If you took a poll of people from casual baseball fans to sportswriters to baseball management professionals and asked the question, “Which baseball organization is a model others should emulate?”, the almost unanimous answer would be the perpetually competitive St. Louis Cardinals. It seems that no matter what happens on the field they manage to find a way to win.
Now contrast that approach with the frustration of New York Mets fans who often feel the team operates in the secondary or tertiary tiers of talent, never going quite far enough in the pursuit of success. Yes, Sandy Alderson did make a flurry of moves to transform the club in the second half of the 2015 season to propel them to the World Series, but with pitchers and catchers reporting in a mere four weeks it seems like the team has reverted to the same old path of doing just enough to miss the mark. Let's take a look at the recent history in St. Louis and contrast it with the New York approach.
Both teams seem to value growing from within, but the Cardinals take it to a whole other level. For example, during the 2013 season 20 of 25 players had only ever played for St. Louis. Compare that total with the just concluded 2015 season in which the Mets could boast at times 24 players whose only major league experience was with the New York Mets. So far, so good.
During that same 2013 season the Cardinals went through perhaps more than their fair share of injuries, losing SS Rafael Furcal, closer Jason Motte, and starting pitchers Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook. However, they didn't turn to AAAA players to fill the void, but instead promoted players they developed well within their farm system take over for the missing key starters. During 2015 the Mets lost David Wright, Travis d'Arnaud and Michael Cuddyer for large chunks of the season but gave their ABs to the likes of players like Eric Campbell, Anthony Recker and Kirk Nieuwenhuis.
After the 2012 season the Cardinals were dealt a huge blow when slugger Albert Pujols bolted as a free agent for the Angels. Management knew they needed to replace his production and turned to oft injured by veteran All-Star Carlos Beltran. The result? Pujols has a rough time adjusting to his new home on the west coast but finished with a respectable OPS of .829. Beltran delivered .847.
When Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired after fifteen successful years of shepherding the franchise, they took a chance on an unproven, young manager, Mike Matheny, a former player in the organization and he made them look smart by delivering 88 wins and a playoff appearance during his rookier managerial campaign. He followed that up in 2013 with 97 wins in his second season at the helm. They didn't go looking for someone whose veteran experience purportedly trumped his career .500+ record.
The scouting system for the Cardinals includes some of the sharpest evaluators of talent in Major League Baseball. They routinely uncover diamonds-in-the-rough such as David Freese, Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Randall Grichuk and Matt Adams.
More importantly, they seem to realize that production needs to be built on more than hopes and dreams. When uber-prospect Oscar Taveras was tragically killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic, within a month the front office engineered the trade bringing Jason Heyward to the club to help fill the offensive void left by Taveras' demise. Compare that approach to what the Mets have done in the wake of apparently losing Yoenis Cespedes. What you don't see on the Cardinals are a lot of lightning-in-a-bottle types like Chris Young, Alejandro De Aza, John Mayberry and others.
Although the payroll last year of $120 million eclipsed by a small percentage what the bigger market New York Mets were willing to spend on players, the way in which the money was distributed differs greatly. There are just 4 players over $10,000,000 mark and three in the $9 million range. Despite Matt Holliday's injury-plagued season, he earned $17 million while averaging 27 Hrs and 106 RBIs with a .306 batting average for a mere $1 million more than Curtis Granderson. Contrast that with the contract paying David Wright now $20 million who hasn't delivered a career average season since 2010.
Another issue with the Cardinals is the philosophy that if players are fundamentally sound in the field then they can withstand some reduced range. Their double play combo of Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong delivers them some good offensive numbers while not making the mental mistakes that often plagued Daniel Murphy during his Mets playing days. No one is going to confuse Peralta with Ozzie Smith in terms of his glove but the fans embraced what he did with the bat – 17 HRs and 71 RBIs. The Mets had a guy playing SS for about a hundred fewer Abs who delivered 16 Hrs and 59 RBIs yet they turned him into a bench player and spent $18.5 million on someone who is expected to deliver 15 Hrs and 75 RBIs over a full season. Will it prove to be money well spent?
Everyone hopes that the superior starting pitching will continue to deliver and develop, and that the bullpen will coalesce into something more reliable each year. Where people are far less confident is in the team's ability to score runs, run the bases and field their positions. The Cardinals have been competitive seemingly for as long as anyone can remember through a combination of a deep farm system, a willingness to give opportunities to young players, and shrewd personnel decisions. It's an admirable approach.