Cards Go Back To Future For Farm Approach
JUPITER, Fla.—On the minor league fields of the St. Louis Cardinals' spring training campus this year, it was as if a time machine had magically arrived and spit out an old but respected relic from baseball's golden era.
The man is well-traveled baseball executive Gary LaRocque, now the organization's new senior adviser to player development. And he looked the part: Straw hat (most days), old-school aviator sunglasses and a black leather folder tucked under an armpit.
"In all honesty, I really am excited in my role helping out on the minor league side. We've got a lot of good people doing a lot of good work," LaRocque said. "With the experiences I have been fortunate to have, (I will) be part of our coaching staff as far as what they go through day to day and how our instruction plays out."
But he isn't the only one excited. Other front-office executives and minor league coaches share his enthusiasm, given LaRocque's 35 years in the game in roles as farm director, scouting director, minor league manager and minor league player.
Overall, his presence encapsulates an amped-up emphasis on implementing instruction within player development, as general manager John Mozeliak seeks to reduce the workload of multi-hatted scouting chief Jeff Luhnow, and dispatched other trusted lieutenants to run the farm.
In essence, the Cardinals finally acknowledged a need for more discipline in teaching fundamental baseball, long the organization's trademark.
Since October 2006, three major departments—scouting, player development and international—demanded Luhnow's attention. But the Cardinals also usually had to make do without field and hitting coordinators after 2007.
Now a dual set of eyes oversee the farm system. Former director of baseball operations John Vuch is now farm director and flanked by LaRocque, a special assistant to the GM since 2008. Both roving jobs also were filled.
Luhnow still holds titles as vice president of scouting and player development, but he is no longer involved in day-to-day decision-making of the farm system.
"When you look at structuring the front office, obviously you are trying to optimize everybody's strengths," Mozeliak said, noting the Cardinals' dedication to the amateur draft and the international market since 2005.
"I think you dilute yourself a little bit, and this part of our business requires 100 percent focus," Mozeliak added. "As we're investing millions of dollars into the talent pool, we want to make sure what's being taught and the curriculum is consistent and evolving."
He also noted, "Just from an organizational standpoint, I felt like we needed to focus on exactly what was happening below St. Louis."
Too Much To Do
What was happening was what one might expect of an organization that had one executive running three major departments.
Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt in October 2006 appointed Luhnow farm director, emphasizing then that the best approach for decision-making in player development—promotions, instruction and so forth—was to have it handled by the man who knew prospects as amateurs.
But Luhnow was stretched thin. Unlike traditional farm directors, he would visit an affiliate for a day, and then head either to another club, Latin America or the recruiting trail.
"There were some tradeoffs that I had to make—maybe not seeing quite as many of the amateur players as I would have liked to, maybe not visiting clubs as much as I'd like to, because there's only so much one person can do," Luhnow said. "But if you've got good scouts and you've got good coaches and trust them, it alleviates a lot of the need to be everywhere."
However, guidance on both instruction and sound decision-making in roster transactions became a slower-than-necessary process, as a couple of coaches explained.
And that guidance became all the more important as Luhnow challenged prospects by advancing them to leagues where they were generally less experienced against slightly older competition.
More on that later. For now the Cardinals are likely to shore up those situations, with all eyes on the Vuch-LaRocque tag-team.
First employed as a "runner" for the front office in 1979, Vuch is a detail-oriented executive who has closely worked with most of the organization's player development leaders over the years: the legendary George Kissell, as well as Lee Thomas, Jim Riggleman and Mike Jorgensen.
LaRocque, well, let's see: He was a Brewers minor leaguer from 1975 until becoming a minor league manager in the Dodgers system in 1979, and then transitioned to the scouting department in 1988. He was there until moving on to the Mets, where for 11 seasons LaRocque either ran the farm or the scouting department.
Winning Isn't Everything
The new appointments came last October, shortly after the Cardinals' affiliates finished with the best winning percentage (.569) in the minors. However, Vuch kept any chest-thumping to a minimum.
In some of his first public comments after his promotion, Vuch repeatedly told beat writers that "winning is nice" but that young pitchers, for instance, weren't helping themselves or the organization if they were just by trying to blow fastballs by hitters.
"There is even more of an emphasis of the fundamentals. Not that we didn't worry about them before. But it's getting back to basics," Vuch said in March. He later added, "It's like a quality control-type thing that ensures we are doing the same from level to level."
Many say LaRocque's easygoing, friendly demeanor will connect with coaches.
"He's got the personality to get guys excited and on point," said Jack Bowen, a national crosschecker for the Pirates who worked for La Rocque in the Mets system between 1997 and 2005 as national crosschecker and scouting director. "He can multi-task. He can do anything the hell he wants. If the Cardinals want structure . . . this man is on another level than most other baseball people. There's not going to be a stone left unturned."
LaRocque said he wants to go beyond instruction and have the organization to focus on how to get the most out of each player.
"What I hope to bring to the table is the opportunity to make everybody think about the options. Options meaning, when you put a player here, here is what can occur," LaRocque said. "(We'll) look at the long-term impact of how it works.
"Development is a challenge in that, in the beginning, players are projections. When they turn the corner in that Double-A level, it turns from some projection to some performance. That part of it, I'm really looking forward to being a part of."
To understand how the Cardinals reached this point, consider their enthusiasm for signing most of their draft picks and a reluctance to shop the minor league free agent market.
From 2007 to 2010, St. Louis averaged 42.75 signings per draft—a figure that Luhnow says is likely among the top five in the industry. By signing a large pool of players, the Cardinals insulate themselves from the free-agent market and push their own players up the pipeline. When they do cut, their large quantity—keep in mind the Cardinals have had nine affiliates—allows the organization to fill with homegrown players.
In years past, Cardinals teams usually would have a veteran presence on a Double-A team to help guide along a prospect or two. But that was a rarity under Luhnow. Look at it this way: Only 18 of their players reached free agency between 2008 and 2010, a surprisingly low number given the nature of the industry.
"Our philosophy in the draft is that we're looking for players that in some way, shape or form might have a chance of making it to the big leagues," Luhnow said. "We have a pretty good success of drafting players late and seeing them making far in the system, close to or up to the big league level."
So, when the farm needed to plug holes, it has turned to homegrown talent.
Sometimes, the Cardinals clearly gave leniency to soon-to-be promoted prospects that had earned most, but not all, of their stripes at a lower level. In other words, affiliates were fed players whose prior prep work time had been truncated.
Survival Of The Fittest
It wasn't a completely wrong-headed strategy, though. A number of players did meet the challenge, including 2005 first-round pick Colby Rasmus, the torchbearer of the system's turnaround who was all of 20 when he opened 2007 in Double-A. Lefthander Jaime Garcia, third in National League rookie-of-the-year voting last season, also was 20 and on the same club that year.
But not all players successfully made adjustments. For instance, the Cardinals jumped 2006 first-rounder Adam Ottavino to Triple-A to begin the 2009 season, despite a prior season full of inconsistency and, at times, self doubt. But when summoned to the parent club last summer after St. Louis lost Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny to injuries, Ottavino was a dud (0-2, 8.46) in five appearances, three starts. Clearly, Ottavino lacked a necessary cupboard of quality pitches.
This is where Vuch, LaRocque and the hiring of the rovers could make a difference. Coaching staffs can bounce instruction ideas off others, and the executives and coaches can double-check to make certain players are adhering to the instruction manual.
"When we say a guy is not ready, we say, 'Well, how do we get him ready?'" LaRocque said. "The instruction level, it could be a certain plan that we put in place from now until August so that that player becomes ready. So every player becomes individualized in the process of, 'What do we do for that player for him to reach his ceiling?' Because clearly not every player is going to reach the major leagues.
"But the responsibility is to make sure that we get every player to his ceiling, whatever that ceiling may be."
The Cardinals of the late Kissell were known for instruction, for players who knew how to play the game. Vuch and LaRocque reflect that philosophy.
"We have a lot of good instructors who do that, a lot of guys who know how to reach (players)," LaRocque said. "I'm real confident that that part is going to be successful as we move forward."
The Cardinals approached roster construction differently than other organizations when Jeff Luhnow wore the hats of scouting director (for both the draft and internationally) and farm director. St. Louis signed more players from the draft and lost fewer minor league free agents than other organizations. So the organization excels at gauging signability of draft picks but has to cut more players annually to make room for newly drafted players. Here's a look at the recent track record, comparing the Cardinals to their peers in both categories.
|Organization with most minor league free agents lost: Marlins (31).
||Highest unsigned: 12th round (OF Austin Wilson, Harvard-Westlake HS, Los Angeles).
|Others with single-digit free agents: Cubs (8).
||Next Unsigned: 19th round.
|Qualify for first time: 2004 draft picks.
||Latest Signed: 49th round.
|Organization with most minor league free agents lost: Dodgers (34).
||First unsigned: 16th round (LHP Daniel Bibona, UC Irvine , who was drafted and signed as a senior in 2010).
|Others with single-digit free agents: Twins (8).
||Next Unsigned: 27th round.
|Qualify for first time: 2003 draft picks.
||Latest Signed: 50th round.
|Organization with most minor league free agents lost: Blue Jays (31).
||First unsigned: 13th round (RHP Mitch Harris, Navy).
|Others with single-digit free agents: Diamondbacks (9), Reds (9), Brewers (9).
||Next Unsigned: 30th round.
|Qualify for first time: 2002 draft picks.
||Latest Signed: 49th round.
|Organization with most minor league free agents lost: Pirates (37).
||First unsigned: Fourth round (OF Kyle Russell, Texas).
|Organizations with single-digit free agents: None, though Twins (12), Diamondbacks (12), Brewers (10) and Cubs (10) all lost fewer than the Cardinals.
||Next Unsigned: Ninth round (but signed 22 of first 24 picks).
|Qualify for first time: 2001 draft picks.
||Latest Signed: 49th round