Thursday, October 10, 2013
The best organization in baseball
By David Schoenfield
When the Cardinals won last night, it was interesting to see the reaction on Twitter. There was a lot of bitterness directed towards the team and their fans. I saw many tweets from Cardinals fans bashing Albert Pujols, so easily and pathetically dismissing all the great things he did for the franchise over the years -- you know, like leading it two World Series titles. The complaints that Cardinals fans were smug were backed up by one reader, who said he was a Cardinals fan and didn't realize how smug he had become until the team won in 2011. Said he felt a little bad about it.
The Cardinals, of course, aren't the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Dodgers. They play in the 21st-largest metro market in the United States, slightly larger than Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh, and smaller than Cleveland, Denver or San Diego. Due to their rich history and reach of longtime radio station KMOX (with a 50,000-watt signal, it can be heard throughout the U.S.), the Cardinals do have a large fan base spread throughout the Midwest, but that doesn't translate into a local media deal commensurate with what the big boys earn.
The Cardinals opened the season with the 11th-largest payroll in the majors at $115 million, well below the $200 million-plus mega-payrolls of the Yankees and far below even the $148 million-plus payrolls of the Phillies, Red Sox and Tigers. Still, when you win as often the Cardinals -- and they're now in their third consecutive NLCS and eighth in 14 seasons going back to 2000 -- it breeds contempt, no matter how you build your teams.
The amazing thing to me is the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 and the only two players left from that roster are Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina (plus the injured Chris Carpenter). Wainwright was a rookie reliever that year who had become the team's closer in the postseason due to a late-season injury to Jason Isringhausen. Molina was a 23-year-old defensive whiz who hit .216 with a .595 OPS. Certainly, part of the current team's greatness is that those two developed into two of the best players in the game, certainly something you would have not foreseen seven years ago.
But the rest of the roster has completely turned over, and it's been done without the luxury of high draft picks, usually the surest way to developing stars. The Cardinals haven't drafted higher than 13th since selecting J.D. Drew fifth overall in 1998. Despite that, they've come away with exceptional talent in the draft, especially on the pitching end: Michael Wacha (19th overall in 2012), Shelby Miller (19th in 2009), Lance Lynn (39th in 2008). Trevor Rosenthal was a 21st-round pick, Joe Kelly a third-rounder and Kevin Siegrist a 41st-rounder who the Cardinals signed to an $85,000 bonus. Allen Craig was an eighth-rounder out of Cal. Matt Adams was a Division II batting champ with a bad body who fell all the way to the 23rd round; there were 698 players drafted ahead of him that year.
What makes the Cardinals so smart, however, is that they don't necessarily fall in love with their prospects. They're very good at evaluation once these guys start playing in the minors. Daric Barton, Brett Wallace and Zack Cox were all first-round picks traded away before reaching the majors. The team traded Colby Rasmus back in 2011 to help bring in reinforcements for a playoff run, believing in Jon Jay in center field.
Another thing: The Cardinals are willing to take good arms and put them in the rotation, even if they don't have a complete arsenal of pitches. Wacha is a fastball-changeup guy (but what a changeup!), Miller succeeded as a rookie with just a fastball and curveball and Kelly basically throws a hard sinker. Many teams believe you need three or four pitches to make it as a starter, but the Cardinals clearly have shown that if you can command your fastball, two pitches (or three, if you count a two-seamer and four-seamer as two different pitches) is enough. Of course, Wacha, Miller and Kelly have good fastballs, velocity-wise.
I would argue the Cardinals don't obsess too much about defense. Tony La Russa did always like versatility, but it was versatility sometimes at the expense of above-average defense (like playing Skip Schumaker at second base). You saw that this year in moving Matt Carpenter to second base, although Carpenter played much better than anyone could have hoped. David Freese has poor range at third and they were willing to play Lance Berkman in right field in 2011 to get his bat in the lineup. The Cardinals also shift less often than most teams (although Carpenter was shaded way over when he caught Pedro Alvarez's line drive in the second inning last and turned a double play).
Of course, part of the reason they don't obsess over defense is they have Molina behind the plate. With him, they know they're eliminating the running game to a large extent and have a guy who excels at calling a game, blocking balls in the dirt and framing pitches. The young Cardinals pitchers put supreme faith in their catcher and that has to help their confidence.
And then there's Wainwright, who speaks often of learning from Carpenter. You now hear this current crop of Cardinals pitchers -- they have six rookies on the postseason staff -- talking about learning from Wainwright.
To a certain extent, I wonder if that is a large key to the St. Louis success: Winning breeds winning, Carpenter to Wainwright to Wacha, another generation on its way.
Oh ... and next year Oscar Taveras arrives.
They're not going away any time soon.