Cardinals GM John Mozeliak often sports a flamboyant bow tie when he goes to work at Busch Stadium, but there’s no truth to the rumor that he’s instructed team employees to call him “Branch Rickey” or “Mahatma.”
If the bow tie fits, wear it.
Rickey is among the most iconic front-office executives in baseball history, immortalized for ending baseball’s institutional segregation by signing African-American Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
During a lengthy and memorable run as Cardinals GM, Rickey changed the industry by developing the first modern minor-league system. He scouted and signed players who had leading roles in the five World Series championships won in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Cardinals’ ability to cultivate an immense stockpile of elite talent drew the ire of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who twice ordered the release of more than 50 Cardinals minor-league players to give them a chance to play elsewhere. But other franchises soon adopted the Rickey model and put their own networks in place.
In 2013 the Cardinals’ player-development system is the buzz of baseball. The franchise is producing a trove of coveted talent, led by a procession of power-armed pitchers who come to the majors equipped with radiating fastballs.
The system has delivered nine pitchers on the current staff: Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Joe Kelly, John Gast, Seth Maness and Fernando Salas. Other gold-plated pitching prospects, including Michael Wacha, are warming in the minors.
Of the 30 players who have appeared in a major-league game for the Cardinals this season, 19 were drafted and developed internally. Two others, Martinez and Salas, were signed as undrafted free agents, then raised trough the system.
Position players from the draft-alum list include Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay and Matt Adams. And at Class AAA Memphis there is a potential superstar in waiting in outfielder Oscar Taveras.
So when Mozeliak wears the bow tie, he does it in a way to honor the Cardinals’ glorious past — which, as he points out, is also this team’s future. Many decades later, the Rickey Way is once again the Cardinals’ Way.
There are 30 teams in major-league baseball.
Only one, the Cardinals, could make this claim Tuesday: best record in the majors, and the highest-rated minor-league system. The Cardinals are built to win now, and they are built to last.
The person who deserves the most credit for this organizational super structure is Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.
“Bill was a visionary,” Mozeliak said. “He made all of this possible.”
It was DeWitt who hired business-school graduate Jeff Luhnow in 2003 to bring a more enlightened, advanced approach to player evaluation.
Though ridiculed and tagged as “Harry Potter” by hardened old-school baseball types, Luhnow dramatically transformed the way the Cardinals procured young talent. The Luhnow draft picks can be found up and down the Cardinals’ 2013 big-league roster.
For his part, Mozeliak played a valuable role in closing the great philosophical divide within the organization that prompted DeWitt to fire GM Walt Jocketty after the 2007 season. DeWitt ended the Jocketty-Luhnow power struggle by choosing Luhnow, who became Houston Astros GM in 2012.
Taking over as GM after the tumultuous 2007 season, Mozeliak brokered a peace accord between the remaining warring factions and secured the necessary cooperation of manager Tony La Russa.
Later, when Luhnow became overly aggressive in pushing for select draft picks to be promoted quickly through the system, Mozeliak restructured the setup to put a firewall between the draft side and the development side.
Many have helped make this system what it is today, but the movement began with DeWitt, who hired Luhnow and expanded the franchise financial investment in scouting, drafting and international operations.
It was a bold move, given the timing of DeWitt’s decision to change the paradigm. At that time, pretty much only the bad teams preached the Draft and Development mantra. That’s all they had.
The Cardinals at the time had success on the field, sellout crowds filling the stadium, star players and the proven leadership in the La Russa-Jocketty alliance. But DeWitt saw escalating salaries, the rising cost of veteran pitching and an organization that had become too reliant on acquiring talent via trades and free agency.
“From a strategic standpoint, the organization shifted gears,” Mozeliak said. “Bill was the one that was very aware that we did not have a sustainable model. He believed that for us to have success, we had to look at this more organically than just simply ‘free-agent market, trade market.’ So he changed it.”
As the Cardinals’ catcher at the time, Mike Matheny was probably as puzzled as anybody when he witnessed DeWitt breaking up a winning archetype. And now, as the team’s manager, Matheny understands the brilliance of DeWitt’s long-range vision.
“You need some cost-controlled players,” Matheny said. “That’s what the organization is trying to do. Continue to have that young group that keeps working their way through our system. If they’re cost controlled, then it enables you to afford veteran free agents to fill the holes. That’s a great model, and they’ve been able to do that. It’s impressive.”
Despite getting walloped by injuries and the free-agent loss of Albert Pujols, the Cardinals are positioned to win for a long time. The Rickey Way is once again the Cardinal Way. And the right way.