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Cardinals spring training

St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak (left) and owner Bill DeWitt Jr. watch practice during St. Louis Cardinals spring training on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. • Several times since the Cardinals’ clubhouse was shocked July 31 by a redefining trade that sent two cherished teammates to Boston, general manager John Mozeliak has used that day in San Diego as an example of the two-way trust that must exist between suits and jerseys.

Trades happen, and sometimes they hurt personally.

But the players should never doubt the execs’ intent – to help, professionally.

“I think Mo made a really great comment on how we trust the players that we have and we would hope they trust him and us to do the right thing and give them the greatest opportunity for success,” Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “We’re all trying to win divisions and win championships, and sometimes you have to make decisions that are hard and unpopular. But the end goal is to be competitive, to be successful and to have that chance to play in October.”

Standing before the assembled team at the start of spring training, Mozeliak revisited that trust theme with the players. He didn’t have to look far to see examples.

On the far wall was veteran pitcher John Lackey, the major-league prize from the Red Sox for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig in that deadline deal. Along another wall, his locker close to Matt Holliday’s corner, sat outfielder Jason Heyward, the centerpiece of a four-player deal with Atlanta that came in November. Both share more than being traded in common. They each cost the Cardinals young, starting pitching to acquire. They each have a contract that expires at the end of the 2015 season.

For an organization – and a general manager – that has treated young pitching like gold bullion, collecting it, stacking it, and rarely spending it, the traits of the two new players sitting in the clubhouse stand out. The cost and the short-term return hint at an urgency. The Cardinals don’t refute that description.

But, they say, it’s not a departure.

“I could see why someone would feel that way after this year, but we try to remain disciplined and true to our process,” Mozeliak said. “Believe it or not, even though in these deals it appears like we’re giving up the control factor, we felt they were fair deals for both sides. Put it this way: We understand the risk.”

Since moving into the general manager role on Halloween 2007, Mozeliak has constructed a titan that has twice been named Baseball America’s organization of the year since 2011 and once ranked atop the magazine’s farm system ratings, a first for the Cardinals. The Cardinals have appeared in four consecutive National League championship series, and they have done so by relying on contributions from players drafted, developed and deployed in the organization. In consecutive summers, 2013 and 2014, the Cardinals had first-round picks Michael Wacha and Marco Gonzales reach the majors less than 12 months after leaving college. The Cardinals are the only team in baseball to do that.

Mozeliak has zealously guarded the team’s young talent, passing on overtures for Carlos Martinez from teams like the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies and declining to include Oscar Taveras in any talks at last year’s trade deadline. And, yet, just as telling as how he treasures young talent is this M.O. from Mo: He’ll trade favorites.

This was clear from his first deal.

Less than two months into the job, Mozeliak traded Jim Edmonds, one of the finest center fielders of his era, to San Diego for a Class A third baseman, David Freese. A month later, Mozeliak moved third baseman Scott Rolen to Toronto for third baseman Troy Glaus – a deal necessitated by an irreparable fissure between Rolen and manager Tony La Russa. In his first two trades, Mozeliak dealt two of the MV3 core that took the Cardinals to three consecutive National League championship series (2004, 2005 and 2006) and won the 2006 World Series. In 2010, he traded All-Star Ryan Ludwick for pitching and three years later traded Freese, who had become an All-Star and World Series legend in a Cardinals jersey.

Mozeliak has traded 18 players from the major-league roster. Four of those were involved in the July 2011 deal with Toronto that reshaped the team and sped it toward a World Series title.

As the market has changed, evolving to be ultra-protective and even overvaluing of young, cost-controlled players, Mozeliak has been willing to move them, too.

From 2005 to 2010, the Cardinals had 14 first-round picks.

Eight have been traded.

Pete Kozma is the only first-round pick drafted before 2011 still in the organization.

“I think the biggest difference in the industry from what was happening in the early 2000s to where we are today is just the value of the prospects,” Mozeliak said. “There was a time in the 1990s when people were moving minor-league talent to acquire major-league talent and people didn’t feel like they were giving that much up for that. I think people realize today the importance of having a strong farm system, the importance of having a pipeline of players, and therefore it’s harder to make these deals.”

The shift Mozeliak described happened when moving contracts became less necessary in a game flooded with revenue, fewer core talents reached the open market, and cost-controlled talent became the coin of the realm. Most players come with six years of salary control before they reach free agency, and some deals can be defined by years of control and value of picks.The Cardinals have engaged the Colorado Rockies over the past few years about Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki, and they found the Rockies’ demands for years of control unpalatable. Oakland acquired Holliday in 2009 and intended to keep him for the year and then take the two first-round draft picks as compensation when he left for free agency. It’s no coincidence that the Cardinals traded for Holliday by sending Oakland a package that included two players who were … first-round picks.

The years of control traded in the past eight months by Mozeliak underscore that whiff of urgency. In exchange for 1½ years of Lackey and a minor-league lefty, the Cardinals sent Craig and his three years of control (plus an option) and Kelly’s four years of control. It was a total exchange of potentially eight years for the promise of 1½ plus a minor-leaguer. The four-player deal with Atlanta was even more tilted. The Cardinals traded Shelby Miller (four) and Tyrell Jenkins (at least six) for Heyward (one) and reliever Jordan Walden, who signed an extension for a potential three. That’s 10 for four.

But it’s the one with Heyward that is revealing.

The Cardinals have an in-house algorithm and scouting process that assigns dollar figures to players. They use this for the draft and as a model to view free agents and trade targets. It can be difficult for them to make trades with teams that use similar measures, like the Tampa Bay Rays, but all of the teams arrive at the same calculation: A 25-year-old, All-Star outfielder with room to grow and the potential to re-sign is rarely available. Of course landing Heyward would be costly.

“Getting core players is hard,” DeWitt said. “Our model is value-based, and what we want to do is get value back for value given. Because there is always opportunity to use resources to acquire talent. What we wanted to do on some of these deals is have an opportunity to get a premium regular position player who hopefully will want to continue to be a Cardinal. There is certainly a risk with him being a free agent at the end of the season if that doesn’t happen.”

The message sent last July 31, said one player who was in the clubhouse, was that “the organization wants to win.” That has been a constant. How trades support that have changed. This was an active offseason for trades, as baseball teams that had hoarded young talent reached a critical mass of sorts. Moves had to be made. And while power might be the rarest commodity in the game, pitching still is the game’s cash. Everybody takes it.

In Mozeliak’s first 20 deals involving a major-leaguer, he traded three young starting pitchers: Anthony Reyes, P.J. Walters and future reliever Clayton Mortensen. Since July, he’s traded five. Kelly and Miller already have had 10-win seasons in the majors.

These have been the types of talents the Cardinals hold.

But when there’s a need and a chance to win, there’s the urgency. They have to spend the currency that the market requires.

“I think that was the plan all along,” manager Mike Matheny said. “I think you guard it for when you do need to make those moves (so) you have the pieces you can move. You keep giving your talent the opportunity until there’s an obvious hole that we need to have filled. We have had an organization very deliberate in keeping the young talent that is coveted in the game. … Mo and Bill have done a great job keeping a finger on the pulse.

“They understand it’s so rare to have a season with a chance and not to let it slip away.”

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