ST. LOUIS—The phone call of a lifetime came in the middle of a Whopper.
David Freese had just finished a second season in the Padres system and was preparing for an uncertain future. Blocked at third base, he considered that a move to catcher or elsewhere might lead to a promotion—or it might maroon him in Class A.
It was December 2007 and he wasn’t sure. He was hungry. In the middle of his meal at a Los Angeles Burger King, Freese’s cell phone rang. It was an unfamiliar number from a familiar area code: 314, St. Louis.
The call changed Freese’s career. It continued the change in John Mozeliak’s, too.
Hired as Cardinals general manager less than a month earlier, Mozeliak dialed Freese to welcome him to the organization. Mozeliak’s first trade was a memorable one. He dealt team icon Jim Edmonds, a center fielder in the autumn of his career, and cash for a Class A infielder and St. Louis native. Freese filled a need Mozeliak saw in a future roster, and he also fit a philosophy Mozeliak sought to strengthen. A deliberate shift for the organization was afoot.
The dividend came less than four years later with the 2011 World Series championship. The franchise’s 11th title punctuated one of the most unlikely comebacks in major league history, but it also was one rooted in the Cardinals’ restructured organization. The season featured league titles for two minor league affiliates, low Class A Quad Cities and Rookie-level Johnson City. A minor league system picked bare by trades and left that way by poor drafts earlier in the decade now boasts two of the top pitching prospects in the game: Shelby Miller is set to arrive as a regular in 2013 and Carlos Martinez will be soon behind him. When the final out of Game Seven of the World Series settled into left fielder Allen Craig’s glove, he was one of seven homegrown players on the field for the Cardinals.
And Freese? The return on Mozeliak’s first trade proved a whopper. He was MVP of the World Series and the National League Championship Series while setting postseason records for RBIs (21) and total bases (50).
“When you look at your roster evolution, the way we’ve put our club together was with star talent and the right complementary players,” Mozeliak said. “We were trying to take a player who was a very successful player but coming into the (latter stage) of his career and turn him into a prospect. That wasn’t a white flag. Here we always plan to contend. That was the direction we wanted to go to make it happen.”
That direction, a budding system primed for the future, the blended roster Mozeliak built and, last but hardly least, a daring all-in trade at the July deadline combined to make the Cardinals Baseball America’s Organization of the Year.
It didn’t seem likely in late August.
The Cardinals woke up on Aug. 25 10 games out of a playoff spot and 10½ games behind the Braves for the wild card. In the next five weeks, the Cardinals not only salvaged a season but redefined it. At the core of the biggest rally for a playoff berth in National League history—they were three behind Atlanta with five games to play—was a roster renovated by trades at the deadline. The gutsiest was an eight-player deal with the Blue Jays that cost Colby Rasmus, long the torch bearer for the Cardinals’ new-look minor league system. Rasmus was described by one official as “a troubled asset.” His relationship with manager Tony La Russa had grown chillier, and his production dwindled. When Mozeliak made the deal for Freese in 2007, he saw the end was near for third baseman Scott Rolen because of his curdled relationship with La Russa. Rasmus was drifting that way.
The pitching staff was unstable. The bullpen led the league in blown saves as it cycled through closers, and the rotation, motoring along all season without Adam Wainwright, was starting to fray.
Mozeliak saw a one-stop fix.
The Cardinals dealt Rasmus and three pitchers to Toronto for starter Edwin Jackson, relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski and outfielder Corey Patterson. On the final Sunday of the regular season, Jackson, Rzepczynski and Dotel all had pivotal roles in a win that edged the Cardinals ever closer to Atlanta. The Cardinals went 6-1 in Jackson’s starts, and Rzepczynski and Dotel shone in October as the Cardinals leaned on the bullpen for a record-setting number of appearances and innings.
“There was another key to that deal,” Mozeliak said. “We didn’t want to part with a prospect. There were other ways to do that deal, to get what we needed, but it would have meant doing it piecemeal and trading from our minor league system. It was a win-now type deal. We took a chance. Best of all, it didn’t put a dent in system.”
That protective view of the system is because Mozeliak has seen it slowly and haltingly build to this point. As the Cardinals look to augment a top-heavy roster with Chris Carpenter, Wainwright, Kyle Lohse and Matt Holliday as its highest-paid players, developing impact players is a must.
Mozeliak was promoted to GM during a caustic period, when a fissure had developed between the minor and major league sides of baseball operations. Mozeliak first bridged that gap and unified the front office, and then he reorganized it. Jeff Luhnow stopped overseeing both the draft and the farm system as John Vuch took over as farm director. The analytics staff became more integrated and comfortable. Vuch re-established coordinator roles in the minors, providing quality control. Club officials believe the long-coveted current of impact players is close.
Since the 2005 draft, the Cardinals have had more drafted players debut in the majors than any other club. Twenty-two have been drafted and launched with the Cardinals. This season that included Lance Lynn, Eduardo Sanchez and outfielder Adron Chambers, all of whom had key moments in the late run.
“When you make the postseason by the skin of your teeth, any one of those games that you don’t win is the game that means you don’t win the World Series,” Vuch said. “This year, every little thing we did to win made the difference. It’s very easy then to point to the contributions of the minor league players who contributed a hit, an inning or more to make it happen.”
The blended roster Mozeliak planned galvanized as first-time regulars like Jon Jay and Craig merged with veteran stars Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman to catapult the Cardinals. At the right time, they became the team imagined.
“We thought they had a chance to do some great things for us and give us a shot to do well in the postseason,” chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said during the champagne celebration. “We had the kind of year we hoped we would have.”
Before the champagne in the clubhouse carpet dried, changes were already under way and a new team was taking shape.
La Russa, the third winningest manager in major league history, stepped out of the championship parade and into retirement. His departure left the Cardinals with something new for ownership and Mozeliak: a manager search.
This already figured to be a defining offseason because of four words: Pujols reaches free agency. The best hitter of his generation was, for the first time in his career, not under contract with the Cardinals, and DeWitt said the club would have to “go places we haven’t gone before” financially to re-sign the three-time MVP.
The future of Pujols and the search for a new manager offered Mozeliak another chance to reshape the club’s identity. Continuity and Cardinals roots were the buzzwords. During the interview process, the Cardinals talked about finding a manager who could guide a defending championship club, nurture blossoming young regulars like Freese, Jay, Craig and closer Jason Motte, while bringing in a new wave of talent. They hired Mike Matheny, a former Gold Glove catcher who had not managed at any level. But he did fit the formula that Mozeliak and DeWitt have set forth for the organization as a whole: perpetually contend, while growing younger.
“We looked at this as someone who could have short-term success with this current club but also someone we believe in for long-term success,” Mozeliak said. “We tried a balance.”
In other words: The manager has changed, but the expectations have not.
Neither has the direction.