One of the ways the Cardinals can overcome the hacking penalty is if former first-round pick Nick Plummer regains his prospect status.

By Rob Rains

The penalty against the Cardinals for Chris Correa’s illegal hacking into the Astros’ computer database was, as expected, severe. But it could have been worse.

Commissioner Rob Manfred took away the Cardinals’ top two picks in this year’s amateur draft and gave them to the Astros along with the slot money associated with those picks. He stopped short of also taking away a first-round pick from the Cardinals in the 2018 draft, which it could be argued, would have been a more appropriate punishment.

The picks the Cardinals are losing are the 56th and 74th overall choices, while a first-round pick would have been one of the top 30. The Cardinals already had given up their first-round pick this year, the 19th overall selection, for signing free agent Dexter Fowler. 

Less likely, but still a possibility, would have been Manfred awarding the Astros a player currently under contract with the Cardinals as compensation - say one of their first-round picks from the two drafts in question, 2013 and 2014. That player could have been Marco Gonzales, Jack Flaherty or Luke Weaver.

So the Cardinals, while hurt by the penalty, can survive the loss of the two draft picks and the impact losing the slot money will have on the rest of their draft selections. Here are eight ways that can happen:

1. Sign Luis Robert. The 19-year-old Cuban outfielder would certainly be an early first-round pick if he was draft eligible. The Cardinals will need more than money to sign Robert, however, they will need MLB’s help in clearing him to sign prior to the June 15 deadline. If he is not given the OK before then, the Cardinals will be prevented from signing him because of how much they have spent on other international signings this year. In the next signing period, which starts July 2, the Cardinals will not be allowed to sign players for more than a $300,000 bonus.

2. Look for draft picks who won’t demand seven-figure signing bonuses. They are out there, and it will be up to the organization’s area scouts to find them – college seniors, players from small colleges and junior college players are usually just looking for a chance to play. The Cardinals have a positive history of success with small college players, and this might be the year to be even more aggressive in that area. Drafting those kinds of players would help in spreading around the just over $2 million the Cardinals can spend on their eight draft choices from the third to the 10th round.

3. Hope Sam Tewes pitches well. The righthander from Wichita State missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery after the Cardinals picked him in the eighth round. Scouts believe he could have been taken as early as the second round without the injury concerns. Tewes is back throwing and should be ready for the start of spring training and could move quickly as he begins his first professional season, almost as he was one of this year’s draft picks.

4. Hope Nick Plummer regains his status as a top prospect. Plummer was the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2015 out of a Detroit-area high school. He played in 51 games for the rookie GCL Cardinals that summer but missed all of last season after undergoing surgery for a broken hand. The outfielder is only 20 years old and regaining his status as a top prospect, would like Tewes, almost be considered a bonus draft selection.

5. Stay aggressive on the international market. There are more international players available other than Robert, and all it will cost the Cardinals is money since they already have exceeded their bonus cap for this signing period. Even with the $300,000 cap on signings starting July 2, Moises Rodriguez and his group of international scouts can find players who will sign for less than that. Two of the Cardinals’ current top prospects, outfielder Magneuris Sierra and right-handed pitcher Santa Alcantara, both signed for a smaller bonus.

6. Take advantage of the $125,000 cap on signings after the 10th round. The amount which a team can spend on players selected from the 11th to the 40th round was raised in the new CBA from $100,000 to $125,000 before affecting the team’s signing cap. Many of the selections in those rounds don’t get close to that kind of bonus but if the Cardinals are willing to push the bonuses close to that cap they might be able to add some prospects who otherwise might not sign. It will be up to the area scouts to try to hide high school players who might think they won’t sign and keep a good relationship with college juniors who also think they won’t sign but later could change their minds.

As with their history of small-college success, the Cardinals routinely find players on the second and third day of the draft who emerge as prospects and potential major-leaguers. This is because of the strength of their area scouts, and their importance will be greater this year than ever before.

7. Get lucky with Chris Ellis, John Gant and Luke Dykstra. These were the three prospects the Cardinals acquired in the trade that sent Jaime Garcia to the Braves. Ellis and Gant are both 24-year-old righthanded pitchers and likely will begin the season at Triple A, adding to the Cardinals’ strongest area in their farm system, right-handed pitching. Dykstra, the son of former major-leaguer Lenny Dykstra, is a 21-year-old switch-hitting second baseman who hit .304 in low Class A last year. Whether he begins the year at Palm Beach or Peoria likely depends on how aggressive the Cardinals want to be with pushing Eli Alvarez to Double A Springfield after he hit .323 in Peoria last year.

8. Hope the big league team shows enough depth in spring training that somebody can be traded for good young prospects. There are several players who could fall into this category, including a player such as Matt Adams who could be limited to a bench role if Matt Carpenter becomes the regular first baseman. The Cardinals also appear to have several pitchers good enough to stick in the major leagues but who might be left out because of the numbers game. Trading a pitcher such as Weaver in a package could return some younger prospects, again almost as if they were added in this year’s draft.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains