ST. LOUIS -- Let's start with the undisputed fact: The St. Louis Cardinals are doing everything a Major League Baseball team is supposed to do well.
The Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, came within a game of the National League pennant in 2012 and currently sit three games out in the NL Central in 2013, leading the NL wild card chase. If this sounds familiar, it should. The Cardinals made the playoffs six times between 2000 and 2006, winning a pair of NL pennants and the 2006 World Series.
Those two eras have in common the ownership of Bill DeWitt, whose group purchased the Cardinals in 1996 for $150 million. But the two teams were built very differently.
"We were able to make trades for Jim Edmonds, and Mark McGwire, and Scott Rolen, and Darryl Kile," said DeWitt, as we discussed the evolution of the franchise during an hour-long interview in his Busch Stadium office last Friday. "Really key players who had great seasons with us, and really elevated the franchise over that period of time. But we could see the landscape changing."
What those Cardinals teams sacrificed in the process of building a winner through trades and free agency was any semblance of a farm system as pipeline for talent to ultimately help the Cardinals win.
On the 2004 Cardinals, of the top 14 position players ranked by plate appearances, one had been drafted and developed. Other than that one -- Albert Pujols -- every player on that list had either been acquired via trades (six players), free agency (six players) or the Rule 5 draft. It was no different on the pitching side. The Cardinals pitched 1,453 full innings in 2004. Of those, just 65 came from players they drafted and developed.
The industry noticed. Baseball America ranked the Cardinals between 28th and 30th in MLB in organizational talent each year from 2002-2005.
"We always pressed the draft, and were aggressive in the draft in that era," DeWitt explained. "We signed [J.D.] Drew, and [Rick] Ankiel, players like that, who other clubs either stayed away from, or drafted and didn't sign. And we felt that was a way to build while we were winning. But there wasn't a lot of depth to that, because when you sign free agents, you give up draft choices, and when you make deals, generally, you're trading younger players."
It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to see the expiration date for this kind of team-building came roughly when the new collective bargaining agreement took effect in 2011. No longer was it so easy to pay extravagant draft bonuses, particularly for successful teams, thanks to a sliding scale and harsh penalties now in place for teams that exceeded their draft budget. And more teams with better financial resources, thanks to expanded television revenue, were keeping their own players, depressing both the trade market of would-be free agents and, ultimately, the free agent pool as well.
That's obvious now, looking back from 2013. But the Cardinals changed direction nearly a decade earlier, in the midst of extraordinary on-field success. And they've continued, despite greater emphasis on the future, to provide fans with a consistently excellent present.
"I would say in the 2002-2004 timeframe, when we really had good clubs, through 2006 ... everything looked great, but I knew we really didn't have the system to continue that tradition of winning," DeWitt recalled. "So the goal there was to keep winning, but to build at the same time. And we were fortunate enough to be able to do that."
This is the kind of Midwestern understatement that I heard from everyone I talked to in the Cardinals' organization. So let's allow the facts to do the bragging for them.
The 2013 Cardinals produced nine of their top 12 players in plate appearances through their farm system. A 10th, David Freese, is an honorary development product, having come over in a trade for Jim Edmonds from the Padres without having advanced beyond A-ball.
The same is true of Cardinals pitching. Of their top 16 pitchers in innings logged this season, 12 were either drafted or international free agents, developed through the system.
The level of pitching depth the Cardinals currently enjoy within their system was illustrated by what they went through last week, in a trying series against the Dodgers. Shelby Miller, a first-round pick in 2009, exited the game two pitches in after getting a baseball lined at his elbow. The Cardinals inserted Michael Blazek, a 35th-round pick in 2007. Later in the game, Keith Butler, a 24th-round pick in 2009, helped get the Cardinals through a forgettable 13-4 loss. Needing a starter, the Cardinals called up Carlos Martinez, 21, an international free agent with an astonishing fastball. But Martinez, too, exited his start early, his hand cramping up in the fifth. Not to worry: The Cardinals had another four pitchers on hand to finish the game: Seth Maness, Sam Freeman, Blazek and Kevin Siegrist, all of whom were drafted and developed by the team. To top it off, after the game, manager Mike Matheny announced the Cardinals would be recalling Michael Wacha to start on Saturday.
Wacha, a talented hurler in his own right, can't break into that regular rotation, nor can Trevor Rosenthal (2009 draft pick), a minor league starter with 13 strikeouts per nine out of the bullpen this season, nor can Maness (2011 draft pick), who walked 10 batters total in 169 2/3 minor league innings in 2012 -- nor can many other pitchers from the absurd bounty the Cardinals currently enjoy.
In 2013, Baseball America's organizational talent rankings ranked the Cardinals first.
So, to summarize: An overwhelming amount of pitching prospects, enough to weather the enormous attrition rate in the profession. Hitting talent good enough to populate most of the lineup and bench, and more waiting in the wings, like Oscar Taveras, an outfielder ranked third in all of baseball among prospects by Baseball America and MLB.com. And all of this is around to supplement a roster that last won fewer than 86 games in 2007.
You're probably wondering now the same thing I asked everyone I could find, top to bottom in this organization: How is this happening?
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The answer to this question isn't a simple one. I didn't find someone dressed as Fredbird in a tiny office underneath Busch Stadium, spitting out players the Cardinals should acquire. Nor are the component parts alone responsible, though the coordination and support from ownership, the analytical component to player evaluation, the vital role played by the scouting department (not to mention the seamless cooperation between analytics and scouting), and a player development system with principles dating back to the 1930s all play vital parts.
What seems to set the Cardinals apart isn't any one of these things, but the extent to which they all work harmoniously.
One thing DeWitt inherited when he purchased the Cardinals 17 years ago, and which remained in place to help implement the renewed emphasis on the farm system, is a tradition and strategy for developing players the team drafts that goes back decades -- really, to the actual creation of the farm system itself.
That was a Cardinals invention, brought about by a Cardinals executive you might have heard of named Branch Rickey, in the 1930s. Put it this way: It isn't possible to have a deeper tradition in player development within today's system than the Cardinals do, because it's their system. But Rickey left the Cardinals for the Dodgers in 1942. So what does that have to do with the 2013 Cardinals, 71 years later? Quite a bit, it turns out.
Rickey had a protégé named Bill DeWitt Sr., whose son, when he bought the team, inherited a pair of employees first brought to the Cardinals by Rickey himself: Red Schoendienst, still coaching with the Cardinals at age 90, and George "The Professor" Kissell, who worked as a senior instructor in the minor leagues until he died in 2008.
It was Kissell -- widely credited with mentoring an incalculable number of players, including Joe Torre and Keith Hernandez, along with managers like Sparky Anderson and Whitey Herzog -- who put together a manual for player development, since updated but never forsaken, called "The Cardinal Way".
"He had ideas about how to play the game," Schoendienst said of Kissell last Wednesday outside the Cardinals' clubhouse. "And what he did, he had young kids coming in, who'd never been away from home before. He'd come in, and he'd be like a father to them. George knew how to talk to them. And it was a lot of fundamentals, sitting there, talking to them, what to do in rundowns, hitting the cutoff man. And they still do that."
I'm afraid I never did get to see the manual, but David Freese, who's done slightly more for the Cardinals than I have, made me feel better. He hasn't seen it, either.
"No, I haven't," Freese said, laughing at the question as we chatted after batting practice. "No, they have their own deal, and they do it right." He added, more seriously, "What they do, whether it's the front office, management, the coaching staff or players, you collectively get people that know what they're doing, know what they're talking about, know what they're teaching and know how to win."
Hitting coach John Mabry, who as a player was drafted and developed by the Cardinals while George Kissell still worked as a senior minor league coordinator, believes that the relationships Kissell worked to cultivate with young players -- and to make standard for those charged with turning young people into major leaguers -- were as critical as the focus on the smallest detail of on-field play.
"The way that he taught engaged and involved players," Mabry told me. "And that style of teaching is paramount. With George, you say it and then laugh, but love," Mabry said, clearly aware that love was not a word commonly thrown around next to big league batting cages. "George had a love for the game, a love for the people who play the game, a love for teaching the game, a love for understanding the game, and relaying that and teaching that to people."
When I asked Mabry what stood out for him about Kissell's approach, he said it was less a particular moment, and more that Kissell was so was constant.
"Every day," Mabry said of Kissell's influence. "There were instances every day. Personally, the way he rooted for me to succeed, more than I rooted for myself sometimes. Understanding that he gave, no matter what, his time, and that, to me, is more important than anything, ever, that somebody would care for you that much that they would take their time, and teach you what they knew."
Mabry is one of many hundreds who can attest to Kissell's dedication, and the Cardinals have strived to integrate this style into their managerial system at every level.
One man responsible for implementing The Cardinal Way system-wide is Gary LaRocque, a senior advisor for player development who came over to the Cardinals from the Mets in 2008. LaRocque stressed communication, with a particular emphasis on building personal relationships between players and staff, as paramount to developing talent.
"We spend a lot of time being extremely positive with our players," LaRocque told me in a phone interview on Monday. "We make it clear we believe they can reach for that next level. I would like to think that we work extremely hard in the system with our managers, making the players understand that the coaching staff, they're in it with the players. That's our lifeline for our major league club. So the emotional aspect is very important."
As LaRocque described that bond, it comes about by "follow-up and communication with a player, establishing a relationship ... It's not hard when a player's doing well, because the player's emotions are in check. But the minute you hit that speed bump, as a player, you need somebody there behind you."
That communication is just as critical between the major league club, front office and minor league staff.
"Our philosophy, and the way we approach each year is, our plan is put into place from the big leagues down," LaRocque said. "And we try to put into place continuity of instruction, and communication …
"An example would be player movement. Part of what I do daily is talk with all our managers, and know what they feel in terms of evaluating our players. So let's say we move a player. One of the things here is that nobody's caught by surprise. Whether it's a player from the lowest level up, we've established a plan that a player could reach a certain level if he's able to accomplish certain things and we're able to accomplish certain things. … But injuries happen, needs come up. Clearly, players are going to move.
"And to be able to coordinate that is to have everybody on the same page with it. It doesn't mean they all agree, that's important to note. And they all feel as if they can stand by their convictions, say what they need to say about a player, a move, and then we, collectively, move forward."
These are just fine words, if they aren't backed up. But the Cardinals employ people for a long time, people who, if they didn't feel part of the decision-making process, would have moved on. General manager John Mozeliak has been employed by the Cardinals since 1995. Assistant GM Michael Girsch has been with the Cardinals since 2006. Farm director John Vuch is in his 35th year. Dan Kantrovitz has been director of scouting since just 2012, but he's in his second stint with the Cardinals, having worked for them from 2004-2008, not to mention having grown up in St. Louis, going to games "when Busch Stadium still had Astroturf," as he put it.
"I think we have a lot of really good people throughout our organization," Kantrovitz told me in a phone interview on Monday. "I'm equally amazed at the caliber of player our scouts can find as I am at the adjustments that happen under the watch of our coaches and instructors. And I think, putting it all together, it's a lot of people pulling in the same direction."
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As tempting as it is to simply assign the Cardinals' current systematic success to a book or the development system alone, if that was all it took, the Cardinals wouldn't have needed to revamp the way they approached their player development, or promoted Mozeliak.
"There were great people who were here when we got here," DeWitt said. "And so the Cardinals had that tradition of development that we were able to build on. But you know, if you don't have the talent, all the development in the world won't get you good players."
And so the pursuit of better players began in earnest, with a pair of significant new pillars to The Cardinal Way.
"We had a shift in our strategy, to try to build our system, and we did it in a number of ways," DeWitt said. "We did it by accumulating draft choices. We avoided free agents that would cost us draft choices. And when we looked at re-signing our own players, the cost of re-signing a player was not just what we paid him, but the fact that we would pick up draft choices, too."
The organization's shift can be seen as last decade went on. In 2002, the Cardinals had neither a first- nor second-round pick. By 2005, thanks to this change in strategy, the Cardinals had two first-rounders, two supplemental first-rounders and two second-rounders. That's the difference between six of the first 78 picks in 2005, and not picking until the 102nd slot back in 2002. Nor was 2005 an outlier: The Cardinals selected five of the first 76 players in 2006, four of the first 82 in 2007 and four of the first 91 in 2008.
But as DeWitt explained earlier, systems can't be rebuilt merely by making big splashes at the top of drafts. And that's where the organization's increasing reliance on trying to see something in players that other teams didn't became critical.
"The other thing going on at that time was, there was a proliferation of information available, not just at the professional level, but at the college level," DeWitt said. "People got into statistical analysis, so there was more information available. And we made a real conscious effort to try to take advantage of that."
DeWitt described the timing of these two initiatives this way: "There was a convergence there, from a timeframe standpoint. Of course, John Mozeliak was through the whole process, and very much on the same page on this front, but I did hire someone from the outside, Jeff Luhnow, who came in and progressed to the point that we thought he should be the scouting director. And he really did a terrific job implementing the strategy, and vision we had."
Luhnow was hired by the Houston Astros to be their general manager, along with fellow Cardinals front office member Sig Mejdal, after the 2011 season.
But first came the 2007 draft.
The Cardinals have had massively successful drafts over these past few years, clearly, to have the number of drafted players they do on hand, ready to contribute. But in 2007, the Cardinals took 13 players who have gone on to play in the major leagues, from first-round pick Pete Kozma, this season's starting shortstop, to 38th-round pick Adron Chambers, who was recalled earlier this month and singled in Tuesday night's game-winning run.
According to Chambers, it was the Cardinals who took his raw talent, and made him into a ballplayer.
"For me, I think it was strictly on instruction," Chambers said as he sat in front of his new locker. "I already knew what I could do. But I had great coaches -- I didn't know the game, I didn't understand the game."
In other cases, the analytics department, and their ability to recognize a potential steal later in the draft, has proven critical. Two examples on the current team are Matt Carpenter, the team's second baseman and most valuable player, per wins above replacement, and Allen Craig, who has seamlessly replaced Albert Pujols at first base. Carpenter was a 13th-round pick in 2009, Craig an eighth-round pick in 2006.
"Thinking back to being a fly on the wall at the draft when we drafted Allen Craig, and being a part of that process, I think it was just when we were getting started with analytics, integrating it into amateur scouting," Kantrovitz said. "And that was a case where I remember Sig, who did really good work on the analytics side, had identified Allen as one of those guys who, relative to his peers, had done really well. And then I remember our area scout at the time, it's kind of funny, once Sig mentioned him, he said, 'Yeah, you're right! He can turn around a fastball as well as anybody.' So it was sort of an interesting situation, where you saw the marriage of what the stats were saying to what the scouts were saying.
"And then, there's a lot of players who fit that profile. Allen just happens to be one where it worked out."
The Cardinals took Craig, assigned him to the State College Spikes of the New York-Penn League, and quickly determined that he was playing out of position. Incidentally, that's one reason he fell to the eighth round, according to Mozeliak.
"I think he was mispositioned -- he was drafted as a shortstop, playing third, and a lot of people weren't sure of where his bat was going to take him," Mozeliak said of Craig. "I'd say by the time he got to Palm Beach, which was high-A, he distinguished himself as a pretty good hitter. And then, by the time he was at Double-A, I think everybody realized he was a major league hitter. And so, it wasn't instantaneous, and I'm just very glad we drafted him, because he's a special bat."
Every part of the Cardinals' system worked together on a player like Craig. It wasn't just that the Cardinals had an analytics department that found Craig; they also had a scouting department that reinforced the numbers. Their player development team figured out within weeks how to better deploy him in the field to maximize his ability to reach his ceiling as an offensive player. Their coaching helped him do so, providing continuity of instruction at each level. By Double-A, the front office understood that he was going to help them at the major league level with his hitting. And eventually, Allen Craig replaced Albert Pujols, franchise icon, at a fraction of the cost. Ownership stepped in, signing Craig to a five-year, $31 million extension this past March, buying out his arbitration years and at least one free agent season, while locking the team in with some cost certainty.
That kind of long-range financial planning can't happen without smooth coordination between Mozeliak and DeWitt, each of whom looks at the Cardinals not just today, but also through a three- to five-year window. That includes players in the system, major leaguers whose contracts are set to expire down the road and even potential acquisitions from other teams.
"The first question is, is it a replaceable asset?" Mozeliak said of the process of determing whether to invest in a long-term contract. "And, if the answer is yes, then you have to define how. If the answer is no, then that obviously puts a priority on finding a way to get it done."
In the case of Yadier Molina, the market didn't appear to hold a comparable catcher of his defensive and offensive skills.
"Trying to extend him last year, it didn't feel like we had a catcher coming that could fill the role he was providing for us," Mozeliak said. "We also looked at him as the most elite catcher in the game. ... So we made a full-court effort to get that done." And so they did: In March 2012, the Cardinals extended him for five years, $75 million.
In the case of ace Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals believed having a top-of-the-rotation pitcher of his caliber was by no means a certainty among their young arms, and moreover, those young pitchers wouldn't have Wainwright to mentor and serve as an example.
"We had arms coming, but we looked at Adam as a unique player to us. If you think back to the last 10-12 years, we've always had that anchor in the rotation, a legitimate number one, number two-type pitcher, who was universally respected, was a leader, people trusted him, believed in him. And that's what Adam is."
But finding "neutral ground on length and dollars," as Mozeliak expressed it, is far easier when he and DeWitt are having so many conversations ahead of time.
"Bill and I are always looking three-to-five years out anyway, so we knew when Waino was coming up, and we were both prepared to know, directionally, where this was going," Mozeliak said.
DeWitt echoed Mozeliak's characterization of their relationship.
"We do work closely together," DeWitt said. "Talk virtually every day, meet quite often. Always trying to look ahead, and not just at what we're doing tonight with the understanding that we want to compete three years down the road, five years down the road, who do we have coming. What do we need to do to make sure that, three to five years down the road, we don't have a bunch of 38-year-old players finishing their career, but not much coming behind them."
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While the Cardinals are understandably proud of their current standing, no one is ready to declare that it will stay this way forever. The tactics that allowed the Cardinals to stockpile draft choices last decade, for instance, have largely been cast aside by the rules in the new collective bargaining agreement, though St. Louis earned a second first-rounder in 2012 for losing Albert Pujols, and a second first-rounder in 2013 for losing Kyle Lohse. Many players who, under the old system, could have earned Type B compensation, will instead leave with the Cardinals getting no draft picks at all.
But most of the factors that have allowed the Cardinals to win consistently while putting together a farm system the envy of the baseball world are still in place. There's George Kissell's legacy in player development. There's a scouting system and the analytics department, working together, the play of Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig and many others serving as reasons to believe in one another.
As Kantrovitz put it, "Our scouts understand that, if anything, some of the successes of Allen Craig and others reinforces to our scouts that our system works. And at first, if guys might have been leery of letting the data into the equation, I think having a little success with some of those guys has helped, from my standpoint, sell it."
The same is true as it relates to the recent track record of the Cardinals' scouts.
"One of the things in scouting is, you have to trust, and you have to listen to the opinions of your scouts," LaRocque said. "The phrase they hear me say all the time is, 'I want to know everything you know, so that I can make an informed decision.'"
And there's a partnership between a general manager in Mozeliak, who was extended this past spring through 2016, and DeWitt, whose ability to stay plugged in and fully informed has impressed his staff, and whose continued ability to invest in the team is brought about by a consistent revenue stream provided by a loyal fan base, even though the Cardinals are, for now, locked into a local television deal that is far below that of even some NL Central rivals.
"The fans drive everything here," said DeWitt, who added that the Cardinals are consistently in the top third in revenue, thanks to both a consistent three million-plus in attendance, and the ancillary revenue from the fact that so few of those tickets sold turn into no-shows. "We don't have a big market, in the sense of our core market, a New York, Chicago, L.A., those types of markets. So we know that if we have a good product on the field, the fans are going to turn out. So that's a great comfort, because we can project, if we're competitive, we're going to draw the attendance enabling us to sustain what we have."
In the meantime, Mozeliak is turning his attention beyond the players who will help the Cardinals this year and next, and is focusing on the wave of young talent to follow.
"I'm starting to look at what those players look like at [Double-A] Springfield and [High-A] Palm Beach, because, in essence, they're the ones who are going to be knocking on the door next year, and the following year. And so when you think about that, you are always trying to time it, for when you're going to get that complement player up."
As for Kantrovitz, the work to build toward the 2014 draft, and even the beginning of preparation for the 2015 draft, has begun in earnest, with analytics serving to narrow the pool of players for scouts to go out and then evaluate in person.
The Cardinals, though, aren't ready to declare victory.
"Look, let's be realistic," Kantrovitz said. "Once we graduate guys to the big leagues, we're not going to always be perceived as one of the top farm systems. We'll regress to the mean. And then hopefully, we'll be able to use the same ingredients that helped us get to this point to push us back up toward the top."
And DeWitt cautioned that just because the Cardinals have found something that works today, there's no guarantee that's what will work tomorrow.
"It's a very competitive business," DeWitt said. "And there's no assurance that, if you've got a good team, and a good system now, that you'll continue to do that. We're going to try, but there are others out there that are doing the same thing, and maybe have a new way of thinking about it that we haven't thought of, that allows them to beat us at the game. So we take nothing for granted here."
In other words, I asked DeWitt, he was worried that the next George Kissell might be employed by another team?
"Right," DeWitt said, laughing.
Kantrovitz stressed the need to keep on innovating, a logical strategy for the organization that once came up with the very organizing principle for player development that exists today.
"We've tried to innovate in different ways. We'll need to keep innovating in those ways, making those things better, as well as finding new ways. Because other teams are really smart, too," he said, laughing. "You know, there's a lot of really smart people out there. So I don't think we can say that what we're currently doing is going to keep working without tweaking it, improving it."
He's doing everything he can to make sure the Cardinals find the next great idea, too, and it gets filed along side the work of Rickey, and Kissell, and Herzog, and Mozeliak in the next edition of The Cardinal Way. But it can't hurt that in the 2013 MLB reality, these Cardinals, by a fascinating combination of planning ahead and relying on their past, seem to have given themselves quite a head start.