This is a good time for professional sports in St. Louis. It’s never quiet or dull around here. The Cardinals, Blues and Rams are intriguing in their own way. The Cards are an established power, iconic and enduring. The Blues are a contender. The Rams are young, potentially dynamic, and are still trying to find their way. But they’re heading in the right direction.
The Cardinals are in a separate category, standing as one of the most admired franchises in all professional sports. They continue to win despite losing a Hall of Fame manager to retirement and superstar players to free agency.
The Cardinals are where the Blues and Rams aspire to be. The Cardinals win championships. They win and maintain fan loyalty, and they categorically set the standard for a model organization.
The Cardinals dominate fan interest and media coverage in the market for a simple reason: they’ve earned it. I’d imagine that the Blues and Rams resent all of the fawning over the Cardinals at times. But they have no reason to be jealous or envious.
If anything, the Cardinals should motivate and inspire the other two franchises to reach a higher level and never be satisfied with anything less than excellence.
When you’re competing against the Cardinals in a mid-size market to increase your share of ticket dollars, premium-seating revenue, TV ratings and marketing deals then you have no choice but to raise your game.
I talked to Blues GM Doug Armstrong earlier this season and he cited the Cardinals as an example of what the Blues and every team should try to be. Armstrong noted several characteristics that he sees in the Cardinals’ players: they are proud to represent the franchise; they believe they have an obligation to honor the franchise legacy by carrying on the winning tradition; they simply will not accept failure.
And Armstrong is correct in his observations. It’s really impressive. And this organization-wide attitude starts at the top, with the Cardinals’ owner and chairman, Bill DeWitt Jr.
If I was giving out an award for St. Louis Sports Guy of the Year, DeWitt would be the runaway winner.
DeWitt’s vision for the Cardinals franchise is directly responsible for keeping the Birds on the Bat near the top of the industry on an annual basis.
In 2003, DeWitt Jr. gave the franchise a new mission by changing the way the organization procures talent. Though the Cardinals had enjoyed success since DeWitt and partners purchased the team before the 1996 season, DeWitt realized it would be difficult to sustain his team’s business-of-baseball model.
The Cardinals were winning by trading prospects for expensive veterans who soon would be eligible for free agency. And that, by nature, leads to payroll that would only continue to swell. Walt Jocketty — the GM at the time — did a good job of managing the money.
And Jocketty was terrific at taking advantage of teams that were anxious to move their pending free agents. Jockety acquired a bunch of ‘em, including Jim Edmonds, Mark McGwire, Daryl Kile.
But as baseball’s revenues began to grow, MLB teams had more money to use for retaining their own players with new contracts. Fewer prime talents headed to free agency, and the smaller supply led to massive overspending on the free-agent market.
DeWitt saw what was coming; this was no longer a viable way to construct the roster. For the Cardinals to remain successful, they’d have to do a substantially better job of developing their own players.
DeWitt shook up the organization by hiring an innovative analyst, Jeff Luhnow, who could help DeWitt shift the emphasis to scouting, drafting and player development.
It wasn’t a smooth process. Jocketty was fired by DeWitt in 2007 after declining to embrace Luhnow or the franchise’s new direction.
The “old” way kept working for a while; manager Tony La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan and the Cards’ elite veteran nucleus was able to lead the way to 100-win seasons in 2004 and 2005, and the World Series championship in 2006.
But with the roster aging — and Luhnow’s prospect pipeline not quite ready to produce — the Cardinals missed making the playoffs in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
There was no panic. Astute new GM John Mozeliak knew that the Cardinals were on the verge of benefiting from their new organizational paradigm, so he remained patient instead of making rash, costly moves that he’d regret later. He watched the collection of prospects grow. He knew the Cardinals were onto something. Mozeliak hoarded the prospects and stayed the course.
“Our transition wasn’t easy,” DeWitt told me during the 2013 postseason. “There was some tension. A couple of tough seasons. But I knew longer term that it was the way we had to go. And to have it play out the way it has, I feel very good about it.”
By now, we know that DeWitt’s future vision was, and is, an unconditional success. Since 2004 the Cardinals lead the majors with 50 postseason wins, 11 more than any other franchise. In racking up those wins, the Cardinals have won four of the last 10 National League pennants and two World Series championships.
The Cardinals lost first baseman Albert Pujols to free agency after the 2011 season. La Russa and Duncan retired. But the prospect pipeline was working, the kids were on the way, and younger players helped the Cardinals make it to the NL Championship Series in 2012, and to the World Series in 2013.
Going into the 2013 season they had the industry’s No. 1-ranked player development system. The Cardinals have, in effect, succeeded in having it both ways. They’ve proven that you can Win Now … while at he same time positioning themselves for a strong future.
And make no mistake: that future is bright.
Over the weekend I visited the MLB Depth Charts web site to do a quick accounting of the Cardinals’ roster and compare it to their rivals in the NL Central.
It’s kind of amazing, really, to see the Cardinals’ imposing strength in numbers. A lot of teams talk about developing players and going young to avoid relying on expensive free agents.
But the Cardinals — because of DeWitt’s mission — have put the philosophy and platitudes into practice. And we can easily quantify it.
I looked at the 40-man rosters of the NL Central teams to count the number of players in each of the three main categories:
Players signed as free-agents.
Players acquired via trade.
Here’s what I came up with — again, thanks to the information at MLB Depth Charts:
St. Louis, 29. Cincinnati, 26. Milwaukee, 20. Pittsburgh, 17. Chicago 16.
Comment: The Cardinals have more homegrown players on their 40-man roster than any MLB franchise.
Chicago, 9. Milwaukee, 8. Cincinnati, 6. Pittsburgh, 5. St. Louis 4.
Comment: What does this tell us about the Cardinals’ planning? DeWitt and Mozeliak have consistently described the basic principle: develop most of your own players to keep costs down, then use the savings to sign a few cherry-picked free agents and re-sign your team’s indispensable stars (Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, etc.)
The Cardinals, Tampa Bay and Kansas City have the fewest number of free agents (4) in the majors.
Pittsburgh, 18. Chicago, 12. Milwaukee, 7. Cincinnati, 6. St. Louis, 4.
Comment: The Cardinals may have “only” four trade acquisitions on the 40-man, but two are especially significant: Holliday and Wainwright. The other two — outfielders Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk — just came over from the Angels in the David Freese trade.
That’s another interesting part of the Mozeliak strategy. Jocketty had success in trading prospects for veterans; Mo has gone the other way. He likes the idea of cutting ties with veterans and getting prospects in return. The Cardinals received two draft picks as compensation for losing Pujols; the choices became starting pitcher Michael Wacha and rising outfield prospect Stephen Piscotty.
This offseason, Mozeliak peddled an older and more expensive player (Freese) to the Angels for two younger and inexpensive players. If Grichuk makes it here, he will be under the Cardinals’ control (at a cheap rate) for six years.
The basic roster rundown that we’ve posted reaffirms the DeWitt and Mozeliak blueprint: the Cardinals have the most homegrown among the 30 MLB franchises and are tied with the Rays and Royals for having the fewest players signed via free agency.
That’s the kind of cost-efficient personnel mix that many MLB teams want to attain, and the Cardinals have shown exactly how it should be done.
“They have a system, and it works,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis told the New York Times during the NLCS. “If somebody gets hurt or somebody falls by the wayside, they have replacements. They have an organizational philosophy that’s obviously working, and these guys just keep coming, in waves and waves and waves.”
Yes, the DeWitt plan worked.
And it’s still working.