ST. LOUIS — John Mozeliak has never seen a losing season since being named general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007.
It’s an incredible run that’s included one World Series title, two National League pennants and four playoff appearances. On top of that, the Cardinals were named Organization of the Year in 2011 and 2013.
The latter hints at why the Cardinals have been so successful for the better part of the last decade. The Cardinals have become the benchmark for scouting, drafting and developing players. As of 2013, the Cardinals were No. 1 in the Major Leagues in terms of “homegrown players” seeing the big leagues.
Nine of the top 12 players in plate appearances on the 2013 team came up through ther farm system. David Freese, the 2011 World Series MVP, came over in a trade for Jim Edmonds from the Padres but had never previously advanced beyond A-ball.
The same could be said about Cardinals pitching. Of their top 16 pitchers in innings in 2013, 12 were either drafted or international free agents and developed through the farm system.
This is a major shift from between 2002 and 2005 when the Cardinals acquired almost all of their main players via trades or free agent signings, leaving the Baseball America to rank them between 28th and 30th in terms of organizational talent.
The organization needed a culture change and Mozeliak brought that, from the draft strategy all the way down to the player development level.
“When you think of our long-term strategy, you sort of look at the depth we already have and determine the direction you want to go,” Mozeliak said on Sunday at the annual Blogger Event. “First and foremost, we try to draft the best player available. What happens on draft day may be totally different three or four years down the road.”
The rest of the league watched as young talent blended with veterans as the Cardinals won the National League pennant and came two wins away from a World Series in 2013. Plenty of rookie pitchers filled the bullpen and played key roles, while others like Joe Kelly showed their value as both a starting pitcher and a reliever.
Rookie starting pitcher Michael Wacha, just a year removed from pitching in college, came one out away from a no-hitter and was a force in the rotation during the Cardinals’ playoff run.
Much has been said about “The Cardinal Way,” as much as it gets mocked by other fanbases, there appears to be some validity to it. It starts as soon as players are drafted and they’re groomed to be ready to perform as soon as they get to the Major Leagues.
“A big pat on the back for our player development folks here,” Mozeliak said. “I think about seven or eight years ago we went into a more dramatic curriculum, a more personalized curriculum for each player. It’s much more than what happens between the lines. A lot of it is what happens off the field as well. I think it’s because when we develop players for the big leagues, we want them A.) physically ready, and B.) from a mental standpoint, we’ve invested heavily in that and their preparation.”
It’s not even just drafting and developing first round picks, although the Cardinals have done that too. A lot of the key players were drafted later in the draft.
Here’s a look at the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, when the Cardinals selected a number of players who are seeing major playing time now:
-SP Shelby Miller, first round (19th overall)
-SP Joe Kelly, third round (98th overall)
-3B Matt Carpenter, 13th round (399th overall)
-CP Trevor Rosenthal, 21st round (639th overall)
-1B Matt Adams, 23rd round (699th overall)
-RP Keith Butler, 24th round (729th overall)
In 2010, the Cardinals got starting pitcher Tyler Lyons in the ninth round (289th overall) and in 2011 took reliever Seth Manness in the 11th round (35oth overall). The Cardinals went pitching heavy in the 2014 MLB Draft, which is no surprise given the amount of minor league pitching talent that is now at the Major League level.
As a small market team, developing players internally, from top picks all the way down, is how the Cardinals have to operate in order to succeed.
“You’re going to bring people up here and they’re not going to succeed,” Mozeliak said. “They’re going to fail. It’s a tough game. But I think overall the impact we’ve had on younger players, we have been able to optimize that and I hope we can continue to do it.”