In superteam era, Cardinal Way still the only way in St. Louis

MLB


HISTORICAL STANDINGS DON’T get a lot of play in the sports news cycle. There’s too much happening in the here and now to worry too much about the feats of mostly dead men.

Perhaps that’s less true in St. Louis, where history has a special cache. Just look at this photo from the Cardinals’ home opener. There are some Cardinals legends, trotted out as they are every Opening Day, parading in front of a fence adorned with images of even more legends.

Heck, even the history of the long-gone Browns has a place in St. Louis. Not only is there a statue of George Sisler outside of Busch Stadium, but this spring a local public television station released an excellent documentary about the Brownies, who bolted for Baltimore 65 years ago. They even got Jon Hamm to narrate it. Love ’em or hate ’em, you have to admit that there really is no baseball town like St. Louis.

“It’s the fan base, it’s the legacy,” Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler said. “You just want to go in and try to pass that along.”

About those historical standings: With the Dodgers winning the 2017 National League pennant, there is now a three-way tie for most pennants in the history of the senior circuit. The Dodgers, Giants and, yes, the Cardinals have all won 23 pennants. With each season, a historical quest for bragging rights in on the line for the Cardinals.

This comes at a fairly tense time in the recent history of the Redbirds. St. Louis has missed the postseason two seasons in a row. That’s nothing for most franchises, but for Cardinals fans, it’s almost a reason to revolt. St. Louis had played in each of the previous five postseasons, as well as six of the past seven, nine of 14 and 12 of 17.

For the past quarter century, the Cardinals have been about as reliable as the change of seasons in the Midwest. During the wild-card era, the only National League team with more wins is the Braves. Among both leagues, only the Yankees have won more games this century.

However, the terrain has shifted beneath the Cardinals’ feet the past couple of years. St. Louis ranks just ninth in wins since the start of the 2016 season. Most of the teams ahead of them have combined to form a new era of superteams: The Cubs, Indians, Dodgers, Nationals, Red Sox, Astros and Yankees top the list of winningest teams since 2016 and all are forecasted to dominate again this season.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, fall in an unfamiliar spot: The second tier. For that reason, signs of discontent have emerged around the fan base, if you dare to sample the commentary surrounding the team. Some fans and commentators are tired of the passive approach team president John Mozeliak has taken at the trade deadline in each of the past three seasons. Some are tired of a similarly passive approach in the offseason. Some are tired of manager Mike Matheny, who is frequently lit up on Twitter for his in-game decisions. The gap between the Cardinals and the superteams might be widening.

All of this makes 2018 a pivotal season in St. Louis. But if you’re waiting on the Cardinals to betray their time-honored processes in hopes of overtaking the teams ahead of them in the forecasts, don’t hold your breath.

The Cardinals have their own way of doing things. You’ve probably read about what they call “The Cardinal Way.” It’s a real thing, and the emergence of superteams changes nothing.

ONE OF THE THINGS that allows the Cardinals to operate in such a consistent fashion is the constancy of the St. Louis fan base. The Cardinals have drawn more than 3 million fans in 19 of the past 20 seasons. In the other one, they drew 2.9 million. They have ranked fourth or better in NL attendance in each season since 1996. They’ve been second each season since 2013. They are among baseball’s most loyal fans, but their loyalty carries with it the price of expectation.

The steady stream of attendance has allowed the Cardinals to commit to annual payroll levels that you wouldn’t expect to find in a market the size of St. Louis. According to Cots Contracts, the Cardinals have ranked between seventh and 12th in year-end payroll in each season since 2000. According to Opening Day payroll data compiled by USA Today, the Cardinals enter the season ranked 13th in payroll, suggesting there will be room to add during the season.

This past offseason was one more of smoke than fire for the Cardinals. St. Louis was reportedly a finalist for the services of Giancarlo Stanton, although the slugger preferred the Yankees and ultimately found his way to New York. There were rumors about high-dollar starters and relievers, but for all the whispers of a looming splash, it was in most respects business as usual.

The exception was Mozeliak’s response to Stanton’s spurning of the team. He quickly moved to trade some prospects for Stanton’s former Miami outfield mate, Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna, still in his arbitration years, earns a fraction of Stanton’s massive payout. Last season, when he made the All-Star Game, Ozuna posted 5.8 WAR, not at Stanton’s level but within striking distance. With one more season after 2018 before Ozuna hits free agency, St. Louis has plenty of flexibility with him. They can extend Ozuna, trade him or let him walk for compensation. And they can win with him.

“He’s just a great fit,” Matheny said. “The day he walked in, he was a great fit. We know what he’s going to do on the field. You just never know how that fit will be until you get a guy, but he’s been just what we hoped for.”

Ozuna filled more of a skill need than a positional one. The 2017 Cardinals finished seventh in the NL in runs, exactly league average with 196 homers and just 10th in slugging percentage. Clearly, St. Louis needed some thump in the middle of its order to close the gap with NL’s top offenses. However, that thump didn’t necessarily have to come from the outfield — the Cardinals’ ranked third in the NL in outfield WAR last season.

However, that WAR was distributed among a number of different performers. This season, with Ozuna in, and Randal Grichuck and Stephen Piscotty out, the St. Louis outfield has a clear, every-day configuration: Ozuna in left, 2017 breakout star Tommy Pham in center and Fowler in right.

“Adding Marcell just gives that extra dimension to us,” Fowler said. “He’s played against us a number of times, so he knows what kind of organization it is. You can see it his eyes that he’s ready to win.”

Beyond Ozuna, the biggest splash Mozeliak and GM Matt Girsch made during the offseason occurred right around Opening Day when Greg Holland signed to fill a key role in the back of the bullpen on a one-year, $14 million deal. But he is still working his way into shape after his late signing.

Those moves were headline-worthy, but they don’t really suggest a more aggressive stance when it comes to outside player acquisition. Under Mozeliak, St. Louis has often signed or traded for established players to fill holes on the roster. Think Matt Holliday in 2009, Lance Berkman in 2010 or Fowler last season. St. Louis is just selective about when it strikes. And sentiment rarely carries the day.

Don’t forget that this is the front office that didn’t overreach to re-sign Albert Pujols and traded away popular outfielder Jim Edmonds. Both situations resulted in hand-wringing among the fans base, and both paid off for the Cardinals. St. Louis used the savings from Pujols to extend catcher Yadier Molina, still one of the game’s best catchers, and keep pitcher Adam Wainwright. They used the draft picks obtained when Pujols signed with the Angels to draft Michael Wacha and Piscotty. Edmonds brought back World Series hero David Freese from the Padres.

While Ozuna certainly could be a long-term Cardinal, there’s no guarantee that will be the case. It likely depends on how efficient his next contract is projected to be by Mozeliak and his staff. As for Holland, the Cardinals can walk away after this season if it doesn’t work out.

Either way, the parameters won’t change. The Cardinals will still draw over three million fans. The payroll will rank somewhere in the second tier of the majors. And whatever the 2018 win total becomes, it’ll be wins achieved by efficient, focused spending.

Fiscal discipline is a big part of the Cardinal Way. But not the biggest part.

THE CARDINALS HOLD their spring training in Jupiter. Florida, at a facility they share with the Miami Marlins. St. Louis fans can be found milling around the streets surrounding the complex early in the morning, especially near the gate where players drive through to park. One morning last month, a young Cards fan spotted outfield prospect Harrison Bader and asked his father if he was going to “the next Tommy Pham.”

It’s a funny question if you think about it. At this time last year, Pham was playing for Triple-A Memphis. So, too, was Bader, infielder Paul DeJong, catcher Carson Kelly and first baseman Luke Voit. All would go on to help the Cardinals during the 2017 season, with Pham and DeJong becoming regulars.

“It was fun to see,” Fowler said. “Fun to watch. [Pham] came in and made an instant impact. That’s what you want from those guys.”

Later that morning, DeJong walked out into the clubhouse and was met with hugs from his teammates. One of them, noticing the curious media standing nearby, said, “Good luck with the Yankees!” No one took the bait.

DeJong had actually just signed one of the largest contract extensions for a player with less than one year of big league service time. As a rookie, DeJong hit .285/.325/.532 with 25 homers, all while starting 79 games at shortstop — not his natural position. DeJong wound up finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year race.

That day, DeJong had signed a six-year, $26 million deal that has two club options on top of that. If DeJong continues to produce at his current rate, much less get better, it’ll be a ridiculously team-friendly pact.

“We’re committed to winning at the major league level through scouting and player development,” owner Bill DeWitt said during the media conference announcing DeJong’s extension. “Paul is a great example of this. As a fourth-rounder, he rose quickly though our system and had a great rookie season last year.”

“Those guys are like robots. They all play a certain way and you never know who they are. But they are all good.”

Catcher Miguel Montero on the Cardinals

St. Louis has been aggressive with this type of deal, with DeJong’s extension echoing those also given early on in the careers of Piscotty, Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong and Allen Craig.

“Any time we make this kind of commitment to a player, we want to do it with the right type of player,” Mozeliak said back in Jupiter. “We talk a lot about the Cardinal Way and the character we look at. Paul exemplifies all of that.”

A couple of years ago after a game against St. Louis, former Cubs catcher Miguel Montero was asked what is distinctive about the Cardinals. He said admiringly, “Those guys are like robots. They all play a certain way, and you never know who they are. But they are all good.”

This reliance on organizationally developed amateur talent has been the bedrock of good St. Louis teams all through franchise history, dating back to the days of Branch Rickey. They find the player. They draft (or sign) the player. They develop the player, in the Cardinal Way, and get value from the player while the value is there to be gotten. And St. Louis is never shy about plugging in its minor league products to fill big league roles.

“It’s a tremendous vote of confidence for the player,” said Burton Rocks, DeJong’s agent. “They call it ‘The Cardinal Way’ for a reason. As an industry, it’s a ratification, a stamp of approval, that if you’re a talented player, your talents can be recognized early on. And the organization will work with you and reward you.”

That willingness to push in-house players was on display again at the end of spring training when fireballing reliever Jordan Hicks was added to the 40-man roster and broke camp with the club. Hicks, whose average fastball in the early going has been just a shade under 100 mph, had never pitched above Class A before this season and had mostly worked as a starter.

“He’s got as many people invested in him as I’ve seen in a young player,” Matheny said. “When you bring in a 21-year-old guy, our antennae is up about the challenges that come for any player at this level. There’s disposition on the mound, there is a confidence and there is an execution. Talent trumps all.”

During the five-year period ending in 2017, only six teams got more WAR from rookies than the Cardinals. That ranking was actually down a bit. St. Louis ranked fifth or better in five-year rookie WAR in each season from 2009 to 2016. That ascension in homegrown production coincided almost exactly with Mozeliak’s ascension to Cardinals GM after the 2007 season.

This season, the area that seems most likely to be bolstered by the Cardinals’ pipeline is the rotation. Jack Flaherty was recently demoted but only because of roster competition — he pitched well through spring training and during his first regular-season start. Luke Weaver has also been effective and Alex Reyes, one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, should be ready to return at some point in May or June after finishing off his recovery from elbow surgery. And there’s more where that came from.

“I love our rotation,” Wainwright said. “We have several guys at Memphis who are ready to go. We have some guys in Double-A who are close, too. And that’s not even including Alex. We have guys coming up like I have not seen since I’ve been here, talent-wise. I’m really excited about it.”

Even as the Cardinals have been passed in their division by the Cubs and, last season, by the Brewers, the organizational approach remains the same. This season’s 40-man roster included 22 players drafted and developed by the organization. And that doesn’t include international signings. In terms of projected WAR, only the Astros have a better homegrown 2018 forecast than St. Louis.

Everything in St. Louis is a constant. DeWitt has owned the team during the entire wild-card era. Mozeliak has been the chief baseball executive since 2007. Before that, Walt Jocketty headed up the baseball department for 13 years. Matheny has been the field manager since 2012, replacing Tony LaRussa who had the job for the previous 17 years. The Cardinals have been over .500 for 10 straight seasons.

Consistency and continuity are the organization’s chief traits, as is efficient spending, and the emphasis on a homegrown foundation. These are the things that have always worked with that franchise in that market. But with competition at the top of the majors being what it is right now, what happens if the Cardinal Way points only to another October with no playoff baseball?

Probably nothing. In St. Louis, the Cardinal Way is the only way.



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