Some franchises seem to understand how to put together a team that can win a division consistently, or who can win enough games to make the playoffs on a regular basis. But, just making it into the playoffs isn’t really what we’re looking for here. The Braves of the ’90’s and early 2000’s won 14 “consecutive” division titles (so long as you aren’t counting the ’94 season that ended because of the strike, when they were 6 games behind the Expos), but were only able to convert that into a championship once. The Dodgers have 6 playoff appearances in the last 11 seasons – but, half of those led to first-round exits, and they have a total of 4 wins in three NLCS appearances. Regular season success is only moderately admirable.
The three teams that made my cut are teams that have consistently made it into the playoffs – and have been a consistent threat to win it all. Teams that, even in the years they didn’t win it all, made it really difficult for the teams that beat them. In order to do this on a regular basis, you have to really understand how to put a quality team together. And, the second of three teams that really seem to get it is…
St. Louis Cardinals
Over the last 15 seasons, the Cardinals have missed the playoffs just 4 times. In other words, in a decade and a half, the Cardinals have as many playoff appearances as the Nationals, Rockies, Marlins and Rays have in their franchises’ history . . . combined. And, of those 4 seasons without a playoff appearance, only one ended with a losing record (2007 – 6 games below .500), and none ended with the Cardinals in last place. And, they aren’t just getting into the playoffs – they’re winning. Only 2 of their 11 appearances ended with a loss in the first round. Four NL pennants, and two World Series championships aren’t coincidental. So, how do they do it?
The primary answer to that question is this – they know who they are. St. Louis is the #21 television market in the U.S. There are only 6 teams in all of baseball in smaller markets (Pirates, Orioles, Padres, Royals, Reds & Brewers). But, that doesn’t mean they underspend. They generally are in the top 10 payrolls in the league, but their total payroll still pails in comparison to the richest teams. And, that’s because they keep the players that are particularly valuable, and let go of the ones who are asking for more money than they are worth (Pujols). It all starts with the farm system.
In the last decade, here are some of the Cardinals’ first-round picks (keeping in mind that they were never drafting very high): 2005 (#28) – Colby Rasmus; 2007 (#18) – Pete Kozma; 2008 (#39 – supplemental) – Lance Lynn; 2009 (#19) – Shelby Miller; 2011 (#22) – Kolten Wong; 2012 (#19) – Michael Wacha (2013 NLCS MVP). But, what impresses me most about the Cardinals scouting and farm system is not just that they were able to make first round picks that succeeded, but that much of their overall success has been the product of their own player development. Just look at this list of names:
- Matt Adams – 2009, 23rd round
- Matt Carpenter – 2009, 13th round
- Trevor Rosenthal – 2009, 21st round
- Jon Jay – 2006, 2nd round
- Allen Craig – 2006, 8th round
- Jason Motte – 2003, 19th round (got the final out of the 2011 World Series)
- Yadier Molina – 2000, 4th round
- Albert Pujols – 1999, 13th round
All of these are players that have made significant contributions to the winning ways of the Cardinals over the last 15 years. And, they all went through the Cardinals’ farm system.
Timely trades, for the right kinds of players, has also been an important part of the Cardinals’ success. David Freese was the 2011 NLCS and World Series MVP – and he was the lone minor league player they received in return from the Padres in 2007 for Jim Edmonds. Matt Holliday has been one of the most consistently productive players in St. Louis over the last 5+ seasons. He was traded to the Cardinals by the A’s in exchange for 3 minor leaguers – none of whom have made any significant contribution at the major league level. Adam Wainwright is a 3-time All-Star, and has finished in the top 3 in Cy Young voting four times. But, he didn’t begin his career in St. Louis. He was a part of the trade that sent J.D. Drew to the Braves after the 2003 season. Along with Drew, the Cardinals sent utility man Eli Marrero to Atlanta for Wainwright, reliever Ray King (who would put together a 2.91 ERA over 163 appearances in the next 2 years in St. Louis), and starter Jason Marquis (who won 15 games with a 3.71 ERA the next year for the Cardinals). Scott Rolen won 3 Gold Gloves, went to 4 All-Star games, and helped the Cardinals to two World Series. He was also the primary piece of the trade between St. Louis and Philadelphia, in which the only other player of note was Placido Polanco going to Philly.
The Cardinals also don’t go out and buy up the top-name free agents. They make the moves that make the most sense for them. Jeff Suppan was not the most sought after starting pitcher after the ’03 season (especially with Clemens, Colon and Pettitte available). But, the Cardinals filled a need, and Suppan went 44-26 with a 3.95 ERA over the next three seasons, and was the 2006 NLCS MVP. Two days into the free agent market of 2004 (an offseason that included the signing of Beltran, Beltre, Glaus, and others), the Cardinals jumped at the chance to sign . . . David Eckstein for 3 years, $10 million. The Angels were willing to let him go, because they went on to sign the much more well-known commodity that was Orlando Cabrera for more than twice as much money – and, over the next three seasons, Eckstein & Cabrera had nearly identical stats (though, Eckstein was slightly better). And the Angels had two playoff appearances that fell short of the Fall Classic, while Eckstein was the World Series MVP in ’06. We don’t even have time to get into the timely signings of Chris Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman and other key role players in St. Louis’ success.
For well over a decade now, the Cardinals franchise has proven that they get what it takes to build a championship caliber team.