Cardinals’ Farm System Stages Massive Turnaround After Historically Poor 2021
After the end of last season, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak met with farm director Gary LaRocque to discuss the state of the team’s farm system.
Cardinals full-season affiliates combined for a .394 winning percentage in 2021, the fifth-lowest winning percentage in the modern era of the minor leagues, which dates back to 1963. They were outscored by 708 runs, the worst run differential in the minors by a wide margin.
Some of the Cardinals’ top prospects, such as third baseman Jordan Walker and second baseman Nolan Gorman, performed well. But many others, like lefthanders Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson, catcher Ivan Herrera and shortstop Masyn Winn, struggled through uneven or downright poor seasons, contributing to the system’s historically awful showing.
Upon reflection, Mozeliak and LaRocque diagnosed the root of the problem. They determined that following the canceled 2020 minor league season, the Cardinals were too aggressive in pushing their prospects to higher levels when play resumed in 2021. In order to get back to the organization’s standard excellence in player development, they were going to have to slow things down.
“Coming out of 2020, we basically didn’t want to hold anybody back,” Mozeliak said. “We almost pretended that 2020 happened and we placed players where we thought they would have been. And in 2021, not having a year of play under their belts, I think a lot of them might have been rushed, if you will, or pushed a little too fast.
“I think (the conclusion) was basically to pump the brakes a little bit on how aggressive we are. We are an organization that moves players rather quickly, and we were much more self-conscious of how to do that in 2022.”
Fueled by that change, the Cardinals have had one of the biggest turnarounds of any organization in the minor leagues in 2022. After having none of their affiliates post a winning season a year ago, all but one of their affiliates was either over or near a .500 record at midseason.
More importantly, the organization has returned to being a player development juggernaut.
The Cardinals have received enormous contributions from rookies this year en route to wild card contention in the National League.
Thompson and Liberatore bounced back to earn their first big league callups and have become critical contributors to the Cardinals’ pitching staff. Righthander Andre Pallante made the Opening Day roster and pitched so well in relief that the Cardinals moved him to the rotation.
And below them, the organization’s talent in the minors is flourishing. The Cardinals have seven players ranked on the Midseason Top 100 Prospects, tied for the most of any team. Only Walker and Liberatore were on the Top 100 at the start of the year. Winn, Herrera, outfielder Alec Burleson and righthanders Gordon Graceffo and Tink Hence rose onto the list with breakout seasons.
“Last year at this time, I believe we were the youngest team in three of our (four full-season) leagues and felt as though that was going to be a good thing down the road,” LaRocque said. “But with that came the growing pains of knowing that players were playing at levels that were obviously very aggressive, and that we would see a change into the next year.
“So as they matured and got the playing time they needed, they would catch up to league levels. That was our goal, and that’s what happened.”
By LaRocque’s estimation, the Cardinals returned 75% of their minor leaguers to the same level they finished at last year. Liberatore, for example, jumped from Low-A in 2019 straight to Triple-A in 2021 in one of the most aggressive assignments in all of the minor leagues. He returned to Triple-A to start this year and understandably had more success, leading to his callup and eventual placement in the Cardinals’ rotation.
Winn went back to High-A Peoria, where he struggled mightily at the end of last season, and improved his OPS by more than 400 points to earn a promotion to Double-A Springfield.
“Basically what we tried to do is normalize where they really should be,” Mozeliak said. “No one had to take a step back, but we weren’t as aggressive in moving people forward.”
Improving the system’s performance wasn’t solely a product of returning players to their previous levels and relying on age and physical maturity to produce better results.
As part of his year-end assessment of the system, LaRocque identified three areas in particular the organization needed to improve: pitchers getting ahead in the count, baserunning and defense.
“We’ve always taken a very transparent look at, ‘Here’s where we are. Where do we need to be?’ ” LaRocque said. “Last year there was plenty of work to do in that regard because the numbers speak for themselves.”
“Whether it be our pitching areas: our first pitch strikes, our 1-1 strikes. Baserunning, where we ranked within the industry. We worked extremely hard at that. Defense we worked extremely hard and we’ve seen a lot of results....We tweaked where we needed to tweak to re-establish that emphasis where we had always been strong in the past."
The changes are most notable on the mound. Cardinals minor leaguers had a 5.22 ERA and averaged 4.7 walks per nine innings in 2021. Through July 11 this season, they had a 4.55 ERA and averaged 4.0 walks per nine innings.
On an individual level, many of the organization’s top arms have flourished. Liberatore, Thompson and Pallante have become staples of the Cardinals’ staff. Graceffo and Hence established themselves as Top 100 Prospects, with 2021 first-round pick Michael McGreevy not far behind them. Low-A Palm Beach righthander Inohan Paniagua had the lowest ERA and most strikeouts in the Florida State League at the midway point of the season.
“From a pitching perspective, first-pitch strikes and getting ahead in the count are things that just popped up that we said, ‘Here is what we have to do,’ ” LaRocque said. “We didn’t rank well. We knew that. All we had to do was continue our work individually (and) see our pitchers understand we were lower than we had ever been in the past and we had work to do there.
“But again, in our lower levels, we had a lot of first-year pitchers in leagues that were aggressive, and we knew it. So it did not produce the desired results immediately. It was going to take time, it’s still taking time, but we’re starting to see it move in that direction.”
As Cardinals affiliates keep rolling in 2022, their farm system’s 2021 performance is looking more and more like a blip. With that, the organization has solidified it still remains among the game's elite in player development.
“It was difficult, but in the end, we knew that maybe a step backward was really two steps forward,” Mozeliak said. “I didn’t beat ourselves up too much. Obviously, you want to see your teams play well, you want to see players play well, but I think in the end it certainly worked out where we had hoped.
“There was a little pain before you gain.”
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