Not Getting Any Younger
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.