Cardinals prove homegrown talent trumps spending
Scouting, development have St. Louis thriving despite free-agent departures
Over the last two winters in free agency, the St. Louis Cardinals have lost Albert Pujols, who at that time was considered the premier player in the game, and a frontline starting pitcher, Kyle Lohse.
The Cardinals have been so devastated by these defections that they currently have the best record in the Major Leagues.
On the flip side, three teams that have been extremely active in adding big-name, high-salaried talent -- the Angels, the Dodgers and the Blue Jays -- could be found entering this week in third, fifth and fifth place, respectively. And the Angels' third place was worse than it sounded; double-digit games out of the division lead.
It ought to be recalled that the vast majority of us in the baseball punditry applauded these clubs for their aggressive pursuit of impressive personnel. And in some cases, these rave reviews were accompanied by prognostications of certain championships to come.
Not so fast. And not so far. OK, the season is far from over. But there is an emerging moral for team-building in the early 21st century:
Grow your own. It is so much cheaper than the alternative. It can happen regardless of market size. It is a function of intelligence, acumen and diligence, not a question of pocket depth.
It is a better deal than giving a 10-year contract for a gross national product to a 32-year-old man, thus making the underlying assumption that his productivity will match the expenditure by defying the normal human aging process.
Take a long look at the Cards. And if you're in the rest of the National League Central, maybe you want to wear shades, because of the reflected glare from that 41-22 record.
Pujols was their franchise player, right? They could never be the same without him. And in fact, they are different without him, but that doesn't translate into worse.
The Cardinals were supposed to receive condolences after the departure of Pujols to the Angels. Instead, they are receiving congratulations from baseball people who understand how the Cards have wisely allocated their resources, rather than risking much of their entire future on the contract of one player.
The Cardinals have four starting pitchers and a closer on the disabled list now. But it does not matter. They have the organizational pitching depth that is only a dream for most franchise.
A St. Louis pitcher goes down. A pitcher comes up from the Minors throwing strikes at 98 mph. Yet another St. Louis pitcher goes down. Another pitcher comes up from the Minors. He's throwing 91 mph, but it's OK, because he's throwing double-play balls.
The Cards, for instance, acquired Trevor Rosenthal in the 21st round of the 2009 Draft. He throws 100 mph, but he also has this knee-buckling curve, 20 mph slower. He struck out the side on 11 pitches in Cincinnati on Sunday night. That's a tough Reds lineup. But Rosenthal was unhittable. He's an eighth-inning guy for the Redbirds. He's still, you know, making progress.
Great scouting. Great player development. These two elements are trumping great big bucks.
Free agency isn't what it once was. With broader prosperity in the contemporary game, small- and medium-market clubs can retain at least some of their star-power players, keeping them safe at home and off the market.
There are fewer real stars on the open market than there were 10-15 years ago. Those that are on the market will be, almost by definition, somewhere between high-priced and overpriced.
In the case of their two major free agency losses, the Cardinals didn't pay that money, didn't play that game. Now they are ahead of the game. This is the road map for the future of any franchise without endless financial resources. And even those franchises at the top of Mt. Revenue might want to make a move in this direction.
The teams that spent the big money on the big-name players did so out of the normal motive: They wanted to win. They weren't misinformed. They weren't stupid. Plenty of other clubs would have done the same thing, if they had the money to do it.
But the St. Louis Cardinals are onto a better way. This is not just a matter of fiscal conservatism. The Cards have spent considerable money, for instance, keeping their catcher, Yadier Molina, who may be the single most valuable player in the entire game.
But in today's inflated market for pitching, the homegrown talent offers a structured, sound, sane and ultimately successful path to the top. The regular season is still a better place to make headlines than the offseason.