ST. LOUIS—Late in each season, Gary LaRocque takes a tour of the minors and talks about the month that matters most.
It may be August when the Cardinals’ senior adviser for player development visits the clubhouse, about the time the minor league regular season is winding down. The best teams will play only a little longer, a few weeks into September. LaRocque talks to the players about being exhausted, about the grind of the season and the fatigue that sets in late in the year.
And then he asks them: If you’re tired in August, how are you going to produce in October? October may not be on the minor league schedule, but LaRocque wants October on the minor leaguers’ minds.
October is when Cardinals play.
“We use our history,” LaRocque said. “When we talk to players about our winning culture, we talk constantly about that. I want them thinking about being a playoff team, about playing in October. It gets them thinking, ‘If I’m part of this winning culture, then I have responsibilities.’
“If we’re going to develop championship (teams) it starts down here. It’s what we have to do every day.”
LaRocque shared that same message this October when he met with the 35 handpicked players at the team’s instructional league in Jupiter, Fla. He said their goal should be the organization’s goal—to play in October.
LaRocque didn’t have to reach far for an example. The minor leaguers could see it on television. For the third consecutive season and the 10th time since 2000, the big league club was in the playoffs, this time as the top seed in the National League with 97 wins.
The National League’s winningest organization this century would advance to the franchise’s 19th World Series, the club’s fourth in the past 10 years. Although they came two wins shy of a 12th championship, losing in six games to the Red Sox, the Cardinals played deep into the month that matters most and did so with a team built for an era of contending.
For the second the time in three seasons, the Cardinals are Baseball America’s Organization of the Year. In between those two honors, the Cardinals boasted the top-rated farm system. These are not unrelated events. One begets the other.
“We’re in a good spot,” general manager John Mozeliak said in the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway Park as the players and manager Mike Matheny dealt with the losing end of their season. “We’ve got a good team. We’ve got a young team.”
The Cardinals’ 106 wins in 2013 were the third-most for the club since 1944, and this year’s club had a distinctly different feel than the previous three World Series teams. The 2004 club was a household-name titan, built around the cornerstones of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and later Larry Walker. The 2006 team, which won 83 games and the title, was the last glimpse from a core group as its window closed. The 2011 team, which upended Texas in a dramatic World Series rally, was all about the goodbyes, as Pujols and Tony La Russa left the team after that October run.
The 2013 team was all about hellos.
The Cardinals’ postseason roster had the youngest average age of any National League team (27.24), a full year younger than the upstart Pirates. The Cardinals’ pitching staff had an average age of 26.8, the youngest of any winning team in the majors and the second-youngest overall in the NL.
That youth was serving in the playoffs. Rookie Michael Wacha, less than 18 months removed from his final pitch for Texas A&M, led a group of rookies who pitched 67 innings in the postseason, a major league record. Wacha won four games in October, became the first pitcher born in the 1990s to win a playoff game, and was the youngest National League Championship Series MVP since 1991.
This was a continuation of the regular season. The Cardinals received 36 wins from rookies, including 15 from 2009 15th overall pick Shelby Miller. Two out of every five innings pitched by a Cardinal was thrown by a pitcher 26 years old or younger. As the postseason got later and the pitching staff got smaller and better, the Cardinals relied more on their rookies. Including a dominant turn by rookie closer Trevor Rosenthal, the Cardinals had 50 percent of their innings in the World Series pitched by rookies.
“We get these guys who are obviously talented, (and) there are very many talented players out there, but not many of them can handle all the distractions that come with being on a big league team, let alone the pressure of being one in the postseason, Matheny said. “We’re fortunate that we have kids who show up ready to go. We’re not afraid to put them in there. We haven’t seen the ceiling with a lot of these young players.”
The production received from these young players—and the “bright future ahead,” as Mozeliak said—cast a spotlight all October on what became known, in shorthand, as “The Cardinal Way.”
At various times through October it was used to describe a “style of play,” the “style of players,” and, most often, the style of development.
Staff ace Adam Wainwright summarized the philosophy this way: “It’s a way of thinking that we have in St. Louis and in our clubhouse and throughout our organization (that there’s) an expectation of winning, an expectation of professionalism that comes with that winning, and (an expectation) of doing things the right way. That’s been taught and bred over the years from guys like Red Schoendienst, like Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith. All of these great Hall of Famers that you’ve grown to love, they’re still in our clubhouse hanging out . . . We still feel their presence. We still feel their lessons.”
Asked again about “The Cardinal Way,” Wainwright sighed.
“Gosh,” he said. “We need to start selling books about this.”
He’s close. There is a book. It’s not for sale.
Several years ago, the Cardinals, led by front office officials like John Vuch and LaRocque, organized instructions on what it means to be a Cardinal into an actual handbook, The Cardinal Way. Managers and coaches in the minors have an expanded version, and every player is presented with an abridged version when he joins the organization. The guide has a chapter on catching written by Matheny. (Catchers must be “good communicators,” display “exceptional flexibility in the lower-half muscles,” and be “capable of taking blame even when it is not justified.”) The pitching approaches were authored with Dave Duncan’s help. The late George Kissell’s bunt plays and cutoffs are included. The book is rewritten every season. The bunt defenses, for example, were boiled down before the 2012 season.
The handbook serves as a bound example of a larger shift for the organization—one that put an increasing emphasis on homegrown talent. Coming out of consecutive 100-win seasons in 2006, chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. recognized the team’s architecture wouldn’t age well. The farm system had been strip-mined for talent and the stars were aging. He hired Jeff Luhnow to rethink the team’s approach to the draft, and he invested heavily in the scouting, acquisition, and development of talent. DeWitt saw a tide of wealth (read: broadcast rights) about to shift the game and to keep up the Cardinals had to become self-sufficient. Free agency wasn’t going to be the answer. The draft was.
The 2009 draft, for example, produced five members of the World Series roster. The 2012 draft gave the Cardinals Wacha (19th overall) and Stephen Piscotty (36th overall). One was a sensation in October; the other is the top righthanded-hitting prospect in the organization. Both of those picks were compensation for Pujols signing with the Angels.
Mozeliak likes to use the phrase “sustained success.”
As strong as the Cardinals system has been for them, their chief need for 2014 will not come from an internal source. The Cardinals entered the winter looking for a shortstop, but executives say they’ve never started an offseason in a stronger position. They have the talent to trade, if necessary, and plenty of payroll room to sign. Mozeliak calls it “flexibility,” and despite the success of this year’s team it allows for some changes. That was what confronted some of the players immediately after Game Six at Fenway Park—some of them won’t be back. But several players said it would be wrong to call this year’s World Series loss an ending.
It’s a start.
“There is always room for improvement, and clearly there is only one winner every year,” Mozeliak said. “From an organization standpoint, we certainly have a lot of positive things going on. There are still areas we can do better . . .
“We are winning. We have been winning. The fans expect us to continue winning.”