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For Cardinals, Crossroads Come Every Ten Years

For the Bill DeWitt Jr. and the St. Louis Cardinals, sustained success is the name of the game. Since the DeWitt family took over in 1996, the Cardinals have had just three losing seasons. Since their last losing season (2007), the club has added four division titles, two pennants, and a World Series title. Most impressive, perhaps, is the five consecutive playoff appearances between 2011-2015.  Cardinals fans can rattle those achievements off. It’s quite possible, however, that two of the losing years (1997 and 2007) shaped the organization far more than the winning ones.

1997

In just the second year of the Tony LaRussa era, the ’97 Cardinals and 2017 Cardinals were in similar positions. Before the midseason addition of Mark McGwire, the ’97 club had only five players with wRC+’s over 100, or above average. (I feel obliged to point out that Ray Lankford sported a .295/.411/.585 slash line; put that man in the Cardinals Hall of Fame). Furthermore, on June 17, 1997 the Cardinals were six games under .500, and in third place in the National League Central. Tuesday morning, the Cardinals are six games under .500 and in third place in the central.

Enter Mark McGwire. In need of a slugger (sound familiar?), the Cardinals traded three players to the Oakland A’s for Mark McGwire. While that move didn’t spark the ’97 Cardinals to a playoff run, it laid out the blueprint the Cardinals would use to be successful for the first half of the next decade: acquire veteran star from small-market team, woo him using the “Best Fans in Baseball”, and re-sign him at a fairly team friendly rate.

That blueprint worked to an astonishing degree of success. Edgar Rentaria, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Larry Walker were brought in from the Marlins, Angels, Phillies, and Rockies respectively. What do those four teams have in common? All were small-market teams that were unwilling or unable to extend their core players.

When you mix in hitting the jackpot by landing perhaps the eras best hitter, Albert Pujols, in the 13th round, you have the underpinnings of a dynasty. The on-field results matched the on-paper projections. The organization can boast two 100-win seasons, an NL Pennant, and World Series title thanks to Jocketty.

2007

Unfortunately for Jocketty, all good things must come to an end. Revenue sharing, implemented in 1996 but significantly strengthened in 2002, made it possible for small or mid-market teams to retain their star players. After a 17-win drop from 2005-06, the Cardinals slipped further in 2007. Their record of 78-84 remains the worst of this century. Neither the aging Jim Edmonds nor the oft-injured Scott Rolen were the players they were just a few years prior. Even a still-in-his-prime Albert Pujols couldn’t make up for the diminished Edmonds and Rolen.

After losing Chris Carpenter after opening night, a rotation consisting of Adam Wainwright (in his first year of starting), Braden Looper, Kip Wells, and Anthony Reyes simply wasn’t enough to get the job done.

A model made more difficult by the changing baseball landscape, coupled with infighting with Scouting Director Jeff Lunhow, spelled the end for Walt Jocketty little more than a year removed from a World Series title. At the time, baseball writers thought it was a bad move. Bill Madden of the New York Daily News said it was just another example of a “meddling owner” getting in the way of respected baseball men like Jocketty.

John Mozeliak was introduced on Halloween 2007.

Mozeliak’s first move hinted at what was to come. He traded fan-favorite Jim Edmonds to San Diego for a minor league third baseman, David Freese. Edmonds, part of the previous core, for Freese, a future World Series hero.

With a core of Yadier Molina, Chris Carpenter, and Albert Pujols already in place, Mozeliak was able to pursue a draft-and-develop approach full bore. And, by trading for and signing Matt Holliday (following his predecessor’s model), Mozeliak ensured they would be able to continue drafting and developing well into the next decade, even after Pujols’ departure.

Mozeliak’s tenure has been nothing short of a rousing success. Two pennants and a World Series title speak for themselves. Under the guidance of Jeff Lunhow, the Cardinals farm system has produced David Freese, Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, and Trevor Rosenthal, among others. Each of those players significantly contributed to at least a pennant winner.

2017

Ten years after the Cardinals’ last losing season, the organization appears to be at yet another turning point. Matt Holliday has moved on. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are in a severe decline.  Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, two players the front office viewed as potential lineup cornerstones, have been disappointing thus far.

You can trace the organization’s inability to develop an elite offensive performer to October 26, 2014 – when Oscar Taveras tragically passed away.

Taveras was not only the top hitting prospect in the game, but also the heir-apparent to the third spot in the lineup. A spot once occupied by an all-time great, Albert Pujols, and MVP, Matt Holliday, was ear-marked for Taveras.

Since Taveras’ death, the Cardinals have tried numerous ways to compensate offensively. In 2015, they traded Shelby Miller to Atlanta for Jason Heyward, but failed to resign him. In 2016, they assembled a power-packed lineup, albeit at the expense of defense and baserunning. This year, they tried to compensate with OBP, but the defense and baserunning has continued to be an issue, and the OBP hasn’t been there consistently.

Ten years after pivoting from a trade-and-sign approach to a draft-and-develop one, Bill DeWitt is once again at a crossroads. They’ve assembled an impressive number of good prospects, including Alex Reyes, Carson Kelly, Magneuris Sierra, and Jack Flaherty. Do they make a blockbuster trade at the deadline to acquire an elite bat? Or do they stand pat until 2019, let the prospects ascend to the majors, and supplement them with a truly elite hitter, like Manny Machado or Bryce Harper?

When other teams are willing to tank for as many as five years, the Cardinals draft and develop mode is being seriously challenged, just as Jocketty’s trade and sign model was challenged by revenue sharing. Hopefully DeWitt can adapt as quickly, and as well, as he did ten years ago.

Thanks for reading!

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Colin Garner
Colin is a catcher at Drury University who's a big fan of pitch calling, bullpenning, and Game of Thrones. Gets very frustrated with nonsense from people around him while attending games.
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