Tonight, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals will square off in Game 7 of the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference Finals. Each team is loaded with superstars, and as somebody with moderately positive but ultimately apathetic attitudes towards both, I look forward to enjoying the sheer drama of a winner-take-all playoff game.

Despite the possibility of superstars such as Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos winning their first Stanley Cup if they win tonight, the biggest story in hockey, and one of the biggest stories in sports, is tonight’s winner’s opponent in the Stanley Cup Finals–the Vegas Golden Knights.

While the Golden Knights are not the first expansion team to make the finals in its first year of existence in major professional sports–the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues also did–the circumstances surrounding the Golden Knights make this an unprecedented underdog story. While the Blues made the finals by virtue of winning a conference which consisted entirely of expansion teams, thus necessitating that an expansion team make the finals, the Vegas Golden Knights were thrown into the NHL’s Pacific Division–it’s a bad division by NHL standards, but it’s a division consisting of teams which existed before this season.

Some NHL fans have complained that Vegas was given too easy of a route to relevance compared to previous expansion teams (I swear I’m eventually going to talk about baseball), but this is mostly retrospective. While some argued that Vegas could be good for an expansion team, very few experts picked them to contend for a playoff position, much less a conference title. But Vegas took advantage of its situation to make moves which, in retrospect, seem like no-brainers.

They selected Marc-Andre Fleury, a once-great goalie who had been displaced by a younger, cheaper Matt Murray with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Fleury regained his form and now looks unstoppable. They acquired William Karlsson, who scored 43 goals, after the Columbus Blue Jackets traded first and second round draft picksĀ so that the Blue Jackets could take him off their hands. Perhaps most famously, the Florida Panthers did not protect Jonathan Marchessault, who tallied a quite good 30 goals and 21 assists last season–he promptly scored 27 goals and 48 assists with Vegas.

Existing NHL teams, as a whole, did a catastrophically bad job in the expansion draft process. But I can’t mock them too much. Protecting players is hard.

Last June, when the Vegas Golden Knights were about to have their expansion draft, I co-hosted a Viva El Birdos podcast episode in which Heather Simon and I compiled a list of the fifteen players we would protect for an expansion draft, a thing which hasn’t happened in baseball for over two decades but which is perpetually rumored.

Our picks were dreadful. Neither of us protected Paul DeJong. Heather talked me into protecting Dexter Fowler over Tommy Pham. We probably botched it, but also, expansion drafts are hard!

But I’m going to give it another shot. Fifteen players, listed by position group and alphabetically within said group, that I will protect from being selected by the Portland Beavers or whatever. A few important caveats, based on precedent in MLB expansion drafts:

  1. Players from the 40-man roster as well as minor leagues are eligible to be drafted
  2. Players drafted by the Cardinals in the 2016 or 2017 amateur draft are not eligible to be selected (notable automatically protected prospects include Andrew Knizner, Dakota Hudson, Delvin Perez, and Dylan Carlson)
  3. Players born in 1996 or later are not eligible to be selected (the only player with MLB experience exempted by this is Jordan Hicks)

So now, let me make myself look stupid on a whole new website! Contract figures are via Baseball Reference.

Catcher: Carson Kelly

That Andrew Knizner is automatically protected might tempt some to expose Kelly, as a team only needs one catcher, and only one of the two canĀ truly replace Yadier Molina. But Carson Kelly, MLB offensive struggles aside, is a highly regarded prospect who will make the league minimum at least through 2020. Even if Knizner passes Kelly on the prospect rankings, Kelly would have more trade value than anyone left unprotected here. As for Molina, he is still the best catcher in the organization, and his loss would be unpleasant, but at $20 million per season through 2020 for an aging catcher currently on the Disabled List, it’s not necessarily a crushing blow (note: no, it’s not my money, nor is it yours, but if the Cardinals have $20 million freed up, they can then spend that money on somebody else).

Infielders: Paul DeJong, Jedd Gyorko, Jose Martinez, Yairo Munoz, Kolten Wong

DeJong, feared to have lucked his way into a 2017 breakthrough, showed signs not only of continuing his impressive debut into 2018, but signs of growth (he walks sometimes now!). While he is currently injured, this shouldn’t cause damage to him in the long term, and there isn’t another shortstop in the Cardinals system of DeJong’s caliber (Delvin Perez, even if he learns how to hit, is several years from the Majors), and DeJong is under team control for below-market value through 2025. Gyorko is under contract through 2019, at $9 million and $13 million, with a $13 million team option for 2020; the third baseman/useful utility infielder is a very valuable fail-safe in case of injury to several Cardinals.

Martinez may be single-handedly converting me into a DH for the NL advocate, but the man can unquestionably rake, and he is under team financial control through 2022, and will make the league minimum through next season. Munoz has looked overmatched at the big league level, and while I have frequently lobbied against him being on the MLB roster (it’s fine that he’s currently on the roster, since Literally Everybody is on the DL), that the team had enough faith in him out of Spring Training to put him on the Opening Day roster suggests that a guy with infinite club control remaining is worth maintaining. And Wong, while he has struggled at the plate in 2018, is the infield’s best fielder by a mile and will be reasonably priced through 2021 (or 2020 if the Cardinals choose not to exercise a team option).

Not protecting Matt Carpenter hurts a little, and he will be among the first group protected following the first drafted Cardinal, but he is only under contract for one more season, at a fine but not an absolute bargain $14.75 million, and an infield of Martinez/Wong/DeJong/Gyorko isn’t a substantial downgrade.

Outfielders: Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Tommy Pham

Pham is a given–he is continuing to play at an MLB-caliber level and makes league minimum, and for the next three seasons, he will make an artificially-suppressed salary in arbitration. Yes, he’s 30 and probably won’t improve, but he will only be 33 by the end of his arbitration years, meaning he will probably still be a very much viable MLB starter. Bader and O’Neill are riskier, but they all are under team control through at least 2023 at low prices, with Bader showing great promise in the field and Tyler O’Neill being probably the greatest power hitter in baseball history.

Exposing Dexter Fowler, as much as I like the guy, seems like a no-brainer at this point–he will probably bounce back from his rough 2018 start to a degree, but he’s probably an average-ish outfielder on a team with a preponderance of league-minimum outfielders who are as good, if not better, than Fowler. Marcell Ozuna, who makes just $9 million in 2018 and has another year of arbitration eligibility, would have been unthinkable to not protect entering 2018, but his struggles seem even more sustainable (in the bad way) than Fowler’s–he is swinging wildly at pitches, not walking enough, and his defense is making the phrase “Gold Glove winner” look as ridiculous as it deserves to appear. This non-protect could backfire badly, I’ll admit, but I have faith in the young guys.

Pitchers: Jack Flaherty, Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver

Six starting pitchers and no relievers, to which I simply say this: is there a reliever you’d prefer in terms of upside (with the possible exception of the aforementioned, automatically protected Jordan Hicks) than whichever of these guys doesn’t end up in your rotation?

Anyway, the trio of Flaherty, Reyes, and Weaver are ultra-young and ultra-cheap and I want them all to be my best friends. Flaherty has a 2.31 ERA and 2.82 FIP in 23 1/3 MLB innings this season, and inexplicably, his AAA results are about as good (2.27 ERA, 3.06 FIP). Reyes, in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, has performed cartoonishly well in rehab starts–he struck out 12 in 5 IP in A-ball, 6 in 3 1/3 in high-A, and 13 in 7 2/3 in AA. And Weaver, despite some bad luck, has been very effective all season long in MLB–you can’t not protect a 24 year-old with a 3.53 FIP.

Carlos Martinez may not be a true-talent 1.62 ERA pitcher, but he’s among the game’s better starters, and he is slotted to be underpaid by the Cardinals through 2023. Wacha is a starter that many Cardinals fans have arguably taken for granted–for now, he has a 3.08 ERA, a 3.46 FIP, and has one more year of arbitration eligibility in 2019. Wacha may be a trade chip due to the team’s depth, but given his consistency and low cost, he could be a rather valuable one. And Mikolas, fresh off a shutout, has a 2.24 ERA and is walking less than one batter per nine innings. He is a bargain at $8 million for next season and will have three more years of arbitration eligibility after that–because of his status as an NPB import he probably won’t be as dramatically underpaid as others, but being able to go year-to-year is a big plus for the Cardinals.

Feel free to tell me what I screwed up so I know now and not a year from now because listening to my list from last year was sad and embarrassing.

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