WTNYAugust 15, 2005
Not Getting Any Younger
By Bryan Smith

In all likelihood, the St. Louis Cardinals will enter the 2005 playoffs the favorite to win the pennant for the National League for the second straight season. This is a feat, of course, that has only been duplicated by two teams since the strike-shortened 1994 season: the 1995-1996 Atlanta Braves and most recently, the 1998-2001 New York Yankees.

The Braves were, of course, a team that succeeded on pitching. Their 1995 club was actually below average offensively, but rode a staff with three great starters and four great relievers to a World Series win. The club was built around youngsters, as three spots in the everyday lineup, and two very important spots on the staff (starter and closer) were given to 25-and-unders. Surely the Braves would not have had nearly as good a season without Javy Lopez, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Steve Avery and Mark Wohlers. Simply put, the Braves were a byproduct of one of the most successful scouting and development departments in the game.

New York and St. Louis went down very different routes than Atlanta to make that first World Series appearance. Their clubs were not built in-house, but rather through savvy moves by the highest members of their front office. Money was thrown around early and often, and youth was not valued in the slightest. Production was. Only one influential player on both teams was under 25: Derek Jeter for the Yankees and Albert Pujols for the Cards.

Going forward, the Yankees put even less emphasis on their minor league system. While the club had developed Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, King George decided no longer would he allow significant time to be wasted on youngsters. Only once in the Bronx Bombers four-year World Series run did a youngster break into the lineup: Alfonso Soriano, who waited to do so, and only started playing at the tail end of their success. Players like Ruben Rivera and Ricky Ledee were not allowed to grow so that everyday spots could be filled with seven-figure acquisitions. Others like Mike Lowell, Nick Johnson, and D'Angelo Jimenez were traded for those Major League spare parts.

Then, just like that, something happened. A drought previously unfathomable by the Yankee faithful happened, and New York has not won the World Series since, reaching only (gasp!) once. Worse, the club is currently behind in a fight for the playoffs, of which they currently trail the A's by 2.5 games. No playoffs? No playoffs!

And quietly, without much warning, we have seen a psychological change in this organization. With Tony Womack struggling at second base, the club turned to Robinson Cano for help. With a rotation in shambles, it was Chien-Ming Wang and Aaron Small. When centerfield became the Yankees newest hole, they rushed Melky Cabrera to the Major League scene to use as a band-aid. And the trading deadline came and past, and no major Yankee prospect was traded.

As for the Cardinals, they are doing just what the Yankees of 1999 did: win and win often. They might be winning in a different fashion than last year, but still, very little time has been given to young players. The club recently considered using a six-man rotation for the rest of the season, giving star prospect Anthony Reyes a spot. They even brought him up for one spot start, when he was brilliant, only to be sent back down the next day. The most substantial help from their farm system has come from the likes of late-20s veterans like John Rodriguez and Scott Seabol.

In the end, the Cardinals might not be so lucky as the Yankees, who despite ignoring their minor league system, have given their fans those World Series appearances in addition to ten straight playoff appearances. Instead, the Cardinals might trip onto the same path that Brian Sabean currently finds himself on. After winning the 2002 NL Pennant with no dependency on youths, the Giants managed to enter the 2003 playoffs about even-money to repeat as National League champions. Instead, San Francisco lost to the Marlins in the first round, and have seen the walls come tumbling down since, finishing second in 2004 and likely fourth in 2005.

At some point the age curve always bites down, and teams that had spent years riding the peak find themselves inexplicably on the decline. By the time they realize what a difference a few prospects could've/should've made, it's too late. It's a slippery slope to the bottom, and unlike the Yankees, the Cardinals don't have the money to buy their ways off.

Instead of trying to emulate the Yankees spending habits, Walt Jocketty should try and turn over a new leaf, and find a new idol. Every organization should make the realization that the Red Sox apparently have given their recent system re-build: John Schuerholz is the best in the business. The Atlanta Braves do things right, and as a result, award the Turner Field faithful year in and year out.

You can bet what has happened during the course of this season was not in Schuerholz' blueprint on April 1. You can bet Schuerholz was not planning on Jeff Francoeur seeing quite this many at-bats, and the same holds true for Kelly Johnson, Brian McCann, Wilson Betemit and a host of others. But he understands that in a season that lasts this long, the unpredictable always happens, and multiple back-up plans are always needed. He also trusts the men around him, especially [farm director] Dayton Moore and [scouting director] Roy Clark. These are the men that make things like Francoeur's 1.215 OPS possible.

These things do not happen in places like New York, San Francisco, and now, St. Louis. Not at all. The Yankees and Giants are too late in realizing this, but the Cardinals still have a chance of salvaging their system, and have quietly showed a desire to do so with a strong 2005 draft. Still, the blocked Anthony Reyes and traded Daric Barton will tell you that's just one part of the equation, as properly developing and finding places for prospects are even more important than drafting them.

Just ask the hottest rookie alive, and the most successful club in organized sports.

A few notes around the minors...

  • Few players in the minors are as interesting to follow as B.J. Upton. The Durham Bull shortstop has struggled horrendously in the field this year, and will likely top the 50 error mark some time this month. Simply put, easy plays are a struggle for one of the most talented players in the minors. It's unexplicable. But other times, Upton is as good as anyone in the business. What an arm.

    And while we can continue to marvel at his resume, something needs to change soon. He's pushing the label, currently hitting .308/.395/.508 while trying to upstage the minors best player. The Devil Rays must, must make a decision on Upton's future this offseason. His arm and speed will make any position possible, from shortstop, to the hot corner, to second base, to any outfield spot. They just need to decide, and stick with their decision.

  • A little over a month ago, I brought Adam Lind to your attention. At the time, Lind had a .752 OPS in the Florida State League, with a slugging of just .401. Still, Lind was showing some semblance of power with 25 doubles, which I predicted would turn into home runs at some point. Currently, my favorite sleeper prospect -- and one I'll be writing about A LOT more this winter -- is hitting .323/.379/.504 in Dunedin. He has doubled his home run total in one month, while continuing to hit doubles at a huge pace. Watch out for this guy, because he has one of the five best pure bats in the minors.

  • Last Friday, Baseball America broke a story that the Major League Baseball draft is due for some substantial changes. Among them, the draft will be pushed back to the end of June and the AZL and GCL leagues will be contracted. But, in my mind, the best news would be the creation of a scouting combine between the end of the College World Series and the new draft date. Hopefully this is just the first change in a long line for the draft, which needs to be amended like nothing else in the sport. The NFL could tell anyone that a combine brings interest in the draft that few other things could, so big props to MLB for this idea. Next we just need to televise the thing, fix the supplemental pick system, and allow draft picks to be traded. Of course, more on this when the news becomes official.

    Check back Wednesday, as I review the recently completed Cape Cod League. Congrats to the Orleans Cardinals for their dominant victory to end a wild and fun summer.

  • Comments

    Thanks Erik, change made.

    I think it's too strong, Bryan, to say that Anthony Reyes is "blocked." Yes, he pitched quite well in his big-league debut; yes, he's showed flashes of mastery down in AAA (most recent outing: 7 IP, 2 H, 15 K); and yes, you could argue that he's more effective right now than a couple of the Cardinals' current starters (Mulder and Marquis come to mind).

    But remember that until very recently Reyes suffered from a sore shoulder, and overall his starts have been rather erratic. He has a tendency to get the ball up in the zone, and he still seems a bit unpolished to me -- after all, this is only his second pro season. But trust me, the Cardinals will make a decision in the offseason that paves the way for Reyes. They'll either decline the option on Mulder, or decline arb on Marquis, or they'll let Morris walk in his f.a. year. Reyes is very much part of the Cards' future, and I think the analogy to Atlanta (in which Schuerholz gave time to Francoeur, Betemit, et al only in emergencies) does not apply to a team that has a very reliable and durable rotation, and wants to treat Reyes very gingerly in the short term so that they have him healthy and effective in the long term.

    As for the other elements of your piece, I agree -- the actuarial trends do not favor the Cards. Their outfield is awfully old, and the team's injury problems are likely here to stay (does anyone get a funny feeling that Scott Rolen may be this generation's Matt Williams?). Letting Barton go was a disgrace, and despite some attempts to beef up the farm system, there's a growing sense that Jocketty plans to fill holes by relying on added revenue from the new stadium. Sounds like Yankeeball to me, which barely works in New York, much less that tiny little hamlet of St. Louis.

    Six months ago the consensus was the Cardinals didn't have pitching depth. WTNY was saying Reyes was going to collapse. It seems strange to say he's now blocked.

    The Cardinals, like any contender, rely on their ability to acquire and develop stars. Edmonds fades, Carpenter emerges. They completely neglected the farm for three or four years and they don't have big bucks, so they acquire stars via trades. Their big problem isn't that the team is aging, so much as Rolen looks like he'll be constantly injured and Mulder looks like a dud.

    I disagree that Rolen looks like he'll be constantly injured. He just turned thirty, for crying out loud. We're not talking about a frail, sparrow-boned person here, or someone with a low pain threshold. This year, Rolen was forced to come back immediately rather than getting in a rehab stint at AAA, as he repeatedly requested he be allowed to do. One person alone denied his request, against the strong advisement of everyone else in the organization, and their consensus is that his immediate return aggravated his injury and delayed his full return to health. Other than that, he hadn't been on the DL in years, he played through his neck injury after that brutal headfirst slide in Boston in June of 2003, and if you're thinking of his sitting out the 2002 offseason, I'm sure you recall that Alex Cintron blindsided him with sufficient force to dislocate his shoulder. He wasn't exactly sitting out because of a paper cut.

    Upon review, I see that my previous comment sounds rather hostile. That was not intended. :) Chalk it up to being very upset about the prolonged absence of one of my favorite players of all time.

    Back to the topic: One thing Bryan graciously doesn't mention here is the fact that all the "no-name fill-ins" (many of them young(ish)) who are being praised for helping preserve the Cardinals' lead despite half the opening day lineup being on the DL, are no doubt currently playing out of their minds and over their heads. How long can they go on? They also have no playoff experience (that I can think of right now). This keeps me up nights.

    I'm not saying Rolen's JD Drew, June. I'm saying he's going to spend a lot of time hurt because of the way he plays the game. And for practical purposes Rolen was on the DL in September 2004.

    Ah! agreed on all counts. :D

    Pretty nice article. (Disclaimeer - I'm a Cardinal fan.) But isn't it kind of premature to say the Cardinals are aging too rapidly?

    Granted - the outfield is old. Edmonds (35), Sanders (37) and Walker (38) have their best days behind them. But Edmonds is still one of the top 5 centerfielders in baseball, and isn't exactly hurting the team.

    Pujols (25) and (when healthy) Rolen (30) are the building blocks of the future, however, with Molina (22) looking solid defensively. Eckstein (30) isn't exactly over the hill, either.

    The same can be said of the roation, with Carpenter (30), Suppan (30), Mulder (27) and Marquis (26) all likely to be back next year, joined by Reyes (23). That would give them a projected 2006 rotation with the average age of 28.2 years old, including no one over the age of 31. Not exactly on Social Security.

    Granted, the Cardinals need Pujols and Rolen healthy, they need Edmonds to age somewhat gracefully, and they need to sign a young, solid corner outfielder (or two.) But if they continue to get outstanding years out of Pujols and solid pitching out of the likes of Carpenter and company, they are likely to contend for a playoff birth for at least the next 2 to 3 seasons, even if they (more or less) stand pat. And if we've learned anything over the last few years, it's that Jocketty doesn't stand pat.

    Great article...But Jocketty isn't totally clueless. We'll be fine next year.

    hey bryan, haven't had a chance to weigh in until today but i generally agree with you on all counts save reyes. he will be in the rotation next year (hell, maybe as soon as this year), but otherwise as you note farm-system help is far off. it's telling that rick ankiel is probably the most-discussed position player in the cardinal farm system.

    but as you note, the cards still have time to change course. marquis will probably be dealt after the season, either for prospects or a youngish outfielder (kevin mench, anyone?), and they will have dollars available to sign a youngish free agent. it wouldn't take a major overhaul to field an opening day 2006 lineup that features four 20somethings (molina pujols and two offseason acquisitions) and two 31-year-olds (rolen and eck'n).

    but they need to change philosophies. i noted recently that the cards and braves have switched poles from the 1980s, when ted turner used to try to build via the checkbook and the cards relied on scouting and development. it's nice to have "name" players who want to play in stl, but there's still nothing more satisfying than watching the kids develop imho


    I have to disagree on a couple points.

    First, to say the Cards haven't gotten much from young players ignores Albert Pujols (and Molina). If you are going to use the 25 and under standard for the Braves, then you need to do the same for the Cards.

    It also assumes that other teams are producing young talent. That doesn't happen. As of today, there are 27 major leaguers who are 25 or under who qualify for the batting title, or about one per team (the Cards have Pujols, and also their farm system developed Coco Crisp). If Molina wasn't injured, the Cards would have two. Most teams do not produce or play young players in quantities, especially teams contending for pennants.

    Second, regarding the 1995 Braves, to say that Lopez and Klesko were keys somewhat overstates their contribtutions, as neither played in 75% of the Braves' games. Chipper was full time; he was also the #1 pick in the draft in 1990. Fortunately for the Cards, they are not going to be drafting #1 for a long time to come.

    And Steve Avery a pitching key? He was 7-13 on a 90-54 team, and his ERA was 4.67 to the team average of 3.44. When the big three of Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux are 47-16, it's hard to mention Avery in the same breath (no argument on Wohlers, though).

    Finally, you ignore the Cards recent ability to pick up "free" talent. In 2003, they picked up Cal Eldred off the rubbish pile. In 2004, they picked up Kiko Calero as a 6 year FA, (and signed Tavarez, who has been extremely solid in a steup role). In 2005, they have Flores and Al Reyes, somewhat career minor leaguers or marginal major leaguers who have both been effective.