Baseball is a business. When it comes to the business of baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals are the best of the bunch.
The best news for Cards fans? I expect them to stay on their perch at the top for years to come. In this article, I'll tell you why they're on top and why they'll stay there.
Before we go further, let's define what it means to be good at the business of baseball, as opposed to being a good team at any cost.
Being good at the business means putting a contending team -- one that can challenge for the playoffs -- on the field in an efficient manner. That's different from assembling a contending team, but in such a manner that you've mortgaged away the future through bloated, harmful contracts and by trading away valuable minor leaguers and draft choices. That's not an efficient way to become a contender, and pretty much ensures you'll be at home watching the playoffs in the near future.
What if you could consistently put a contending team on the field, while keeping your payroll reasonable, your farm system loaded with talent, and your draft picks intact?
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the St. Louis Cardinals
That's exactly what the Cardinals have done. This season marks their tenth time in the playoffs in the last 14 years, and they're battling the Boston Red Sox for their second World Series title in the last three seasons.
How did they get to this point while having a middle-of-the-pack payroll ... spending $116.7 million on salaries, while both the Yankees and Dodgers spent well over $200 million?
Well, management definitely has discipline when it comes to re-signing superstars or acquiring them on the free agent market. When Albert Pujols' contract came due, the team refused to get in an outrageous bidding war, and ultimately gave up hope of re-signing him once the price got too high. They simply refused to overpay on a long-term contract that would bind them for years to a player entering that stage in his career where production normally declines. This despite the fact that Pujols' career to that point had ranked among the best in baseball history, and that he had strong roots in the area and was involved in great charity work.
But, of course, plenty of teams exercise such self-discipline, so this can't be the only reason. And it's not ... not even the top reason.
3 keys to success
- Having a great farm system is the key to not having to pay top dollar in the free agent market, because these minor leaguers carry the least expensive salaries when they make the major leagues;
- Good drafting and player development, meanwhile, is the key to building a good farm system; and
- Finding good talent hidden in the middle rounds is the key to a good draft.
How do the Cardinals excel at this? You're probably familiar with the story already, but St. Louis made the World Series this season by overcoming an inordinate amount of injuries by plugging in talented rookies from their farm system while hardly missing a beat. Let's look now at how they've acquired such talent while most teams are lucky to have just a few top-notch, ready-for-the-majors players.
St. Louis management has put together years of good and great drafts under the watchful eye of general manager John Mozeliak and scouting expert Jeff Luhnow (who left to become Houston's GM in 2012). I won't go into all the details, but will highlight just one draft -- one of the best in team history. In 2009, the Cards' draft picks included Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal, and Matt Adams. Each of these five have contributed greatly to the team's success this season. In fact, 18 of the 25 players on the World Series roster have been with the organization from the beginning.
Now, the top talent and electrifying phenoms from any one draft class are hardly secrets; all teams know about them. But the Cards have excelled in finding great players farther down the draft list that other teams pass over. Management recognizes something in these players that other teams don't see. A classic example in this postseason is the outstanding pitching from rookie Michael Wacha, who only last year was pitching in college.
Though hardly a mid-round choice, the most dominant pitcher in this year's posteason was taken 19th overall by the Cardinals. Eighteen teams ignored him in the early going, the story goes, because he didn't have a very good curveball. But the Cards saw a great fastball-changeup combination, and figured they could teach him to throw a better curve. They were right.
It's all Moneyball
So what all this is leading to is the biggest reason -- far from the only reason, but the biggest -- that the Cards have become the best at the business of baseball: They are the best at finding and signing players in the draft that other teams do not see the potential in.
How do they do that? Well now, I have no idea. And even if I did, do you think I -- as a Cards fan -- would let the secret out of the bag?
This reminds me of Michael Lewis' fabulous 2003 book Moneyball, in which -- after spending a lot of time with the Oakland A's organization and GM Billy Beane -- he revealed how Beane was revolutionizing the art of player evaluation and drafting. Beane embraced advanced statistics, known as "sabermetrics" in the baseball world, and was somehow able to field a string of contending teams while being constricted by one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. (The A's are, still, one of the best in the business of baseball.) Beane probably wasn't very happy how much the book revealed of his methods, and in the early going didn't even think Lewis' work would be turned into a book. A magazine article, perhaps. However, Lewis decided to write the book, and a lot of Beane's methods became common knowledge. Once hard-to-obtain information becomes public, your advantage is eroded.
Do you think St. Louis management is going to explain its tremendous success? No way.
So, the secret to The Cardinal Way will likely remain secret for a long time to come. One day, perhaps, when Mozeliak and the others are gone from the organization, they'll write a book and explain just how they evaluated and drafted all these hidden gems, even as every other team in baseball was looking in the exact same places. Until then, I'll continue to enjoy a long run of success from my team and, hopefully, a few more World Series championships.
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