Believe me, I get it. I understand why Cardinals fans have become as loathed as any supporters in baseball, why the country enjoyed a significant amount of schadenfreude this morning after watching the Cardinals boot more balls than Greg Zuerlein last night.
I’m a Royals fan. I’ve watched as Cardinals fans have turned Kauffman Stadium into a sea of red every summer since interleague play began in 1997. I’ve wanted to give a swift kick to the horseshoe that’s been embedded in their collective ass since the end of the last century, when Albert Pujols dropped into the Cardinals’ lap in the 13th round of the 1999 draft.
I’m as tired as anyone of their golly-gee-whiz-we-just-can’t-help-being-great-fans shtick, and I’m as exasperated as anyone that their shtick actually works. Players buy into the Best Fans in Baseball canard so much that they want to play in St. Louis because of it.1
The Cardinals traded Eric Ludwick, T. J. Mathews, and Blake Stein to Oakland in 1997 for Mark McGwire, who was set to be a free agent in three months; McGwire signed a three-year extension with the Cardinals after the season, then hit 70 homers the following year. They traded Adam Kennedy and Kent Bottenfield to the Angels for one year of Jim Edmonds in 2000; Edmonds was so impressed that he decided to re-up for another six years. In 2002, the Cardinals turned Placido Polanco, Bud Smith, and Mike Timlin into three months of Scott Rolen; before the season was even over, Rolen had agreed to stay in town for eight more years.
I’m as envious as anyone that Cardinals fans have gotten to witness so much history and enjoy so much good fortune. Just twice has a team won the World Series after being one strike away from elimination: the 1986 Mets (sorry, boss!) and the 2011 Cardinals … who were one strike away twice, in the ninth and 10th innings of Game 6, but won after Nelson Cruz couldn’t handle a playable fly ball to right field. Since 2000, the Cardinals have been to more League Championship Series than any other franchise and more World Series than any other franchise, and they’re four games away from winning more world championships than any other franchise in that time.
I’ve seen two winning Royals teams in the past 19 years, and this guy has been in baseball heaven. That hardly seems fair.
Through the years, the Cardinals have crushed the dreams of every fan base whose team has gotten in their way.2 After tonight, the Cardinals will have played more postseason games in the last 25 months (44) than the Royals have played in their 45-year history (43).
In 2004, the Cardinals squeezed past the Astros in one of the tightest NLCSes ever fought, depriving Astros fans of their team’s first World Series berth. Two years later, the Cardinals’ crappy 83-win team nonetheless beat the best Mets team of the past 25 years in the NLCS when Yadier Molina, who hit .216 during the season, hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 7. The Cardinals then beat the Tigers, in the playoffs for the first time in 19 years, in the World Series. In 2011, the Cardinals destroyed the aspirations of Brewers fans who were hoping for their team’s first world championship. This year, the Cardinals faced the Cinderella Pirates, in the playoffs after 20 consecutive losing seasons, and brazenly set the clock forward to midnight.
And all along, their fans deny that the Cardinals are ruining it for the rest of us, that they’ve become the Evil Empire on the Mississippi. I mean, no one likes the Yankees, either, but at least Yankees fans are frank about it: They want all the wins. They don’t really care that your team hasn’t given its fans anything to cheer about since Ronald Reagan was president. There’s an honesty to their avarice.
Cardinals fans want to have it both ways: They want to win every year and they want the rest of us to like them, too. Here’s a news flash: There’s no room for magnanimity in a dynasty. Cardinals fans are like the high school starting quarterback who steals your girlfriend but then wants to take you out for ice cream afterward to prove there are no hard feelings. The hell with them.
So yeah, I get it. It’s easy to dislike Cardinals fans. But here’s the thing: It’s very difficult to dislike the Cardinals themselves. The franchise is everything the fans claim it to be, the model for how a baseball organization should be run. And it starts with the draft.
The Cardinals tied for the major league lead in wins this year but had just the 12th-highest payroll in the game. That’s par for the course for them. This is the third time this century that they’ve had the most wins in baseball, but they’ve never had a top-five payroll.
Not that the organization is cheap. In 2005, the Cardinals’ payroll ranked sixth in the majors, and in every other year since 2000, they’ve been in a tight band between eighth and 13th. To manage that degree of precision, to have a payroll that is always above the median but never to excess, is so eerie that it can only be the product of zealous discipline. Like a health nut who keeps a scale in the kitchen to measure out a portion-controlled diet, the Cardinals spend exactly enough to be competitive every year, but never more than necessary.
They never have to spend more than necessary, because they rarely have to go outside the organization and pay for talent on the open market. Of the 25 players on the Cardinals’ World Series roster, 18 were originally signed by the organization. Two (David Freese and Adam Wainwright) were acquired in trades before they ever reached Triple-A. Just five of the Cardinals’ 25 players have ever played a game for another major league team, and while Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday are two of the team’s most important players, the other three are middle relievers (Randy Choate, Edward Mujica, and John Axford).
Fielding a roster this homegrown is impressive under any circumstances, but it’s even more remarkable considering the Cardinals are not a team new to winning. It’s one thing for the Pirates or Royals to be flush with homegrown players during their first winning seasons in a decade or two, because those franchises had high draft picks every year and were able to develop their young talent with the patience that sustained losing allows.
But the Cardinals are deep into their success cycle: This is their 13th winning record and 10th playoff team of the past 14 years. By all rights, the pressures of winning every year should have eroded the team’s foundation of young talent, as the need to win right now, year after year, should have forced the Cardinals to trade prospects to keep the good times rolling. And it ought to have been difficult to develop prospects in the first place given that the Cardinals’ success has forced them to draft late in the first round every year.3
The Cardinals haven’t gotten one of the top dozen picks in the draft since J.D. Drew fell to them with the no. 5 overall pick in 1998.
The Cardinals should look a lot like the Yankees do now, paying the bill for all the years of success with an old, infirm, overpriced roster. Instead, St. Louis has the roster makeup of a young, upstart team on the rise. It actually had the second-youngest pitching staff in the NL this season. Fourteen years into its dynastic run, its roster shows no sign of slowing down.
The Cardinals owe much of their success this season to a decision they made nearly a decade ago, when they promoted Jeff Luhnow to be their de facto scouting director in 2005. Luhnow was a virtual unknown at the time, with no baseball background before the Cardinals hired him in 2003. Promoting Luhnow, who advocated a more analytical approach to baseball, created tensions with old-school general manager Walt Jocketty, ultimately leading to Jocketty’s departure after the 2007 season.
It was the right call. Under Luhnow, the Cardinals managed one exceptional draft after another. In 2005, the first draft that Luhnow ran, the Cardinals took Colby Rasmus with their first pick. Rasmus blossomed into a star center fielder, and when personality conflicts with manager Tony La Russa made Rasmus’s future in St. Louis untenable, he was traded away for three players who helped the Cardinals win the World Series in 2011. In the same draft, the Cardinals nabbed Jaime Garcia in the 22nd round, beginning an impressive trend of finding players late in the draft. Garcia made 89 starts with a 3.38 ERA for the Cardinals over the past four years before blowing out his shoulder this May.
In 2006, the Cardinals got Chris Perez in the first round, and while Perez would be traded to Cleveland before establishing himself in the majors, the Cardinals also got Jon Jay in the second round, Shane Robinson in the fifth, and Allen Craig in the eighth. Luke Gregerson, their pick in the 28th round, went to the Padres in an ill-fated deal for Khalil Greene.
The 2007 draft was comparatively poor, as the Cardinals used their first pick on Pete Kozma, who showed again last night that he’s the weak link in their lineup. But the Cardinals also got Daniel Descalso in the third round and a pair of backups late with Tony Cruz in the 26th round and Adron Chambers in the 38th. In 2008, with John Mozeliak now the GM, the Cardinals used one of their first-round picks on Lance Lynn and discovered Kevin Siegrist in the 41st round.
But in 2009 the Cardinals struck gold, then drilled through the gold and found oil, then sucked out all the oil and discovered Shangri-la. They got Shelby Miller in the first round. Joe Kelly in the third. Matt Carpenter in the 13th. Trevor Rosenthal in the 21st. Matt Adams in the 23rd.
It’s hard to overstate what a bonanza that draft was. Unless a team has the near-total assurance that comes with a top-five pick, it’ll be more than happy with one everyday player or rotation regular and one good role player in every draft. In 2009, the Cardinals got a Rookie of the Year candidate with the potential to be an ace (Miller), a no. 3 starter (Kelly), a high-end closer (Rosenthal), a slugging first baseman (Adams), and the best second baseman in the league this year (Carpenter). They managed that despite beginning the draft from the no. 19 spot, and with no extra picks. This has a chance to be one of the best hauls in draft history.
In the span of just four years, from 2006 to 2009, the Cardinals drafted 13 of the 25 players on their World Series roster. And that doesn’t include Clayton Mortensen (first round, 2007), Brett Wallace (first round, 2008), or Shane Peterson (second round, 2008), who were all traded to the A’s in 2009 for Matt Holliday before their prospect sheen had dissipated.4 As a front-office executive from another club told me admiringly (and maybe a little enviously) earlier this year, “The Cardinals reverse-engineered the draft.” The draft is the biggest puzzle in baseball, but, at least for a time, the Cardinals have been able to solve it.
You’ll never believe this, but Holliday, who became a free agent barely two months after the trade, signed a seven-year contract with the Cardinals.
As fantastic of a job as the Cardinals do in the draft, however, one could argue that they do their best work after these players join the organization. Consider Carpenter, who was nearly 24 when he was drafted by the Cardinals in 2009. He hit .309/.418/.471 in his first full pro season and reached Double-A, and then hit .300/.417/.463 in Triple-A in 2011. At no point was Carpenter ranked among the top 100 prospects in baseball, and for good reason: He was 25 years old by the time he reached the majors that year, and played in only seven games.
Carpenter made the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster as a 26-year-old rookie last season and hit an impressive .294/.365/.463 in 114 games. This year, Carpenter came to camp with the chance to win the everyday job at second base. There was just one problem: He had never played a game at second base in his life.
That’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. Carpenter played 18 innings at the position in 2012, and those were the only 18 innings he had played at second base as a professional. Carpenter’s primary position in the minors was third base, and third-base-to-second-base conversions in the majors are notoriously difficult.
What happened? At the age of 27, in his first season at the position, Carpenter was the best second baseman in the league. He hit .318/.392/.481 and led the NL in hits. His 55 doubles led the majors; only two NL players have hit more doubles in a season in the past 75 years. Leading off for the Cardinals all year, Carpenter also led the majors with 126 runs scored, despite hitting just 11 homers. The last NL player to score that many runs with so few homers was Tim Raines in 1983. According to Wins Above Replacement, Carpenter was the eighth most valuable player in the National League.
He did all this while being a league-average defender at a position he was still learning to play. The Cardinals are aggressive about moving players to positions where their bats will have the biggest impact, even if it means sacrificing defense overall. Few teams would have dared to try Carpenter at second base, and many teams wouldn’t have let Jay, who is best suited for a corner outfield spot, play center regularly. But the Cardinals are willing to sacrifice defense for offense — except behind the plate, where Yadier Molina reigns supreme — and the downside of that trade-off was in full display at Fenway Park last night. On the other hand, over the past three years the Cardinals have finished first, second, and first in the NL in runs scored.
Carpenter’s development as a hitter at such an advanced age for a prospect is unusual, and it speaks to the Cardinals’ ability as an organization to develop talent. And he’s not alone. Jay was slow to develop in the minors, and in 2009 hit .281/.338/.394, unimpressive numbers for a 24-year-old player in Triple-A. He reached the majors the next year and hit .300/.359/.422 as a rookie, and has hit .293/.356/.400 for his career.
Craig hit better than Jay in the minors, but also progressed slowly and didn’t arrive in the majors until he was 25, and didn’t stick until he was 26. He’s a career .306/.358/.492 hitter in the majors.
Hitters, as a group, peak around the age of 27, so by the age of 25 there’s usually very little ability left untapped. A hitter who reaches the majors when he’s 21 will almost always become a quality regular for at least a few years; guys who don’t debut until they’re 25 are usually future backups.
Among draft-eligible players, just 10 hitters who debuted after their 25th birthday have amassed more than six WAR over the past three years combined. The Cardinals drafted four of them in Jay, Craig, Carpenter, and defensive specialist Brendan Ryan, whom they traded away in 2010. No other team has drafted more than one. (Many thanks to Danny Chau and Patricia Lee for the research.)
Not far behind those players, with 5.3 WAR the past three years, is David Freese, who was acquired from the Padres for Jim Edmonds when Freese was 24 and hadn’t even reached Double-A yet. Freese got to the majors for a cup of coffee when he was 26; when he was 28 he hit .297/.350/.441 and was a World Series star.
Half of the Cardinals’ starting lineup is made up of players who weren’t good enough to reach the majors before they turned 25, but who kept improving to the point where they’re now everyday players on the NL pennant winner. Everyone in the Cardinals’ organization associated with hitter development ought to take a bow.
And as much talent as the Cardinals have already developed from within, they still have plenty more in reserve. They had the no. 1 farm system in the game coming into this season, and their top prospect, Oscar Taveras, hasn’t even reached the majors yet. Taveras, the first potential hitting star the Cardinals have signed from Latin America since they beefed up their presence there, battled an ankle injury all year, but hit .306/.341/.462 in Triple-A and is expected to replace Beltran in the Cardinals’ outfield next April, when Taveras will be only 21. Kolten Wong, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2011, is on the postseason roster after hitting .303/.369/.466 in Triple-A this year; a second baseman, Wong becomes a very valuable trade commodity given Carpenter’s emergence.
This organization is bigger than any one man. The Cardinals lost Pujols to free agency two years ago, and again have the best offense in the game. La Russa retired at the same time and took legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan with him, but the Cardinals are back in the World Series. And while it’s early, so far the Cardinals have similarly shrugged off the loss of Luhnow, who departed after the 2011 season to become the Astros GM and took some key employees (Astros scouting director Mike Elias, director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal, and new pitching coach Brent Strom) with him.
The 2012 draft was the Cardinals’ first one without Luhnow. While a complete evaluation will take years, we can already deem the draft a success, because with their first pick, the no. 19 overall selection, the Cardinals drafted Michael Wacha. Wacha fell that far in the draft because he had a below-average breaking ball, and teams shy away from right-handed starters who can’t throw one well. Wacha’s curveball is still a tick below average, but it hasn’t really mattered, because he has paired a mid-90s fastball with one of the best changeups in the game. Wacha debuted in the majors less than a year after he was drafted, and had a 2.78 ERA for the Cardinals in 65 innings this year.
Tonight, the Cardinals will ask Wacha to save their season after the embarrassing debacle of Game 1, which is fitting, because he has already saved their season once. The Cardinals were facing elimination in Game 4 of the NLDS, playing on the road in Pittsburgh, and with their backs against the wall they scored only two runs. But Wacha didn’t allow so much as a hit until the eighth inning, when he gave up a homer to Pedro Alvarez; the Cardinals held on to win 2-1, giving Adam Wainwright a chance to beat the Pirates at home in Game 5.
Oh, and how did the Cardinals obtain the pick they used to select Wacha? As compensation from the Angels when Los Angeles signed away Pujols. The Cardinals, as deliberately as they do everything else, put a price on the franchise icon and refused to budge when the bidding got out of hand. Their discipline was rewarded with a new rookie sensation, while Pujols’s body and game are crumbling in L.A. with eight years still left on his contract.
Wacha’s stunningly quick emergence as a legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher is just the latest piece of evidence that the Cardinals transcend any one individual. They won with Jocketty as their GM, and with Mozeliak. They won with La Russa as their manager, and with Mike Matheny. They won with Duncan as their pitching coach, and with Derek Lilliquist. They won with Lance Berkman as their big free-agent acquisition, and with Beltran. They won with Luhnow, and they’re winning with new scouting director Dan Kantrovitz. They won with a rotation of Chris Carpenter, Garcia, Kyle Lohse, and Edwin Jackson two years ago, and they’re winning with a rotation of Wainwright, Wacha, Kelly, and Lynn this year.
The one tying thread that binds the 2013 Cardinals with the 2000 Cardinals is owner Bill DeWitt Jr., who bought the team in 1995. DeWitt’s national profile clocks in at about 0.001 Steinbrenners, but at this point DeWitt has to be considered one of the best owners across sports.
It’s one thing to build a great team. It’s quite another to win a World Series one year, then return to the World Series two years later with a new manager, a new pitching coach, and 18 new players. Doing that takes something more substantial and enduring. I’ll never succumb to the cult of the Best Fans in Baseball, but when it comes to the Cardinals themselves, I’m becoming a true believer: This truly is the Best Organization in Baseball.