The Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals have always been connected and will always be compared. The two cities are major hubs in the Midwest and because of it have always been considered rivals. The two teams have played 2241 games against each other with the Cubs earning an 1127-1097 record against them. Most recently, the Cubs won their first playoff series in 12 years against the Cardinals. They also signed John Lackey and Jason Heyward off of that team this off-season irking Cardinals management, players and fans. Even more curious, the Cardinals decided to erect new video boards to stay in step with the Cubs.
With the front office aiming to be a contender for the next few years thanks to a core of strong young players, their methods have started to almost mirror their divisional rivals. Now more than ever, the front office will have to rely more on strong player development through drafting and amateur signings to produce a strong farm system. That strong farm system can replenish the roster or be used in trades to acquire top talent. They also will need to be smarter in free agency to stay relevant and atop the division.
The Cardinals have been a clinic in all three areas and the main reason why the team has visited the post-season 12 times, won nine divisional titles, been to the World Series four times and won two championships over the past 15 years. Let’s take a look back at each area and what the team has done to stay so successful.
As Cubs fans have seen this past season, player development can play a major role in a team’s success. In this past year, names like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and others were either drafted or signed as amateur free agents and their contributions led to the team’s first playoff berth in over seven years. Last year’s Cardinals roster was filled with guys acquired in the same way like Stephen Piscotty, Tommy Pham, Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Lance Lynn, Jamie Garcia, Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina.
Drafting has been a major strength for the Cardinals over the years. Solid scouting has helped them find some real gems despite drafting much later than most teams. From 2000-2014, of 631 draft picks, 84 players spent one game in the majors. Of those 84, 27 players have earned at least 1 WAR in their career. To further expand on the prowess of the Cardinals scouting department, according to Baseball America, players taken after the fifth round, have just a 6.6% chance of contributing at the Major League level for three years or more. Of the 27 Cardinals draftees with at least 1 WAR in their career, 14 of those players were taken after the fifth round. Those are staggering numbers considering that before Theo Epstein took over in the fall of 2011, in the same time frame, the Cubs had only 23 players earn at least 1 WAR of 558 drafted and only 65 spent a game in the majors. Of those 23 players, 10 were taken after the fifth round.
The most impressive part of this player development lies in the fact that in those 16 drafts, the Cardinals never drafted higher than 13th and picked in the top 20 just seven times. If the Cubs plan to continue their sustained success, a low draft position is going to be the norm and their scouting staff must be on point to unearth the hidden gems of every draft. Case in point, this season where the Cubs do not have a pick until the third round that is unless Dexter Fowler signs with another team.
Going hand in hand with strong player development is successful trading. The Cubs front office has shown a knack for this area already. Most notably is the trade that turned Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger into Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop or the deal that turned Matt Garza into Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Olt. Now with the team turning towards contention, the front office must turn that ability into valued Major League talent that can be major contributors without sacrificing all of their talent base in the minors. The Cardinals have not been afraid to trade from their farm system to bolster their roster. Some examples of this include Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Jim Edmonds who helped contribute to World Series appearances and championships.
Holliday was acquired from the Oakland A’s around the deadline of the 2009 season and has been a mainstay in the middle of the lineup over the past seven years. To acquire the 29-year old outfielder, the Cardinals sent 1B/3B Brett Wallace, OF Shane Peterson and RHP Clayton Mortensen. At the time of the deal, Wallace was considered among the top 20 prospects in all of baseball and among the Cardinals top three. Peterson was a top 20 prospect and possible fourth outfielder once he developed. Mortensen was also a top 15-20 prospect and projected to be a back of the rotation innings eater or long man. At the time, most around baseball thought this was a clear win for the A’s and a steep price for Holliday. However, Wallace never lived up to his high praise and Peterson and Mortensen did not reach their projections. This deal is perhaps a text book example of the Cardinals and their ability to turn a highly regarded system of players that contribute for their own team, but not as much for others.
Jim Edmonds is considered by some Cardinals fans to be one of their best players of all time. Next to Albert Pujols, he’s arguably one of the best of the modern generation. He was acquired by the team from the Anaheim Angels during the off-season of the 2001 season for RHP Kent Bottenfield and INF Adam Kennedy. Edmonds was fresh off of four solid seasons as an upcoming power hitter and center fielder. An injury plagued season and the emergence of Darin Erstad and Garrett Anderson made Edmonds expendable. Bottenfield was an innings eater/solid bullpen arm, but was near the end of his career at the time of the trade and was pretty much done a year later. Kennedy was the prize of the trade as a three time minor league All-Star and an easy plug in to replace a departing Randy Velarde. However, he never lived up to his higher billing, settling in as an average Major League player and an easy one to give-up for a player of Edmonds’ quality.
The trade for Adam Wainwright differs a little bit from Holliday and Edmonds as he was not an established name bolstering a team in the middle of a playoff push. In fact, Wainwright was still a relatively unknown player, but showed enough in the Braves’ system to cause then GM Walt Jocketty to hold out for him. In addition to Wainwright, the Cardinals also picked up LHP Ray King and RHP Jason Marquis who were added to improve their pitching depth during the off-season. In return, the Cardinals gave up OF J.D. Drew and C Eli Marrero. Drew was one of the more exciting young names in baseball and was in the last year of team control while Marrero was a useful utility player who could catch and play the outfield with some power. Obviously losing Drew was tough, but Wainwright has been one of the best pitchers in Cardinals history and a small price to pay for that type of player.
More recently, you’ve seen the Cardinals not afraid to trade core pieces to get the right players for the future or the short term. In the off-season of 2013, the team traded World Series hero 3B David Freese and RHP Fernando Salas to the Angels for OF Peter Bourjos and OF Randal Grichuk. Freese was pretty much expendable thanks to the emergence of Matt Carpenter and the team needed a better option in center field. Unfortunately, Bourjos didn’t work out, but Grichuk looks like another potential star for the club.
Another solid example comes from last year where the Cardinals traded young starting pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for OF Jason Heyward and RHP Jordan Walden. The trade surprised many as Miller seemingly has the potential to be one of the better young arms in the game, but due to the Cardinals starting pitching depth, it made sense to them to pull the trigger for a player of Heyward’s caliber. The club also acquired Walden, a proven arm to shore up their bullpen. Obviously, the Cardinals weren’t able to resign Heyward as they expected, but it still shows the team is not afraid to make bold moves when necessary.
With demonstrated abilities in the first two facets, free agency is the last piece of the puzzle. St. Louis is considered a mid-level market in baseball, but thanks to their die-hard fan base, generally has a payroll in the top 15. Nonetheless, the team doesn’t overuse free agency. There are two kinds of free agents the team usually signs. The first are bargain basement deals for players that need to rebuild their value or long terms deals that fill necessary holes.
Chris Carpenter is an excellent example of signing a player who has shown past ability, but injuries derailed his value. In 2003, the Cardinals signed him for just $300,000 with a $2 million option for the following season knowing that he was still recovering from elbow surgery. Carpenter had showed flashes with Toronto, but the team had seen enough to give him a chance. Unfortunately, while rehabbing his elbow in the minors, Carpenter developed a shoulder issue and was lost for the rest of the year. Not giving up, the team declined his option, but resigned him again for $300,000. Carpenter stunned everyone with a solid year and under the tutelage of Dave Duncan became one of the best pitchers in the National League. He won the Cy Young in 2005 and anchored a staff that won a World Series in 2006 and 2011.
Jason Isringhausen was a similar player to Carpenter whose career was derailed by injuries, but managed to reinvent himself as a reliever with the Oakland A’s. After three seasons of effective pitching and two showing he had the makings of an elite closer, the Cardinals signed Isringhausen for four years and $27 million. He was a major upgrade over incumbent closer Dave Veres and allowed the team to build a better bullpen without having to worry about the top spot. Isringhausen made good on his investment with the team and was one of the most reliable closers in baseball for the majority of his tenure. He led the league in appearances and saves in 2004 and helped the team win a championship in 2006.
In both trades and free agent deals, the Cardinals have shown they know how to take care of their star players. Holliday, Edmonds, Wainwright, Carpenter and Isringhausen all signed extensions and spent at least seven seasons with the club. The Cubs have already signed Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo to extensions, but in order to stay relevant for the long term, deals for Kris Bryant, Jake Arrieta and any of their other young players may be good ideas.
While the Cubs are in a much larger market and can afford bigger deals, the front office has always advocated only using big money deals when they make the most sense. Case in point, the Jason Heyward deal for eight years, $184 million. Heyward is 26, almost three years younger than most free agents and has opt-out dates that could lessen the value of the contract. After being burned by the Edwin Jackson deal, the team has adopted a more cautious approach and will likely continue to do so to save money and to avoid bloated contracts that weaken the team in the long term.
As last year’s 97-win team can attest to, player development and sound trades can get a team far without breaking the bank for every hot free agent name. The Cardinals have shown that style of front office management can get you very far when it comes to sustained success. It’ll be interesting to see how Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod adapt this strategy to the Chicago Cubs and start to put the template of success of the Cardinals behind them over the next several years.
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