Preface, by Kyle Reis:
1. It's simple and easy; there was no "farm system" during the Jocketty and TLR run until 1999 when Mo took over as scouting director. 1996 was a weird time for a ten year old Kyle Reis, but even I knew then that the Cardinals successes were slung on the backs of rehabilitated starters that David Duncan was working his devil's magic on. What I can say, in retrospect, is that everything started to change drastically for the Cardinals when John Mozeliak took over as scouting director in 1999. Just go back and look at the 2004 world series roster. Many of those players were the Jocketty-type acquisitions, but that team was fed and sustained by a farm system. Then, fast forward to 2006 world series winners. It was roster made of some acquired players, but it was made largely possible by the raising of young talent, whether that be by trading those players for key pieces or using those players in key situations. 2. Now, what's changed since Mo took over in 2007? Well, thinking very simply about it, the Cardinals have invested more resources into scouting and they've had more success doing it. Growing up as a Cardinals fan, I would never have imagined that the Cardinals would have been able to produce a top 5 minor league system in baseball, but the Cardinals have done that at least twice since 2007. Another juxtaposition, the Cardinals were never consistently good enough under Mr. Jocketty to be drafting as deep in the first round as they have been with Mr. Mozeliak at the helm. 3. How does the system look at the end of 2018? It's drier than it's been in years. Entering 2018, the Cardinals had a top heavy organization and, as a result, most of those prospects are now "MLB players". They aren't prospects anymore, exactly. Another thing that you probably know at this point, the Cardinals lack what might be described as an elite prospect. Yes, 18 year old 3rd baseman Nolan Gorman could be (and I wouldn't bet against him) but he isn't there yet. Elehuris Montero is as polished of a hitter as the Cardinals had in the system last year but he isn't "elite," in the scouting sense. Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, Jhon Torres, Dylan Carlson... All good prospect, but none of them are elite at this point. But what the Cardinals do have right now are some interesting players at the lowest levels with BIG potential that are 3+ years away from the show that could relight the fires when time comes. Jhon Torres, Leandro Cedeno, and Malcom Nunez are going to be worth getting extra excited for. Another interesting development, the Cardinals lack top-end pitching potential at the short season levels. The Cardinals have done some swinging and missing and now most of their pitching reserves lie within a two year window and are housed at full season clubs. Where the foundation was constantly being built on top of solid pitching, the Cardinals will have to do some impressive work in the 2019 draft and international signing period to bolster that foundation.
I asked our resident prospect expert here at Birds on the Black, Kyle Reis, 3 questions looking at the St. Louis Cardinals' farm system over Bill DeWitt's tenure. His answer to the following questions are the preface above.
1) What was the state of the overall farm system when Bill DeWitt Jr. and Tony LaRussa and Walt Jocketty started their run together in 1996?
2) What was the state of the farm system when John Mozeliak took the GM job at the conclusion of the 2007 season?
3) What is the state of the current (2018) farm system?
The rest of this post will look at how the 1996, 2007, and 2018 farm systems look in comparison and how the current system and current success of the system can benefit the current big league club.
When Bill DeWitt Jr. bought the Cardinals prior to the 1996 season, the Cardinals farm system was in shambles. I asked some Cardinals prospect experts other than Kyle their thoughts on the Cardinals' system at the time. Here is what they had to say.
Erik Manning - formerly of Viva El BIrdos and currently contributor to BotB:
They had 3 top 100 prospects that year, and the only one that was worth anything was Matt Morris. (The other two were [John] Frascatore and Alan Benes).
Brian Walton - on the Cardinals Hall of Fame Committee, writer for www.thecardinalnation.com, and co-host of the Minor League Report podcasts with Caridnals' announcer Danny Mac on www.scoopswithdannymac.com:
In the later years of the brewery ownership, the organization was not being aggressive in any areas, including the farm system. After Walt Jocketty was hired in 1994, the Cardinals had better success with early picks, adding Matt Morris, Braden Looper, Adam Kennedy, Rick Ankiel, J.D. Drew and Chris Duncan, among others before the end of the decade. As Jocketty’s later prime strategy of trading away prospects for established major leaguers was not fully developed, most of these players were kept – and when Kennedy was dealt away, for example, he helped bring Jim Edmonds. The Cardinals’ foundation for its strong teams in the early 2000’s was built through these drafts.
Aaron Schafer, Viva El Birdos' prospect expert, who really was the first person I learned to go to for deep dives into the system. Some of you may remember him as theredbaron, instead of as Aaron Schafer. I still occasionally call him or type the RB (for red baron) moniker when referring to him. Here are his thoughts on the system as of DeWitt's purchase:
This is kind of a tough one, because the way we talk and think about the minor leagues didn't really exist yet, and the idea of a continuous pipeline was less emphasised by most organisations than what we see now. However, there were some interesting pieces kicking around the Cards' farm system at the time Jocketty took over, if not a ton of depth. Matt Morris, who would be so important to the Cards' success in the early 2000s, was already in the system and would really rocket to prominence after a Tommy John surgery in '98, I believe. Alan Benes and T.J. Mathews were just graduating to the big leagues, and both were expected to do special things. (Swing and a miss.) There were a couple other interesting players, but the secretly great Cards farm system of the early 90s had mostly dried up after producing the Lankford/Jordan/Gilkey trio in the course of just a couple seasons.
As you'll see below, they had a AAA club that had won a league championship or division title in 1995 and went on to the playoffs in 1996. This line of minor league success followed by major league success will seem to be a common theme moving forward for DeWitt and the Cardinals. In 2000, both AAA Memphis and the MLB Cardinals made it to the playoffs. The MLB Cardinals did so again in 2001 and 2002. Also in 2002, the A ball team won their championship. In 2004, some of those same players won a championship with the AA club. While that group of players would help out a little later, The 2004 MLB club made it to the World Series. The 2005 A ball team won their championship while the MLB club made it back to the NLCS and then the following year won the World Series.
1995 AAA Louisville
1996 STL made it to the NLCS
2000 AAA Memphis
2000 STL made it to the NLCS
2001 STL made it to the playoffs
2002 A Peoria 2002 STL made it to the NLCS
2004 AA Tennessee
2004 STL made it to the World Series
2005 A Palm Beach
2005 STL made it to the NLCS
2006 STL won the World Series
2007 AA Springfield
Those 11 seasons had to be considered an unequivocal success. They had 6 minor league clubs either win their division or their league championship and their major league club made the playoffs 6 times, winning one World Series.
After the 2007 season, the St. Louis Cardinals parted ways with Walt Jocketty as the GM and promoted John Mozeliak from within. One of his main focuses was to improve upon the farm system even more so than when he was working on that as the Cardinals scouting director. Why was that you say?
Here was the state of the farm at that time per Erik Manning:
It was on the upswing thanks to Jeff Luhnow, who was a divisive figure what with all his stat nerdery and his philosophy was much different than TLR and Jocketty. Jocketty had the farm in shambles. He traded a lot of prospects and spun them into gold more often than not, but the team was always towards the bottom in the prospect rankings. Luhnow was changing all that, but there was a clash of schools and Mo was seen as the "nerd side" winning, to some extent. By 2007, the Cardinals had Colby and Jaime Garcia coming up through their system and were highly regarded. Their entire draft approach had seemingly changed and it was an exciting time to be following the system.
According to Brian Walton:
As the MLB club prospered in the early part of the 2000’s, the Cardinals drafts were uneven at best. Top picks like Shaun Boyd, Justin Pope, Chris Lambert, Tyler Herron and Mark McCormick were busts, while lower round successes carried the way. The farm system had been though an uneven period as more assets were traded for established major leaguers to help fuel St. Louis’ success. However, a directional change had been executed when Jeff Luhnow was hired in 2003, with a greater focus on drafting and scouting to build from within, along with getting started in analytics and getting serious about the international market. From 2005-08, the Cardinals drafted Colby Rasmus, Chris Perez, Adam Ottavino, Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Lance Lynn and Brett Wallace – most of whom who became solid MLB contributors. However, other than Rasmus, they were not highly-ranked nationally. Before top picks became busts, the organization did a good job trading them away and getting value in return. The system actually hit bottom in the 2010 national rankings before moving to the very top in 2013.
And according to Aaron Schafer:
The system when John Mozeliak took over as GM was very bad, but already heading in the right direction. Jeff Luhnow had taken over the drafting operation a couple years earlier, and his first couple classes were beginning to make some noise. The Rasmus/Jay/Allen Craig/Chris Perez wave was starting to coalesce, and even taking into account the horrific early rounds of the 2007 draft (for nearly everyone; not just the Cardinals), an exciting amount of depth was beginning to build. Mozeliak inherited a system that was still seen as relatively weak, but there were some good things happening in the lower levels that would begin to pay some dividends in 2009 and beyond.
The Cardinals geared up for another run with three of their minor league clubs winning their league titles from 2007-2009. What happened next? The Cardinals made the playoffs again in 2009. After that, three more minor league teams won titles in 2010-2011. The Cardinals then won the World Series in 2011 and made the playoffs 4 more straight seasons after that bolstered by players from a 2012 AA championship club. From 2014-2106, the Cardinals organization had 6 lower level teams win their divisions and some of those players played on the back-to-back AAA Memphis winning clubs of 2017 and 2018. (Palm Beach also won their division this year.) That has yet to completely translate to the major league level, but it very well could.
2008 short-season A Batavia
2009 AAA Memphis
2009 STL made it to the playoffs
2010 Rookie Ball Johnson City
2011 Rookie Ball Johnson City and A Quad Cities
2011 STL won the World Series
2012 AA Springfield
2012 STL made it to the NLCS
2013 STL made it to the World Series
2014 Rookie Ball Johnson City and short-season A State College
2014 STL made it to the NLCS
2015 Rookie Ball GCL Cardinals
2015 STL made it to the playoffs
2016 Rookie Ball GCL Cardinals and Rk Ball Johnson City and short-season A State College 2017 AAA Memphis
2018 A Palm Beach and AAA Memphis
Ummm, speaking of unequivocal successes, maybe the first 11 years under DeWitt wasn't quite as good as we thought. In the next 12 years (2007-2018), 14 times did the Cardinals have a minor league team win their division and/or league championship and the major league club matched the 1 World Series title and 6 playoff appearances from the previous 11 seasons as well.
So where does that put us now? Erik Manning on that subject:
I think this past season's graduating class is impressive - Flaherty, Bader, Hicks, O'Neill...heck, I'll even throw in Munoz there. They all figure to be above average starters or at least solid contributors. Nolan Gorman is probably the most exciting position player we've had in the system since Rasmus. There's a lot of solid talent behind him, but no one that really excites me other than Elehurus Montero. There's a ton of depth in Memphis - the team that just won the PCL championship, but there's not a guy down there that strikes me as the next Bader, Flaherty or Hicks really. Although in all fairness, I didn't see those three emerging like they did either. Hopefully someone surprises me. I did really like their June draft, for the most part. Griffin Roberts and Lukan Baker are both the kind of projects I like taking my chances on.
Walton on the state of today's farm:
Cardinals player development has done a steady and underrated job of supplying big-league-ready players in recent years. However, the lack of true high-end talent on the offensive side has kept the organization ranked in the teens in industry comparisons to their peers in recent years. Yet that also means they have managed to avoid peaks and valleys for the last four or five years. With the Cardinals’ hard shift in focus to offensive players that began with the major overspend in the 2016-2017 international class and the loss of three high picks in the 2017 draft, the current pitching pipeline is much weaker than in the past. Fortunately, St. Louis has a good cadre of young arms because there are no Reyeses, Hudsons or Flahertys close. On the offensive side, potential difference-makers are at Class-A and below, so it will be another two years before they can register.
Schafer on today's system:
As of right now, the Cards' system is down a bit from where it has been, but largely for good reasons, i.e. promotions, rather than failures. The Redbirds have graduated a huge amount of talent to the big leagues over the past couple years, and it shows in a relative lack of talent at the upper levels of the system right now. Triple A Memphis sent nearly its entire pitching staff to the majors last year. That being said, the system as a whole is in a somewhat similar place as it was when Mozeliak took over back in '07, as there is an extremely intriguing wave of positional prospects beginning to develop in the lower levels, offering hope of star upside which has been elusive for the Cards in their development efforts over the past several years. Nolan Gorman could easily be seen as the Colby Rasmus of this current group, a lefty-swinging future star with light tower power -- hopefully without the family drama and general pain in the assedness Rasmus brought along with him.The current group is several stops away still, much like the original Memphis mafia was in 2007-'08, but there is undeniable talent and upside present in the lower levels of the system right now.
In conclusion, as this is A Positive October, the current system might not be what it once was but it is largely because there could be as many as 6 regulars on offense at ages 28 and below (Ozuna, Wong, DeJong, Bader, Munoz, and O'Neill) and in the pitching staff there could be as many as 15 guys getting significant time and/or significant roles at ages 28 and below next season - whether we'd like them to or not (Shreve, Bowman, Martinez, Wacha, Mayers, Leone, Poncedeleon, Gallegos, Gant, Weaver, Gomber, Hudson, Reyes, Flaherty, and Hicks).
That's an incredible crop of youngsters that the organization is admitting publicly that needs to (and hopefully will) be supplemented by outside help - and big help if I'm reading the tea leaves correctly.
With the overabundance of youthful pitching at the MLB level (and Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera on the doorstep - plus 2018 first rounder, Griffin Roberts, semi-close) the Cardinals' "hard pivot" to hitters might be the most beneficial move on the farm in years. Elehuris Montero, Nolan Gorman, and Andrew Knizner are all potential impact bats in the top 5 of our farm system according to Kyle Reis' Dirty Thirty-Five. Furthermore, 19 of the next 30 players listed are position players rather than pitchers - which is the opposite of the percentage we seem to have become accustomed to in the last 10 years of Cardinals' prospect rankings.
One last note. As Arch City Media pointed out, " The Cardinals 492-402 (.550) overall organizational record placed them 2nd behind Tampa Bay (539-345; .604) in total wins among all minor league systems in 2018."
If that isn't a Positive to end on, I don't know what is. Positive October Day 31 in the books; thus A Positive October in the books.
Thank you for reading. All of us here at Birds on the Black appreciate it greatly.
Also, thank you to reader Jeff Niehaus (@_FlyTheL_ on Twitter), for the awesome photo of Memphis' celebration that he sent cardinalsgifs for the art within the story AND for his responses and contributions on Twitter all month long. He helped keep me going and helped make this all worth it along with anyone and everyone else that responded and interacted with us writers at BotB all year long. We really appreciate it.
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