Cardinals in Asia: Laying the foundation

GM Mozeliak recounts process of establishing Asian scouting operations

February 1st, 2016

On the heels of South Korean reliever Seung Hwan Oh signing with the Cardinals, began an examination of the organization's decade-long journey back into the Asian market. This series, which will be presented in three stories this week, begins with a look into why the Cards returned to Asia and how they went about structuring their process and resources there.

ST. LOUIS -- Four years before his promotion to general manager, John Mozeliak was part of the Cardinals' front-office group tasked with taking a fresh vision from owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and turning it into a new direction.

It was 2003, one year after the club won 97 games and made its third straight playoff appearance. DeWitt had seen his strategy of boosting payroll and trading for talent re-energize the franchise, but the sustainability of the model was a concern.

DeWitt asked his group to change its focus to include investing heavily in the Draft, streamlining the player development system and rebuilding its international approach. The first two items took precedence, so much so that DeWitt shut down the Cardinals' international operation for some time.

Once it was up and running again, the focus was on Latin America, specifically the organization's operations in the Dominican Republic. From there, attention turned to emerging markets, most notably Cuba and Asia. The Cards were all but inactive in both, watching as players like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kendrys Morales were lured to play professionally in the U.S.

It wasn't until March 2014 that the Cardinals dipped back into the Cuban market, signing a then-23-year-old shortstop named Aledmys Diaz. And it wouldn't be until this January that the Cardinals acted in Asia, the signing of Oh represented the organization's first foray in the Far East since making So Taguchi the franchise's first Japanese-born player in 2002.

The journey in Asia has been tedious, but that's been by design. With spending limits now imposed in the Draft and for the Latin American market, Asia remains one of the few uncapped talent pools where teams can be financially aggressive without penalty.

That wasn't the only advantageous byproduct the Cards saw while tip-toeing into those new waters.

"I think when you're looking at this in more of a global sense as to where you can get talent and how you can get talent and what you're spending for talent, it still seems like there could be some smart investments if you're willing to spend some time," Mozeliak said.

In this context, that time equated to several years.

Upon taking over as GM in October 2007, Mozeliak methodically began the restructuring. Matt Slater, who had joined the front office earlier that year, was an obvious fit to assist in the area, and, in fact, he now heads it as the team's director of player personnel. Having previously run the Dodgers' scouting operations, Slater had more firsthand experience in Asia than anyone else on Mozeliak's staff.

Slater's ongoing role as a consultant to the Orix Buffaloes in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball League also was a plus.

"Working for the Dodgers for nine, almost 10, years, and what we had done there and the players we were going after [in Asia], it wasn't in the mindset here," Slater said. "It certainly was something that was needed as we wanted to explore different talent bases to see what else was out there."

The foundation, Mozeliak and Slater believed, would need to include both an eyes-on and analytical component. To address the former, Mozeliak selected scout Rob Fidler to help the organization determine how best to use video for scouting Asian players. The bilingual Fidler had an understanding of both the Japanese culture and baseball business that made him a fit in this field.

Jeff Ishii, who began scouting for the Cardinals in 2007 after coaching in college, was roped in later. His switch from amateur scouting to pro scouting in 2012 opened the door to international opportunities. First it was to Mexico, then Asia. Now, Ishii, whose father is of Japanese descent, spends more time scouting in Asia than anyone else in the organization.

"There is enough talent in Asia to impact our game," Ishii said. "There is no doubt in my mind that in the next 10-20 years, we're going to continue to bring guys over here and add value to our 25-man roster."

The in-person and video scouting are helpful, but in the same way the organization merges traditional scouting with analytics in every other facet of talent acquisition, the club also set out to devise an analytical system that could help it better understand how performance in Asia may translate to results in the Major Leagues.

Such projections have been precarious, mostly because the sample size of data points remains small. As a result, the Cardinals charged their analytics department with not only studying how players did when transitioning from a professional career in Asia to one in the U.S., but also how U.S.-born players fared when crossing the ocean to play in Asia.

"It was very challenging, for sure," Slater said. "Our guys have done a great job. We have more analytical tools than we did two or three years ago, and those have certainly made the decisions we've made this offseason on several Asian players more comfortable."

With a stable process in place, the Cards then looked to make their move.

"It's sort of always how I thought about things," Mozeliak said. "Get something right and then move, rather than try to have a lot of different balls in the air and hope they all land where you want them to. Subsequently, I think we're getting to a point where we feel like we have a sense of the market and how to value the market. And if we need to use that as a resource moving forward to procure talent, we can."

Coming Wednesday: An examination of what it is like scouting talent in Asia and how the near-misses of landing Jung Ho Kang and Byung Ho Park put the Cardinals on the precipice of being players in Asia once again.