JUPITER, Fla. — To introduce the oddest story of spring training, let’s go straight to Cardinals president John Mozeliak, who spoke with reporters Saturday morning in foul territory down the right-field line at Roger Dean Stadium.
“Last week, he hopped on a plane and flew to the Dominican Republic,” Mozeliak said, “unbeknownst to us.”
“He” is Yairo Munoz, the 25-year-old utility player who played 196 games for the Cardinals over the past two seasons, but will not be suiting up for the Redbirds going forward. He was given his unconditional release after the team sorted through his disappearance.
“We just decided that, based on what we’re hearing from his agent, cutting ties makes the most sense. He just wasn’t happy here,” Mozeliak said. “Frustrated with how he was used last year and didn’t like the writing on the wall, I think, that he was seeing this year.
“The bottom line is he left the club, and we could wait this out, but I don’t think that’s really in our best interest because the likelihood of him coming back and being happy didn’t seem very high probability.”
Munoz left the team on March 1, Mozeliak said, and the team learned about it when he just didn’t show up to the ballpark that day. Munoz texted a teammate — it wasn’t revealed which one — what he’d done, and the teammate told the Cardinals.
It’s a strange situation, to say the least. Munoz had 16 PAs in six games this spring — third-most on the team at the time — before departing, batting .375 with a home run, four RBIs and a stolen base. And he figured into the Cardinals’ plans again in 2020, even more than previous years with the extra roster spot giving more opportunities for the types of switches that versatile players like Munoz thrive in.
“It’s been disappointing for a lot of reasons,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s a good player who’s been an asset for us the last couple of years, been given opportunities and contributed to what we’ve been able to do, and was off to a really good camp. He got as many at-bats as anyone in camp, to allow him to improve and make up for some at-bats he didn’t get in winter ball. I really just wish him the best, is ultimately what I can say.”
Munoz played 108 games as a rookie for the Cardinals in 2018 and 88 games in 2019, but he didn’t start nearly as many games — that total dropped from 72 to 29 — and his plate appearances dropped from 329 to 181. Without that regular time, his OPS+ dropped from 109 to just 71, which ranked 251st of 300 players with at least 180 PAs in 2019.
“I knew there was frustration brewing,” Mozeliak said. “I knew that last year there were some situations that never got public, but he really wasn’t happy with how he was being used. So in a way I’m not surprised, but I’m completely surprised, if that makes sense, because it’s never happened.”
But what about the gap? Munoz left about a week ago, and the Cardinals just now revealed what had happened. He had injured his hamstring on a game Feb. 29, and the team told reporters he was out of camp going for an MRI.
“I can appreciate he was disappointed and wanted more,” Shildt said. “I didn’t maybe realize how much more he wanted.”
There’s obviously more to this story, but for now it’s only the Cardinals’ side out there. What’s next? The Cardinals, instead of putting Munoz on the restricted list, put him on unconditional release waivers, meaning he’s a free agent and can sign with any other team. Mozeliak said they thought about exploring trade options, but those didn’t seem promising.
“The fact that he’s not in this camp, that (trade) value would have been mitigated at that very moment,” Mozeliak said.
It’s worth noting, of course, that a player who leaves his current team without telling anyone isn’t exactly helping his reputation in the sport. But Munoz is only 25, brings a lot to the table and could very well have a story that explains the motivation behind his actions in a way that sheds more light on what happened.
He’ll certainly get another shot with a team. The question is when that will happen.
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