Weeks into June, I was feeling pretty good about myself. In the offseason, I had picked the Arizona Diamondbacks to win their division. I thought the NL West would be wide open, and the Diamondbacks’ relatively young pitching staff would be able to withstand the 162-game grind. As late as June 21, the payroll-busting Los Angeles Dodgers were 30-42, stalled in last place of the NL West. This was as I expected — all season, I was hoping I could write an article about the most expensive failure in MLB history; I thought that the Dodgers’ gang of misfits and overpaid egos would falter under their own weight. Plus, as a small market fan, it’s fun to see stories of lavish, expensive failure; sometimes we need the Steve Philips Mets to remind ourselves as Brewers fans that one cannot simply buy MLB success. Needless to say, I felt pretty good about my prediction as the season approached the numerical halfway point.
I would not have thought that a scenario would exist where the St. Louis Cardinals would make the LCS and be the likeable team. Yet, for Brewers fans, the Cardinals’ trip to the Championship Series is as terrifying a prospect for competing in future seasons as it is a healthy contrast to the Dodgers’ excesses. While many analysts and broadcasters have praised and dissected the Pittsburgh Pirates’ arrival from rebuilding to competing to contending (only to bow out after a hard-fought series against the Cardinals), the Cardinals’ 2013 campaign is arguably just as radical and important in terms of analyzing how teams build their ballclubs. If the Dodgers are a club with regulars largely culled from other organizations’ scouting and development work, the Cardinals are a “self-run” machine. Brewers fans already knew that the Cardinals could put together great contending teams, but under the leadership of John Mozeliak, the club has rebuilt itself in its own image of baseball traits and scouting efforts.
In 2013, the Dodgers employed 23 players to work 200+ plate appearances, or 50+ innings pitched; the Cardinals employed 21 such players. Six of the Dodgers’ 23 regular players were from their own drafts or international signings, while fifteen of the Cardinals’ 21 regulars were from St. Louis drafts or signings:
|A.J. Ellis||Yadier Molina|
|Yasiel Puig||Allen Craig|
|Matt Kemp||Matt Carpenter|
|Clayton Kershaw||Pete Kozma|
|Paco Rodriguez||Jon Jay|
|Kenley Jansen||Daniel Descalso|
This isn’t simply a list of organizational players that were drafted, developed, and then called up to serve fringe roles. It would be one thing to say, “the Cardinals used 15 organizational players to round out their bullpen, bench, and replacement corps. On the contrary, this list features a gang of regular positional players, prominent bench roles, and rotational anchors. It should come as no surprise that the Cardinals’ opening day payroll of approximately $118 million is nearly $100 million lower than the Dodgers’ opening day payroll. Keeping such an extensive core of organizational players around has allowed the Cardinals to extend a few key veterans, and the effectiveness of their scouting and development ensures that the Cardinals don’t have to contend with the free agency market to lock up their players.
As I alluded to above, it is frightening to think about competing in the NL Central with a Cardinals roster that can keep more than a dozen regulars in place — before one even considers their high salary veterans. This hits on a central theme for the Brewers’ offseason, one that we’ve started to work on at DoU: the Brewers don’t necessarily need to hit one binary or the other between rebuilding or competing; they need to find creative ways to win as much as possible at the big league level while building their minor league system. In a division with true rebuilding processes belonging to the Cubs and Pirates, the Cardinals strike a balance between farm building and competition that results in frightening efficiency.
It would be easy to point to the Cardinals’ success as an organization, and use that as evidence that the current club was destined for success. Yet, the 2013 Cardinals are quite different than the 2006 Cardinals, and even the 2011 Cardinals; between 2006 and 2011, the Cardinals competed with significantly more regulars from other organizations’ scouting and development efforts. Slowly, they phased in more organizational regulars, and after Albert Pujols left, their organizational brand titled much more toward building from within their own system. Pujols was an organizational Cardinal, but remember, he was largely the exception, in terms of productive, organizational Cardinal regulars. Injuries to Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright also ingrained that intra-organizational attitude, and the move was complete as they let free agent Kyle Lohse walk. While one can argue that the Cardinals consistently competed since the turn of the century (they have one losing season from 2000-present, against seven division championships), they have done so while changing the identity of their big league roster.
The Brewers can learn from the extremes of the models of building in the 2013 NLCS. Where the Dodgers excelled at organizational development is through international scouting and signings, as well as through organizational players that serve in the middle of the diamond (P, C, 2B, SS, and CF). In this way, the Brewers’ gang of Jonathan Lucroy, Scooter Gennett, Yovani Gallardo, and Wily Peralta gives them a starting point for building around the edges of the diamond; and surely, previous trades of Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and J.J. Hardy (among others) show a consistent organizational strength in the middle of the diamond (as has the decade-long tenure of Rickie Weeks, even if Brewers fans and analysts daydream about trading him).
From the Cardinals, the Brewers can learn that the extremes of winning now or rebuilding are not necessary. In fact, this reality places the Cardinals in a superior position among NL Central clubs, as the Pirates and Cubs work from their respective rebuilds to competition, the Cardinals have already transitioned while winning Championships and going to the playoffs on the big league diamond. For all the fanfare clubs receive when they complete a rebuild and make the playoffs (breathing collective sighs of relief and exhilaration), one might argue that building ideologies that gain clubs playoff spots while they retool their minors are even more praiseworthy.
The lesson for the Brewers, this LCS, hangs in that balance between the middle of their diamond, and creative moves that allow the club to continually reload and compete. This might mean that the club needs to take their feet off the accelerators that lead to big win-now free agency signings (Lohse) and trades, in favor of series of smaller moves and scouting/drafting acumen. This might mean more money into the draft and international market, rather than into the big league roster. There are many different directions for these lessons. One only needs to ask, “which road do the Brewers travel?”
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Cot’s Baseball Contracts. BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2013.