2 players the Cardinals should protect from the Rule 5 draft and 2 they should expose

With the Rule 5 draft approaching, the St. Louis Cardinals have some decisions to make on which players to protect on the 40-man roster and which players to leave available for other teams to claim.

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Protect: Inohan Paniagua, RHP

Inohan Paniagua has conquered Low-A, but High-A has proven more difficult. After breakout seasons with Low-A Palm Beach in 2021 and 2022, Paniagua missed the first three months of the season with a shoulder injury in his second High-A go-around. When he returned, he was mostly the same pitcher as he was in 2022 at that level: He had a 4.13 ERA, and his strikeout rate of 8.3 was just a tick down from the 8.8 mark of 2022.

Unfortunately, Paniagua's walk rate spiked after his return, rising from 3.7 walks per nine innings in 2022 to 5.5 in 2023. However, control is often slow to come back for pitchers after shoulder injuries, and given that Paniagua had never had extreme control troubles before, his walk rates will likely come back down next year.

Paniagua performed better in his 44.1 innings last season than the stats indicate, and his 45.3% ground ball rate was a career high. Assuming he is fully healthy in 2024 and his walks are under control, the signs point to more progress for Paniagua. Although Paniagua is only 23 and a lower-level player, thus being less likely to be taken in the Rule 5 draft than those at higher levels, it would be prudent for the Cardinals to add him to their 40-man roster.

Expose: Pedro Pages, C

A sixth-round pick by the Cardinals in 2019, Pedro Pages hit .267 with a career-high 16 home runs in Double-A in 2023. He is a defensive-minded catcher with a decent arm, but given that the Cardinals seem set at catcher for the foreseeable future, Pages likely won't fit into the Cardinals' plans anytime soon.

With the offensively gifted Willson Contreras likely to be the starting catcher next season, Andrew Knizner and Ivan Herrera will likely battle it out for the backup job. While Contreras has defensive liabilities, Knizner has shown that he capable behind the plate, and he had the best offensive year of his career in 2023. Herrera, meanwhile, opened eyes in his 44 plate appearances with the Cardinals, hitting .297.

There could be a reason for the Cardinals to keep Pages around if Herrera or Knizner is traded this offseason, but given that Jimmy Crooks is knocking on the door to Double-A, Pages has a very small window in which he could make an impact. Pages has performed decently in the minor leagues, but the team's depth at the position makes him likely to be an extra piece at the moment.

The Rule 5 draft is something teams have to keep in the back of their minds when deciding how to construct their rosters, but the Cardinals can afford to trim some of the fat off of their current 40-man roster to make room for these higher-upside pieces while eschewing those with less promise.