Player Development and Depth Make the Cardinals Major League Baseball's Model Organization
St. Louis Cardinals 2014
Replacing retiring pitchers
This offseason, the Cardinals got the news that two of their starting pitchers were going to retire. Chris Carpenter had been the longtime ace of the Cardinals, and Jake Westbrook had been a fixture in the middle of the Cardinals rotation for the past few seasons. This news did not create panic in St. Louis, among either management or the fan base though. The Cardinals had been preparing for the retirement of these pitchers, for quite some time. Over the years, and most notably in 2009, the Cardinals have drafted very well. However, it is not good enough to just draft good players in Major League Baseball, because after they are drafted, amateur talent needs to be developed. Over the past two decades, the Cardinals have done an exceptional job of drafting and developing talent. As a result of this, when two key pitchers retired from the Cardinals this past offseason, they had three young pitchers ready to step in and take their places.
Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez
Michael Wacha was a first round pick for the Cardinals in 2012, and he was in the big leagues for them by late 2013. Wacha was able to step into the rotation last season when Westbrook went down, and his talent allowed him to become a postseason hero for the Cardinals in a trip to the World Series. Twenty-five year old Joe Kelly has been solid for the Cardinals the past two seasons, since his debut as a rookie in 2012. He has appeared in relief 30 times, and made 31 starts over the past two seasons, with very nice results. Kelly throws hard, and has solid off-speed pitches to complement his fastball, so the solid results are not surprising. Despite Kelly's solid season in 2013 though, he is not guaranteed a rotation spot with the 2014 Cardinals.
Kelly faces competition from rookie phenom, Carlos Martinez, who made one start last season, but pitched mostly in relief after a late season debut. Martinez is younger than Kelly at 22 years old, but he is similar in size at six feet tall, and has a similar pitch repertoire with his great fastball. Carlos Martinez was signed by the Cardinals in 2010, out of the Dominican Republic and Joe Kelly was one of the significant draft picks that the Cardinals made in their outstanding draft of 2009. Joe Kelly was a third round pick in 2009, but the excellent development system of the Cardinals, allowed him to be in the big leagues in 2013, producing at an excellent rate. Kelly was able to win 10 games in 2013, while posting an earned runs average of 2.69, which makes him strong evidence in support of claims that the Cardinals have a great player development system. As a result of their strong development system, the Cardinals are able to re-tool, rather than rebuild when pitchers like Carpenter and Westbrook retire.
2006 Title Team vs. the 2011 Title Team
The St. Louis Cardinals won two World Series, that were separated by just five years. Many sports fans may think that it was possibly similar core groups that won those titles for the Cardinals. The reality is that among the Cardinals' starting position players, only Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, played in both of those World Series. While some of the fixtures on the pitching staffs remained the same, the Cardinals were able to re-tool most of their lineup and defensive alignment from 2006 to 2011, with the same championship result. The secondary stars behind Pujols, in the 2006 championship, were Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion. In 2011, Pujols had some big games, but it was third basemen David Freese and outfielder Allen Craig who provided most of the highlights in the postseason for the Cards that year. Matt Holliday was a big name that was a key contributor for the Cardinals in 2011, but when homegrown talent like Craig and Freese, can lead the team to a championship, it is very positive for the organization's player development staff.
Beyond the 2011 Championship
In 2012 the Cardinals had to move forward after losing Albert Pujols in the offseason, but they were up for the challenge as they returned to the postseason that year. The Cardinals were one win away from returning to the World Series in 2012, but they ultimately fell short. This type of consistency and success, is not sustainable without depth and player development though. The 2012 team moved on from Albert Pujols with Lance Berkman playing first base and Carlos Beltran in right field, but without the further emergence of Allen Craig, none of their success would have been possible. Both Berkman and Craig had good seasons for the Cardinals in 2012, but as older players, they missed some time. Allen Craig having the talent and versatility to produce at the plate and play strong defense at both first base and right field, made a huge difference for the Cardinals during the 2012 season. In fewer than 500 at bats, playing multiple positions, Craig was able to produce 22 homeruns and 92 RBI in 2012.
Craig's performance in 2012, earned him the starting job at first base, after Lance Berkman moved on in free agency going into the 2013 season. Craig went on to have a very successful season in 2013, but he suffered an injury late last season. This was no problem for the St. Louis Cardinals though, because they just turned to depth player Matt Adams, to be their starting first basemen. Adams produced at a very strong rate, with 17 homeruns and 51 RBI in fewer than 300 at bats. Now that Carlos Beltran has left as a free agent, the Cardinals will once again turn to their depth in Matt Adams as their starting first basemen. This will leave right field open for Allen Craig to make his defensive home for now, but should an injury happen to either Adams or Craig, the Cardinals have top prospect Oscar Tavares waiting to make his debut. Tavares as an outfielder, has less defensive flexibility when compared to Allen Craig, but having three players for two positions, once against leaves the Cardinals with impressive depth.
While the Cardinals may not always have a player ready at every position, their farm system has produced impressive talent in timely fashion over the past few years. The Cardinals player development does not just specialize in pitching or offense, but their ability to produce both over the years has paid off. Going forward, the Cardinals will always be one of the teams that is best able to overcome injuries, because of the quality depth that they have developed over the years. This is why the Cardinals are currently the model organization in Major League Baseball.