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Last day of Winter Warmup

Bill DeWitt Jr., chairman of the St. Louis Cardinals, speaks to media at the 2018 Cardinals Care Winter Warmup. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com

From his office at Busch Stadium, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. has a view of the rising construction at Ballpark Village and what’s become an ascending team on the field. It’s a vantage point fitting for a team that often finds itself in the middle, straddling that line between their plans for the future and the impatience of the present.

Poised to celebrate their recent past with Cardinals Hall of Fame honors for Scott Rolen and Jason Isringhausen, the current team reached induction weekend in first place. And yet an inability to bolster the roster at the trade deadline and an inconsistent offense adds to an unease around the team — one heightened by the longest stretch without a playoff berth in more than 20 years.

To return to October, the Cardinals have had high-expectation additions in Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna and some high-profile misses. The payroll spending has returned to baseball’s top third in part because of Goldschmidt’s club record extension and the Cardinals spending more than $20 million on lefty relief with only one high-salaried lefty, Andrew Miller, is in the majors.

The Cardinals want to bet big on their internal options, now and later, and to do so they need a modern upgrade to how they develop players and a restock of a system thinned by recent trades. The front office has acknowledged ownership’s urgency to return to the postseason.

Seated on a sofa in his office, DeWitt joined Post-Dispatch baseball writer Derrick Goold for an hour conversation about the current team, the current game, future improvements, and whether he sees, from his perch, pressure mounting for a postseason run.

GOOLD: With Isringhausen and Rolen going into the team’s Hall of Fame, they’re joining Chris Carpenter and Jim Edmonds and eventually Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, and Yadier Molina — all of whom shared a roster that will be well-represented for all-time. How do you look back at that era?

DEWITT: It’s an incredible group of players. That was a great era for Cardinal baseball, which we’ve been fortunate to be able to continue, in some ways. They all played on championship teams, and that’s our goal — to have championship teams. It’s interesting to look at how they all were acquired, all in sort of different ways.

GOOLD: Isringhausen was really your last high-dollar, multi-year closer — a market you’ve mostly avoided — whereas Rolen became an example, really the blueprint for you, right?

DEWITT: Right. I think in that era it was a little easier to acquire premium players from clubs who either felt they couldn’t re-sign them or didn’t feel they were going to be competitive or wanted to go young. The world has changed. And that’s much harder to do now. We made the bet that we could (re-sign them) because we had a good atmosphere here and they would be a part of a great winning culture. I think it was Edmonds who said once, ‘The Cardinals acquire a player. The fans keep him here.’ That is a good line.

The Cardinals acquired Edmonds during spring training in 2000, but before completing the deal with the Angels, then-general manager Walt Jocketty told DeWitt, “Well, one last-minute hitch.” The Angels wanted to see pitcher Kent Bottenfield pitch.

DEWITT: I was nervous going to that game. The course of Cardinals history would have been different if we hadn’t gotten Jim Edmonds.

GOOLD: If the acquisition of premium talent has changed, have you done enough to change with it?

DEWITT: If you look back at those deals, we gave up talent, but we weren’t giving up our top, elite prospects at that time. Now, if you were to acquire Jim Edmonds at the age he was, the ask would be so astronomical of your young players. And it’s not just give me three or four pretty good young players. It’s, oh, I’m going to take your No. 1, 2, 3 and throw in the 6, 7, or 8. That’s kind of what you’re looking at to get a premium player. Look what (Arizona) got for Zack Greinke. Top prospects. (Houston’s) system is so strong they can afford to give up what they gave up for what they believe to be a difference-maker in postseason. I think that’s a difference from back when we were doing the other deals. We gave up good players, but it wasn’t stripping out our system.

At the deadline this year we could have gotten maybe a pitcher who was going to give us 10 starts for two top prospects. How much of your future do you want to give up for who knows what you’re going to get out of 10 starts?

GOOLD: But, how does not being in the playoffs the past three seasons play into that decision? Doesn’t it nudge you over the line?

DEWITT: We certainly have a goal of being in the playoffs. And we’ve said that every year, and we’ve come darn close when we haven’t made it. There are no guarantees. We all feel like we have a playoff-caliber team, as is. The ask for names that people thought were going to be traded and weren’t traded – well, there were reasons they weren’t traded. If you were in the situation of some of those teams that had pitchers under control that were top pitchers, you’d want a lot back. Whether you’re playing for this year or next year it’s hard to acquire talent.

GOOLD: Do you empathize with any frustrations or understand the criticism about there not being a move?

DEWITT: I would hope that we would have improved, but I wasn’t disappointed that we didn’t go crazy, stripping out our farm system to try and get a short-term fix. I don’t ever (want that). I don’t believe in that. I don’t think that’s a prudent way to run a baseball team.

GOOLD: After a few seasons of ragged or uncharacteristic play, do you enjoy the style of play from this year’s team, at its best?

DEWITT: I do. I like to see clean baseball, and I think Mike Shildt has done a good job in getting players to execute a lot of the fundamentals that in today’s game are maybe as not quite as important. The hit and run the other night that Molina put on was great to see and led to runs. You don’t see that much anymore. You see everybody sitting back waiting to hit a home run. There are other ways to score runs.

GOOLD: As a fan and an owner with influence, do you have concerns about the current game’s style?

DEWITT: I do have concerns. I think the game needs some change. I personally am anti-shift. I think that’s hurt the game. I think the emphasis on home runs — which generates strikeouts and a lack of the action baseball has historically always had — is now creating longer games. Many more pitches have been thrown. I think it can change without changing the fabric of the game. When I say change I mean move it back closer to what it was – which I think is more appealing. I’m not talking about dramatic change. I know the commissioner is interested in that. There are a lot of ideas out there. The Atlantic League is experimenting with certain things, and I think it’s all good to experiment and see what works, see what’s appealing and what’s not appealing.

GOOLD: The players are probably as athletic as they’ve ever been, and yet the game can be stilted, sluggish, dull even. It doesn’t compute.

DEWITT: The athletes today are so incredibly good. They’re fast. They’re strong. They’re acrobatic in the field. I mean, look at the two catches (Harrison) Bader made (this past week). Those were spectacular. And you want to see those plays. You want to see athletes and you want to see triples. He had a triple on top of it. You want to see speed. You want to see these players today who are so good, and I think with some tweaking to the game you can appreciate more how talented they are.

GOOLD: The analytics revolution was first about player-evaluation, but has it evolved from helping us better understand the game to now dictating the actual games?

DEWITT: It has changed the game. You’re exactly right. The analytics were initially player-evaluation analytics — the value of a walk, the value of a defensive play, a lot of things like that. I think that’s where we had an advantage. We got on the case early, especially in the draft and how we evaluated players, particularly college players. Of course, everybody is doing that now, and analytics are now being used to evaluate players but also to maximize their ability. You can determine a spin rate and you know that a pitcher can go out there and throw 97 mph with a high spin rate, four seam fastball, and even though he might have a great repertoire he’s now going to go to that more often. Or, he’s going to become a specialist. And the same with a breaking ball’s spin rate. Use your strength.

GOOLD: All these formulas can lead to a formulaic game.

DEWITT: It’s limited the outcomes. It’s good that you can maximize somebody’s ability and you have all that information. And there are ways to modify the game — not talking about dramatic change. I love the game. I love it the way it’s played today. But I would prefer change that would enable more balls in play and if you hit a line drive that historically would be a base hit or a double that it actually turns into that.

GOOLD: You invested aggressively in the analytics approach, especially with the draft, so where do you think you are now? Teams have certainly caught you. Have you slipped behind?

DEWITT: I think there are some teams that have built greatly expanded staffs to do all of the things that we talked about — maximize a player’s ability, and it’s embedded throughout the organization. And that’s how they operate. That’s their game plan. And I think from an evaluation standpoint, we’re very strong. We don’t have the biggest staff in baseball compared to some. But we will be re-engaging our staff. We’re doing some things to make sure that we access data quicker, as an example. It’s a priority for us to be at the top or cutting-edge on analytics. We’re good. But I think we have an opportunity to push the envelope a little bit more.

GOOLD: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t see tanking in your plans, right? “Tank” is a four-letter word around here.

DEWITT: I just don’t see us trading top players in their prime to go younger or anything like that. We’ve never done that. We’ve never been a team looking to do that. We feel like we have a lot of talent, and every year the past number of years we’ve tried to supplement it. And we have traded young players for Ozuna, Goldschmidt.

GOOLD: There seemed to be a level of urgency coming into this season, one fueled by an absence from October. Is there pressure on the front office to produce?

DEWITT: Well, you know we’ve been so close. That’s what has been a little bit disappointing. I don’t like to use the word frustrating because it’s sort of a baseball term everybody uses when things don’t turn out. If you get that close, chances are you’re going to get in your share of times. But if you don’t you can’t just throw everything upside down and expect a different outcome the subsequent year and future years. We’ve made significant changes the last two years. The Ozuna trade. The Goldschmidt deal. Signing (Andrew) Miller. We’ve made some significant moves.

GOOLD: Removed a manager.

DEWITT: Changed the manager. Changed the coaches. We’ve done a lot of things to get where we want to go, and we’ll continue to do whatever we feel is necessary and appropriate to make the playoffs and once we get there do as well as we can. If it happens this year, which we certainly hope, it will be exciting, but we’re still going to try our best in subsequent years to make the playoffs as well.

GOOLD: As you moved up the ladder, it’s those changes that invite the question when, if this team doesn’t get into the playoffs and you’ve made these changes to make that happen, does the accountability arrive at the doorstep of the front office?

DEWITT: There is always accountability. But keep in mind, we’ve had a pretty nice run of success under the current regime with 11 consecutive winning seasons, and when we have missed the playoffs it has been by a very small number of games. Also, there has been significant change and improvement in our baseball operations group (that) critics can’t really see. At the end of the season, first thing we do is we have a meeting with our staff, our on-field staff. Regardless of the outcome, we have a meeting. What have we done well? What have we not done as well? What do we think we need to do better? We do it upstairs as well. What do we need to do to get where want to be, which is to have a playoff-caliber team and once we get in there it has a chance to do a lot of damage deep into October. That’s the goal. That never changes.

GOOLD: Are you aware of the agitation in the fan base? Do you think it’s fair?

DEWITT: We’re drawing extremely well. The fans are engaged. There is an element (of agitation out there). I don’t know how big it is. We’re in a little streak now where we’ve not made the playoffs for three years, and it gets talked about a lot. What I would say is we want to make the playoffs every year, but that’s a high bar, and I think our fans appreciate that it’s a high bar. It’s just the nature of today’s communication world of smartphones and quick comments and things like that where it’s easy criticize or compliment, one way or the other. There is more access to commentary.

GOOLD: The bar and fans expectations are, yes, getting into the playoffs, but also that you’re an elite team in the National League, not just a playoff contender but a title contender, a twist of the knob from 10 to 11.

DEWITT: Right. We’re very respectful of the Cardinal brand, which has been built up over 100 years or more. Winning which started in the early part of the 20th century, and it is our goal – and has been since Day 1 – to maintain that brand and enhance it. We make an effort every year – short-term, long-term – to make sure that we have an opportunity to be successful.

GOOLD: What about the perception that you’ll use the cost-effective move over the big move when, for example, one fair interpretation of the trade deadline is that you cut payroll?

DEWITT: The reality is this year we’re seventh in payroll. And (we’re) 11th in local revenue. The commentary that this is a wildly profitable business is misguided and wrong. Its value has clearly gone up — of franchises — since we bought the team. We’ve pushed the envelope hard to try and have a winning team, year in and year out, and have a shot at the playoffs and October baseball.

GOOLD: Fans can see the buildings going up at Ballpark Village, like a rising ATM, and wonder when that revenue will spill over into the ballpark, onto the team.

DEWITT: That is a venture that is great for the city, and what is great for the city is great for us. The economic benefits of that, whatever they turn out to be, they’re so long-term that others will be able to evaluate them, not me.

GOOLD: That brings us back to the Hall, to Rolen and Isringhausen joining Carpenter and Edmonds. All are players from the outside who won championships here. The way you envision this organization today and in the future would it be validation if the next cluster of Hall of Fame Cardinals are all homegrown?

DEWITT: I think that would be great. I think that’s everybody’s goal — to build a system that can be self-sustaining and you develop great players who win championships for you. We’ve done a good job in keeping our homegrown players. It’s unrealistic to say that you’re not going to have any players from the outside to fill in holes, either through free agency or trading surplus. Homegrown players that we draft or internationally sign, who develop through our system, and bring championships — that’s the goal.


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