching their limit. They could be any combination of players taken from other organizations via Rule 5 and veteran free agents, whether their own or from other clubs. (Note: I am still keeping the Cardinals system roster matrix up to date.)

Let’s make a reasonable, yet high-side assumption that the Cards make no Rule 5 additions and fill five of their open roster spots with vets. That would put the Cardinals’ 40-man at 39 players, same as when the 2009 season ended.

What that would mean at a macro level is that nine veteran free agents from 2009 would be replaced by just five veterans in 2010. The net is four veteran jobs lost. If you believe five signings is too aggressive, then the number of vets displaced may even be greater.

If one takes the leap of applying this across MLB, one might only assume a couple of jobs per team would be lost since the 30 MLB clubs currently average about seven free agents each. Ignoring some of the players’ chances of regaining a roster spot via coming into camp as a non-roster invitee, an average of two jobs lost times 30 teams mean up to 60 major leaguers could find themselves out of work come spring.

I don’t know the typical number to which to compare from past off-seasons, but there are always some vets who find they have nowhere to sit when the music stops. 60 feels high but the 2010 count may surely be non-trivial.

Of course it may be inappropriate to apply the Cardinals’ situation to the rest of MLB as it may not be representative, but it still makes me wonder about what might be the cause.

Are the younger players better than the vets they replace or do they just represent the combination of future promise and a lower paycheck today?

Does this indicate a change in the wind or is it just baseball business-as-usual?