Class of 2009 makes the grade for Cardinals
Miller, Kelly, Carp, Rosenthal and Adams major contributors to team's success
ST. LOUIS -- The introductions, as Matt Adams remembers it, were staggered. Yet there was an impact in all of the immediate impressions.
The central Pennsylvania native and power-hitting prospect met the recent college closer when he was promoted to the New York-Penn League two months after being drafted. By the time Adams got there, the five-year Texas Christian University infielder had already moved up a level. He had, though, left behind his reputation as the old-school type that didn't wear batting gloves.
By the following spring, Adams would be teammates with the hotshot Texas righty, the one whose first-round money was the envy of the bunch. Coming up from behind was the Midwestern flamethrower, the teenager still new to pitching.
Once scattered across the country, with backgrounds as different as their skill sets, they were brought together to be molded by an organization intent on saturating its Minor League pipeline with high-impact talent.
"I knew early that we had a group of guys," Adams said, "that were going to work hard to make sure we had a great chance of making it up here."
Now, they are the standouts of the Class of 2009.
They are the cleanup hitter and closer, the 15-win National League Rookie of the Year Award candidate, the second-half rotation savior. One had a season worthy of NL MVP Award consideration. They are part of a core of Cardinals that has the organization not only one win away from a third straight trip to the NL Championship Series, but also poised for sustained success.
If the early returns are a harbinger of the still-to-come final assessment, the Cards might just look back at June 9-11, 2009, as the defining three-day period in the organization's concentrated efforts to rebuild its farm system. Consider the coup: Shelby Miller (first round), Joe Kelly (third), Matt Carpenter (13th), Trevor Rosenthal (21st) and Adams (23rd).
"Wow, that was a pretty good Draft," said Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow when reminded Tuesday of the players St. Louis selected under his direction as vice president of scouting and player development for the Cardinals.
"Pretty crazy," said Miller. "It's something special."
Just how special?
"I know if you get two or three Major League players out of a Draft, it's considered successful," an area scout with the Cardinals said. "That year, it was the perfect storm for us."
As the Cardinals prepared for the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, they did so with an eye on the state of the farm system. What Luhnow and others saw was a Minor League pipeline finally filling with quality players. That had been the vision of owner Bill DeWitt Jr. for several years.
Seeing that the upper levels of the system were packed with players who needed additional time to develop, St. Louis was willing to break from its normal Draft mold. Instead of sticking with the safer pick (a college player on the fast track), the Cards were committed to taking the best player available when their first-round selection arrived at pick No. 19.
A top 10 talent on their internal Draft board, Miller, a hard-throwing high school right-hander from Texas, was available when the Cardinals had their first turn.
"I had some reluctance to take a high school right-hander with the first pick in prior years and always wanted to get the best available pitcher, but in some cases was leery of injury risk," Luhnow said. "We really felt ... that [Miller's] stuff was first round, but the delivery would lead to him being durable and dominant."
The Cards made Miller -- who they would later have to go over slot to sign -- the first high school pitcher taken by the organization in the first round since Brian Barber in 1991.
Kelly joined the fold two rounds later. He was a hard-throwing college pitcher who had the tools (most notably a high-90s fastball and a hard slider), but not necessarily the numbers to warrant a third-round pick. The Cardinals looked past Kelly's 5.65 ERA at the University of California-Riverside.
As subsequent rounds passed, St. Louis no longer had the luxury of relying upon multiple scouts to vouch for a player's ability. Instead, selections emerged from a partnership of analytic and scouting savvy.
That was particularly the case with Carpenter and Adams. Carpenter had starred at TCU during his final two college seasons and was what Luhnow called a "no-brainer pick" when he was still on the board in the 13th round.
"The numbers definitely supported taking him -- and probably taking him several rounds earlier," Luhnow said.
Adams, playing outside baseball hotbeds in a western Pennsylvania at Division II school, was somewhat of a hidden gem. The Cardinals' area scout confirmed a limited, but positive, analytic assessment.
That wasn't the case when it came to Rosenthal. There wasn't much for area scout Aaron Looper to go on, either. He had seen Rosenthal pitch one time in a junior college conference tournament game. A recent convert to pitching, Rosenthal left enough of an impression that Looper affixed a gut sticker -- each area scout was given three -- to Rosenthal's name on the Cards' Draft board.
It was enough to convince Luhnow that the kid from the other side of Missouri was worth the chance.
"We anticipated Miller being a special guy and had high hopes for Kelly," Looper said. "But when you start hitting in those later rounds, that's what can really be impactful. It came down to good leadership, good scouting and then everything aligning in the organization."
Four years after forming the Class of 2009, the Cardinals can claim that no club did better in that pool of amateur talent. The organization had seven players -- the aforementioned five, as well as Ryan Jackson and Keith Butler -- from that Draft class contribute at the Major League level this season. No team had more.
While Jackson (fifth round) and Butler (24th) were used sparingly, the other five -- all of whom have been on the roster since Opening Day -- have been cogs on a 97-win team.
"It was a great example of opportunity as well as the ability to combine scouts and analytics," general manager John Mozeliak said. "Clearly, having an impact player from a Draft makes it a success, but getting five is remarkable."
In his first season at the position, Carpenter had one of the best seasons by a second baseman in franchise history. He was among the Major League leaders in all sorts of offensive categories, including tops in hits (199), runs scored (126) and multihit games (63).
Adams did well in a part-time role and has done even better since becoming the team's cleanup hitter in Allen Craig's absence. Miller made the Opening Day rotation and won more games than any rookie in baseball. Rosenthal set a franchise reliever record for strikeouts and is closing games in the postseason.
The Cards won nine of the 11 starts Kelly made after joining the rotation. The only two pitchers to have a better ERA after June 1 than Kelly are the favorites to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award (Miami's Jose Fernandez ) and the NL Cy Young Award (Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw ).
"It's something that you notice," Adams said. "I look around and see all the guys that I came up playing with and think about all the years we spent playing together in the Minor Leagues. It's neat to be on the journey with those guys. It's been fun to be able to make the climb together."
"It was just a bunch of talent, a bunch of guys just born to win and who were always successful," Miller said. "It's been fun to be a part of it all."
These five players are among the 17 on the Cardinals' 25-man postseason roster to be drafted and developed by the organization. Five of the others were drafted in 2007, but that group (Pete Kozma, Kevin Siegrist, Tony Cruz, Daniel Descalso and Adron Chambers ) has not made the same impact.
Using WAR (wins above replacement players) as a benchmark, the Cards clearly pilfered some of the best talent in 2009 -- at least as it can be assessed four years out. Their Class of '09 WAR sits at 17.2. Only the Angels (23.1) have a higher one, and that's because Mike Trout alone has a WAR of 20.8.
For comparison sake, consider that 16 other teams have a WAR below than 5. Of those, 10 have a WAR of zero or below.
Carpenter has a higher WAR (7.4) than any other player taken in the 13th round that year. Rosenthal's 1.8 WAR is tops among the 21st-round selections. Adams is the only 23rd-round pick of 2009 to even play in the Majors yet.
"There's still some on that  list that still have a good chance, but my feeling is if you get five guys to the big leagues -- not just for a cup of coffee, but five guys to the big leagues that become players that stick -- that's an excellent class," Luhnow said. "That's what really in my mind separates a great Draft class from an average or below-average Draft class, and that is getting big leaguers late in the Draft. And that's exactly what happened in '09."