'Cardinals Devil Magic:' St. Louis Keeps Maximizing Overlooked College Draft Picks
A rival scout sat in the stands at Busch Stadium last summer, watching Tommy Edman rack up hit after hit.
The veteran scout has had Cardinals organization coverage for years. He liked Edman as a prospect. When it came to write his report, he turned Edman in as a future utility player. A big leaguer, but not a starter.
Now, watching Edman start at third base and hit leadoff for the playoff-bound Cardinals, the scout just sat back and chuckled.
"Just call it the Cardinal Way,” the scout said. "A lot of people sit there and say the same thing: it’s pixie dust. They sit there and sprinkle it on them and they perform.”
Welcome to "Cardinals Devil Magic.”
Throughout the last two decades, the Cardinals have routinely turned college infielders with little draft or prospect pedigree into productive major leaguers. Some, like Matt Carpenter (13th round), Matt Adams (23rd round), Allen Craig (eighth round) and Paul DeJong (fourth round), became everyday regulars. Others, like Skip Schumaker (fifth round), Daniel Descalso (third round) and Greg Garcia (seventh round) settled into multi-year careers as utilitymen. The latest two, Luke Voit (22nd round) and Edman (sixth round) are starters on playoff clubs.
Only three—Adams, Craig and Descalso—ever ranked among the Cardinals’ Top 10 Prospects. And yet, like clockwork, all exceeded their projections.
Around 2012, the phrase "Cardinals Devil Magic” first began to surface on social media to describe this frequent outcome. Now, even rival scouts and front office officials use the expression freely.
"I wish we had some sort of magic,” Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch said, chuckling. "It’s a compliment, right? People are saying that we tend to find players where they didn’t expect us to. That’s a good reputation to have.”
Magic, naturally, has nothing to do with it. While none of the players fit the same profile—some were undersized middle infielders, others burly catchers and corner infielders—they all had two things in common: a long track record of performance the Cardinals valued, and the makeup the club sought.
"There’s no overarching plan that we have that says ‘Let’s find up the middle, not quite toolsy college guys who can make good contact and it will all work out,'” Girsch said.
"I do think that we, especially a decade ago, were probably using college stats in a way that might have been aggressive at the time, and using that as a bigger part of our process than other teams were at the time. In some cases that, I think, was part of the answer. How we were evaluating players was slightly different than other people five, eight, 10, 15 years ago. I’m not sure that it’s true anymore, at least not nearly as much, but I think that might be part of the story.”
As for the makeup part?
"It’s not one size fits all,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. "Skip Schumaker was one of those players who maybe wasn’t blessed with the greatest physical skills, but he did have a lot of desire to play in the big leagues. So he would keep re-inventing himself to find new ways to contribute. Everybody is sort of different. Matt Carpenter, another guy that was extremely driven to prove he belonged.
"If you were to take that whole group and look at them not only from an individual standpoint but from sort of an aggregate, every one of them had that winning attitude.”
Perhaps no player best exemplifies those attributes better than Edman. Standing at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds and lacking any plus tools save for speed, Edman started all three years at a premier college program in Stanford—winning Most Outstanding Player of the Bloomington Regional as a freshman—and reached Triple-A in two years before posting an .850 OPS as a rookie.
Now, he’s a long-term part of the Cardinals plans, which is more than can be said of most of the players who ranked ahead of him on draft boards and top prospect lists.
"To me, it’s a situation where, as a scout, you always get in there and you always get caught up in the big, big tools,” the aforementioned scout said, "and you don’t realize that a lot of times 'Hey, baseball players.'
"Edman is a baseball player. Does he have the strongest arm to stay at the position? Probably not. But does he know how to play the game? He does.”
Identifying a player's track record and makeup is only part of it. Another part is development.
The Cardinals player development system has long gotten the most out of their touted prospects as well as their unheralded ones. In the eyes of another opposing scout who covers the Cardinals organization, how the organization handles those unheralded prospects is a key part of the equation.
"I think they like their players and the players respond,” the scout said. "Those guys play like they’re all prospects. They believe they’re prospects….They’re responding to what they think the organization thinks of them.”
In many ways, that’s played out. The Cardinals were the only ones who thought Paul DeJong could play shortstop, and he’s done it. They were the only ones who saw Carpenter as an everyday player, and he became one. They were largely the only ones who considered Edman one of their top 10 prospects entering last season, and he was.
All so often, what the Cardinals believe about their players turns about to be true. Some jokingly call it magic. Others credit astute scouting and development. In the Cardinals eyes’ it all comes down to one, fundamental thing:
"You can talk about Devil Magic, you can talk about what we do with different hitting approaches,” Girsch said. "But at the end of the day, the credit has to go to DeJong and Edman and Carp and Matt Adams and Luke Voit and all these guys who have dedicated themselves to maximizing all the potential they had.”
Notable Cardinals infielders who were not high draft picks or top prospects
Highest Team Top 30 Rank
.850 OPS as rookie
2019 NL All-Star
Career .873 OPS
Six-year ML career
Three straight 20-HR seasons
10-year ML career
2013 NL All-Star
.278 AVG, .337 OBP