On their way to winning the National League pennant last year, the Cardinals turned repeatedly and sometimes urgently to a farm system they had rebuilt over the past decade by mining familiar locales for talent.
By the end of this year they hope to continue building by expanding their borders.
The Cardinals want to go global.
“When you look at where dollars can gravitate toward, if it’s not necessarily in payroll it is certainly on the uncapped international market, and of course the Asian market,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “There are things we can explore. I still think from a pure business standpoint we’re not at the point where we can be overly aggressive. We’re still building. We’re still gathering information or data to formulate a strategy.”
This month, the baseball world will be transfixed by the wooing of Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. The 25-year-old righty has been made available to major-league clubs by his former team in Japan, Rakuten, and with a change to the posting rules more teams figure to be involved in the bidding for the starter who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season in Japan. Instead of having to win a blind bid for the right to negotiate — a process the Cardinals found financially noxious — all teams can court Tanaka as long as they are willing to pay the $20-million “posting” fee to Rakuten when Tanaka signs.
With big-spenders such as the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Angels all reportedly interested, he is expected to command a contract that zooms past $100 million in addition to the $20-million fee.
Their rotation full and their spending elsewhere, the Cardinals are watching.
And learning. And reviewing.
“We do feel we have a much better understanding at this time,” Mozeliak wrote in an email when asked how the Cardinals view the return on investment from the Asian market. “Not going to get specific here, but we have to understand all aspects of a particular market to make a proper evaluation of it. Always difficult to compare apples to oranges.”
Within the next 12 months, Mozeliak said he wants the team “more engaged” and “at full stride” with the free-agent market for players from Asia’s leagues and Cuba.
In the past 10 years, the Cardinals have constructed one of the game’s best farm systems, a pipeline that was showcased in 2013. The Cardinals had 11 players make their major-league debuts, and manager Mike Matheny’s club utilized 20 rookies. Sixty-six of the Cardinals’ 97 wins were awarded to pitchers drafted or signed as amateurs by the Cardinals. Of Baseball America’s top seven Cardinals prospects, six contributed to the club’s pennant run — including Michael Wacha’s four wins in October and being named the MVP of the National League championship series. The trade publication ranked the Cardinals’ farm system No. 1 entering 2013, the first time the club had achieved the top ranking.
All the prospects who graduated to the majors has the Cardinals moving to No. 7 in the rankings when Baseball America’s 2014 Prospect Handbook comes out this month.
Division rival Pittsburgh vaults to No. 1 overall, a BA official confirmed.
Since pulling out of the Dominican Republic more than a decade ago, the Cardinals have returned and made scouting and signing players from the Caribbean a major part of their talent acquisition. A year ago, Mozeliak said the club didn’t want to spread its resources too thin as the process began and had “to jump in with both feet” to the Caribbean.
The Cardinals’ top prospect and top pitching prospect — Oscar Taveras and Carlos Martinez, respectively — were signed as international amateurs from the Dominican. The Cardinals have insisted that their intention to contend annually rests on their ability to identify and develop players. By now looking to Asia or at Cuban players the Cardinals can expand their territory for the talent search. That goal is behind some changes in the front office.
A ‘new structure’
At baseball’s Winter Meetings last month, Mozeliak said the team was going to have a “new structure” in baseball operations. He confirmed the moves last week: Gary LaRocque will be farm director, overseeing the minor leagues as he has been. Chris Correa has been promoted to director of baseball development, and Tony Ferreira will assist LaRocque. John Vuch will be director of baseball administration. Linda Brauer has been promoted to senior administrative assistant to the general manager.
And Matt Slater, the team’s director of player personnel, will oversee what Mozeliak described as the Cardinals’ “new initiative of emerging markets.”
“Slater (will) work with Moises Rodriguez (director of international scouting) on our business plan for Cuba and Mexico, as well as put a work plan together (for) Asian markets,” Mozeliak wrote in an email. “We spent time researching this and will continue to do so and then determine the amount of resources we will dedicate to this.”
The Cardinals did have scouts see Tanaka in person this season. The Cardinals have had several members of the front office scout Cuban free agents such as shortstop Aledmys Diaz and infielder Erisbel Arruebarruena. Last June, the Cardinals had one of their directors attend the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands, to see the Cuban national team.
Slater traveled abroad last season to see these players as well as assist on scouting amateurs for the draft and pros for the trade deadline. He came to the Cardinals with a familiarity of the Asian market. He has served as a consultant to the Orix Buffaloes in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League.
Changing financial equations also have guided the Cardinals toward an increased interest “emerging” markets. Baseball has instituted a cap on bonus spending for international amateur players. This signing period — which stretches through June — the Cardinals have a limit of $2,267,000. That includes a portion of Colorado’s purse traded for Mitchell Boggs this past season. The Cardinals have done well signing players for mid-range budgets, but July 2013 signee Carlos Talavera, 16, commanded a significant bonus. In 2012, the Cardinals spent $950,000 to sign righty Alex Reyes.
Some Cuban free agents do not count against that cap and are, therefore, in the open market like any other free agent for teams to submit bids. In the past two seasons, Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes and Dodgers’ outfielder Yasiel Puig finished second in their respective league’s rookie of the year voting. Both were signed as free agents, available to the highest bidder. The Cubs have made these uncapped markets an element of their rebuilding, signing Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30-million contract in June 2012.
The previous “posting” rules for Asian players included a process in which teams had to submit a blind bid just to negotiate with the player. Texas promised a $51.7-million fee before signing Yu Darvish to a $56-million contact, for a total outlay of $107 million. The Cardinals did not see the blind bid process as cost-effective for their model.
The new posting process does allow for a team such as the Cardinals to approach the player like they would a free agent from the majors — selling them on a contract as well as a culture. The $20-million fee comes after a deal has been struck.
“I’m not sure if it’s ideal,” Mozeliak said, “but it does seem more manageable.”
The Cardinals have structured their scouting ideals and reports on players in Latin America in such a way that it lines up with their domestic scouting of high school and college players eligible for the draft. The Cardinals can then compare players across countries and ages. Dollar values are used as part of the evaluation. The idea, as Mozeliak would say, is to compare apple to apple, bonus to bonus. The Cardinals have sought a similar way to gauge players from these “emerging markets.” They want less apples to oranges.
Mozeliak described some of the moves in the front office as a way “to evolve, grow, and allow individuals to work in areas of strength.” He declined to say how much of Slater’s time previously spent scouting for the draft or pros would be annexed by the new role. The Cardinals might increase scouting staff in Asia, for example, though Mozeliak said the addition of full-time employees has not been determined.
“We will allow for growth in these markets,” he said.
That’s the operative word — growth. The Cardinals began restocking a bare farm system through the draft and with a new facility in the Dominican. At one point, Mozeliak and former scouting director Jeff Luhnow met with agents in the Dominican to assure the Cardinals wanted to be a presence, physically and financially. The Cardinals spread scouts through Latin America, increased their spending there as they got to know the markets, and now look to other shores.
This is the new geography of remaining competitive.
“We’ve checked those boxes and now we can move on,” Mozeliak said. “I don’t think we would have been doing them right (without taking this time to prepare). Now in these other areas we’ve become very accomplished in, and we can start moving on.”