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Skillful Trades Help Cards Remain Productive
By Will Lingo
Walt Jocketty took over as Cardinals general manager in the midst of the strike in October 1994. In the 10 seasons he has led the baseball operation in St. Louis, the Cardinals have had losing records just three times. They've won the National League Central five times. In 2004 they made their first trip to the World Series under Jocketty.
An important factor in that success has been player development. During those 10 seasons, 67 different players have been ranked on Baseball America's Cardinals Top 10 Prospects lists (not including the current list). Through last season, 43 of them had reached the big leagues, though many just got a cup of coffee.
Of that group, just eight are still in the organization. The elite eight includes a couple of key players--Albert Pujols and Matt Morris--and five others with varying degrees of promise: Rick Ankiel, Jim Journell, Hector Luna, Yadier Molina, Josh Pearce and So Taguchi.
Among the departed are righthander Dan Haren, second baseman Adam Kennedy, righthander Braden Looper, infielder Placido Polanco, shortstop Jack Wilson and first baseman Dmitri Young. All productive players, but they've helped bring players back who have been centerpieces in St. Louis--Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Scott Rolen--or were key trade deadline acquisitions, such as Jeff Brantley and Jason Christiansen.
And that list includes only trades that worked out to some degree for the teams the Cardinals traded with. There are several others, such as the deal that brought Mark McGwire to St. Louis from Oakland in exchange for Eric Ludwick, T.J. Mathews and Blake Stein, that cost the Cardinals only young players who didn't pan out.
"We look at the draft as bringing in assets, or if you will, currency," assistant general manager John Mozeliak said. "And those assets can turn out to be members of the big league club or used to help fill a need."
It's an approach the Cardinals have used successfully over the past decade, but even with the organization trading more prospects than many other clubs, the talent in the farm system has slipped notably in recent years. St. Louis' minor league talent was ranked ninth-best in the game by BA before the 1999 season, but in the five years since it has been ranked in the bottom third of baseball. This year will be no exception.
"Someone must like our players, for Walt to be able to make these deals," farm director Bruce Manno said.
Jocketty's skillful use of trades continues to make the system productive, and it's not devoid of talent, as shown by the graduation of players like Haren, Molina and Pujols to the big leagues in recent years. But even the Cardinals have recognized a need to bring in more talent.
Mozeliak has noticed the organization's talent ranking slip in the last few years. "And to some degree, there's some accuracy there," he said.
The Cardinals have moved to turn the situation around. First, they brought in Manno as farm director after the 2001 season. Then they put Mozeliak back in charge of the scouting department after the 2003 draft.
The changes in the scouting operation have been more noticeable. The Cardinals hired Jeff Luhnow as vice president of baseball development, with the aim to use technology to help them scout and evaluate players more efficiently, from amateurs to the minors to the big leagues. At the same time they fired a number of longtime scouts.
The first draft under the new system also tilted heavily toward college players. In fact, the Cardinals didn't sign a single high school player out of the 2004 draft, after selecting just four.
Leaning toward college players is a Cardinals tradition, though. You have to go back to 1980 (Virginia high school righthander Don Collins) to find a time they used their first pick on a high school pitcher, and in the last 10 years they've used their first pick on high school players just three times: Shaun Boyd (2000), who has been a washout; Cal Hayes (2002, third round), who has a limited ceiling; and Daric Barton (2003), who was a key player in the Mulder trade.
The new approach just takes the philosophy to an extreme. Mozeliak, who served as scouting director in 1999 and 2000 before becoming director of baseball operations in 2001, said the team did not exclude high school players from its scouting, but that college players fit best in 2004.
"We wanted to get some guys who we believe could rise quickly," he said. "In the first, second and third rounds we were just looking to draft the best possible player--it just happened to fall in the college ranks."
Mozeliak says the more important change is making scouts more efficient and accountable. The Cardinals have hired more scouts this fall, and he said he wants them to have more responsibility. To that end, for the 2004 draft he brought in every scout for predraft meetings and to sit in on the draft, rather than having crosscheckers just distill the information they had collected.
"We want to give them ownership of their picks," he said. "You obviously like to think you've done a good job, but you always want to do better."
The Cardinals also want to do a better job developing the talent once they bring it into the organization. To that end, Manno has made winning a great focus in the farm system. It has shown in the results, as the organization's minor league winning percentage has gone from .423 in 2001 to .509, .451 and .520 in the last three seasons.
"Winning and player development go hand in hand," said Manno, who was the Brewers' farm director when they were BA's Organization of the Year for three consecutive years in the mid-1980s. "As teachers, our goal is to try and not only get players' attention, but to hold it from the beginning of the season to the very end."
The Cardinals want all their affiliates to be in first place or within striking distance by Aug. 1 each season, believing it enhances players' concentration, enthusiasm and camaraderie. That helps players improve and advance, making them either useful big leaguers for St. Louis or assets that can be traded. Manno said the organization's goal is to supply a pitcher and position player for the big league club every year.
"In a perfect world, every player you sign and develop you'd like to see play in your own organization," he said. "But our job really is to get players ready for the major league club to utilize, either in trades or on the field."
Manno said the most important factor to St. Louis' success is that the organization has a coherent approach, from Jocketty on down, and that everyone in the baseball operation is on the same page.
The Cardinals have recognized their system slipped somewhat in recent years, and they acted to change that. The results in the big leagues haven't slipped at all, though, and that's the ultimate measure of any organization.
"People understand our ultimate goal is what happens in the big leagues," Manno said. "But every year we try to do a little more to get better as an organization."