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October 19, 2006

Future Shock

Where the Cardinals Came From

by Kevin Goldstein

While the Cardinals are in the postseason for the sixth time in seven years, their 83-78 record was their worst mark of the decade, as the team backed in to the National League Central title. With a farm system that has been moribund for years, the Cardinals have been a shrewd team-builder through trades and free agency.

Catcher:

Gary Bennett (Free Agent, 12/05)
Yadier Molina (Draft, 4th round, 2000)

Molina is from the Catching Molina Brothers, baseball's version of the Flying Wallendas. Defense is his calling card, and he's one of the best in the business, but he's such a complete zero offensively that one wonders if it's worth it. He's a strange hitter, as he has gap power, and doesn't strike out a lot, yet doesn't hit for average. He's just 24 years old, and there are some skills there with the bat, so he could turn into at least an acceptable offensive catcher. As for the reserve, Bennett is with his seventh team in six years, a consummate backup catcher, and he's no better than Molina with the bat.

Infield:

Ronnie Belliard (Trade, 7/06)
David Eckstein (Free Agent, 12/04)
Aaron Miles (Trade 12/05)
Albert Pujols (Draft, 13th round, 1999)
Scott Rolen (Trade, 7/02)
Scott Spiezio (Free Agent, 2/06)

Pujols is one of the great draft finds in history, a 13th round pick out of a small Missouri junior college. He dominated the Midwest League in his pro debut and that was it, as he was in the majors the following year. Belliard was an eighth-round pick by the Brewers in 1994 who turned himself into a prospect by showing decent power, good speed (which isn't there anymore), and a patient approach. He's never been able to be consistently productive in the big leagues, and the Indians dealt him to the Cardinals at this year's trade deadline for Hector Luna, who offers less offense but far more versatility with the glove. Rolen is one of the most consistent performers in the game, as he is always good, and sometimes great. Despite an impressive career, it's interesting to note that he's hit over .300 just once, and has only three 30+ home run years. Defensively, he's simply outstanding.

A 19th-round pick out of the University of Florida, Eckstein came up through the Red Sox system and was released late in 2000 while struggling through a .246/.364/.301 season at Triple-A Pawtucket. Claimed by the Angels, he was a starting shortstop in the big leagues the following year. He's a contact hitter who draws a few walks and increases his OBP by getting hit by 15-20 pitches a year, but it's still hard to justify a real big league salary (he makes $3.33 million this year) for a player with a sub-700 OPS. Miles was a career minor leaguer who has turned an undeserved Southern League MVP award in 2002 into a major league career. After initially beating out Junior Spivey in camp for the starting job at second, he lost it to Belliard after the latter's acquisition. Without the ability to play on the left side of the infield, his days in the majors could be numbered. Spiezio resurrected his career this season. A pure grinder who spent four seasons as a versatile mediocrity for the Angels, the Mariners signed him has a free agent. There, he played his way out of a job in 2004 and spent most of 2005 on the disabled list. The Cardinals gave him a spring training invite, he made the team, and was enormously valuable filling in at left field and for an injured Rolen.

Outfield:

Chris Duncan (Draft, 1st round, 1999)
Jim Edmonds (Trade, 3/00)
Juan Encarnacion (Free Agent, 1/06)
John Rodriguez (Trade, 7/05)
So Taguchi (Free Agent, 12/04)
Preston Wilson (Free Agent, 8/06)

Duncan was one of the team's best stories this year, slugging 22 home runs in 280 at-bats. As exciting as that is, it is remarkably difficult to see this explosion as real. In 310 minor league games at Double- and Triple-A, he hit 37 home runs. So we have a very long minor league track record of mediocrity, with all signs pointing to his big league season looking like a Shane Spencer or Kevin Maas type of fluke. Edmonds was a seventh round pick in 1988 by the Angels who never hit more than 14 home runs in a minor league season, then suddenly hit 33 in 1995, and never really stopped... except for in 1999, when he hit just .250/.339/.426 in an injury-plagued season, permitting the Cardinals to nab him for nothing more than Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy. Encarnacion came up in the Tigers system as a highly-regarded prospect, but he's never improved, and never regressed--this year he had an OBP of .317 and a slugging percentage of .443. His career marks in those two categories are .316 and .441, respectively.

Rodriguez went undrafted out of high school and signed with the Yankees as a local product. Surprisingly enough, he worked his way up slowly up through the system, only to get released at the end of the 2004 season following a pair of mediocre campaigns at Triple-A Columbus. He spent a couple months in the Cleveland organization before getting dealt to St. Louis in a minor league deal for organizational catcher Javier Cardona. After hitting .342 at Triple-A Memphis, he got his shot and is a solid bench outfielder and left-handed bat. Taguchi is the rare Japanese player who came over and has lasted despite not being a big star in his home country. Signed to a three-year, $3 million deal in 2002, he struggled at the plate and took his assignment to the minors with grace, despite playing the last eight years in the Japan Pacific League. Taguchi did make some adjustments, and is now a decent extra outfielder.

The ninth overall pick in the 1992 draft by the Mets, Wilson was originally a third baseman who moved to the outfield after making 78 errors in 199 games at the hot corner. With career minor league averages of .258/.308/.470, he was traded to the Marlins in the Mike Piazza deal and developed into an exciting, if a bit overrated outfielder with power, speed (including a 30-30 season) and a ton of strikeouts. The holes in his swing caught up with him, and a huge season with the Rockies in 2003 was more a production of Coors Field than anything else. Signed to an ill-advised $4 million deal by the Astros, Wilson was released in mid-August and while he hit eight home runs for the Cardinals in 111 at-bats, he did little else, and will likely spend the offseason looking for a job. He's only 32, but his skill set is the type that can't afford any sort of decline.

Starting Pitchers:

Chris Carpenter (Free Agent, 12/03)
Anthony Reyes (Draft, 15th round, 2003)
Jeff Suppan (Free Agent, 12/03)
Jeff Weaver (Trade, 7/06)

How many guys come back from labrum surgery and end up winning a Cy Young award? I'm guessing the list is remarkably short, but Carpenter is on it. The 15th overall pick in the 1993 draft by the Blue Jays, Carpenter was moved through the system aggressively, reaching Double-A at 20 and the big leagues just after his 22nd birthday despite never mastering any level after High-A. He was a serviceable pitcher in the big leagues until 2002, when he blew out his shoulder. He signed with the Cardinals because, although it was not much, it was guaranteed money, and after missing all of 2003, he became the Carpenter we now know. The most interesting aspect of his transformation is the improvement in control. With the Blue Jays, he walked a perfectly reasonable 3.42 per nine innings, but just 1.84 in three years with the Cardinals.

An ugly injury history was the primary reason Reyes fell to the 15th round in 2003, and he's been the Cardinals' top prospect for a couple of years now, though he's yet to really break through in the big leagues. With the team's contract situations, he's all but a lock to be in next year's rotation on Opening Day, and getting off the Memphis/St. Louis express might be just what he needs to become the projected number three starter that most see in him. Suppan was a second-round pick by the Red Sox in 1993, and he became a top prospect by leading the Florida State League in wins and strikeouts in his full-season debut. He was Arizona's second pick in the expansion draft, as he had fallen out of favor in Boston after three failed auditions. After posting a 6.68 ERA in 13 starts for the Diamondbacks, his contract was sold to the Royals, where has was a rotation stalwart for four years before splitting 2003 between the Pirates and Red Sox. He then signed with the Cardinals prior to 2004.

Weaver was the 14th overall pick in 1998, and he was pitching for a pitching-light Tigers team less than a year later. Three years after that, he was pitching well and considered a hot young property, at which point he was traded to the Yankees in a complicated three-way deal in which he's still the second-best player (Jeremy Bonderman has passed him). While he was an above-average starter and the ages of 23 and 24, he's rarely been since, and he lost his job to his younger brother in Anaheim this year. At 29, he's clearly on the downswing, and his career is well below expectations, leaving one to wonder if pitching nearly 230 innings as a 24-year-old had an adverse effect.

Bullpen:

Randy Flores (Free Agent, 11/03)
Josh Hancock (Free Agent, 2/06)
Tyler Johnson (Draft, 34th round, 2000)
Josh Kinney (Free Agent, 6/01)
Braden Looper (Free Agent, 12/05)
Brad Thompson (Draft, 16th round, 2002)
Adam Wainwright (Trade, 12/03)

With over 20 more appearances than innings, it's obvious that Flores is a lefty specialist, even if he's not nearly as good in the role as he was last year. A ninth-round pick by the Yankees in 1997, Flores was the classic strike-thowing lefty who puts up big numbers in A-ball, and then struggled at a higher level. Traded to Texas as part of the Randy Velarde deal in 2002, he made his big league debut shortly thereafter, and pitched well enough to get waived. That's when Colorado gave him a chance. The Cardinals signed him prior to the 2004 season, and 2006 was the first year in which he didn't appear in a minor league game. Hancock is another retread who was drafted by the Red Sox in 1998 and spent five years in the system, with only a brief callup in 2002 before being dealt to the Phillies for what would be Jeremy Giambi's last chance. Hancock then bounced to the Reds for a couple of years before signing with the Cardinals, and like Flores, this was his first season without a minor league stint.

Johnson is another lefty who usually only faces lefties, and he ended up earning primary LOOGY responsibilities in the second half of the season. A draft-and-follow who signed in 2002, like Flores Johnson also put up some impressive numbers at the lower levels but struggled once he reached Double-A. The A's selected him in the Rule Five draft prior to the 2005 season, but couldn't find a way to keep him, preserving his availability to the Cards. Kinney is already the all-time pitching leader for Quincy University alumni, as he's the only one. Undrafted out of college, the Cardinals signed Kinney after he had a 1.71 ERA in three independent league starts. Groomed as a reliever from day one, Kinney had a 1.29 ERA at Double-A Springfield last year, but a 7.36 mark following a promotion to Triple-A Memphis. This year, he had a 1.52 ERA in 51 games for the Redbirds, allowing just 46 hits in 71 innings, earning a callup and subsequently Tony La Russa's faith with 25 solid innings at the end of the year.

Looper has taken a circuitous route back to St. Louis. The Cardinals selected him with the third overall pick in the 1996 draft, as Looper was one of the early college closers drafted to fill that same role in the big leagues. While he had a fastball in the upper-90s, he always had a little bit of Billy Koch in him--plenty of velocity, but little in the way of movement or command. He made a three-game debut in 1998, but was traded to the Marlins before 1999 for Edgar Renteria. He spent five years with the Marlins, the last one-and-a-half as the team's closer, even though his results never really warranted his status. The Mets signed him as a free agent, and they also miscast him as a closer. Although he saved 57 games over two years, he became an anti-favorite after some high-profile blown saves. The Mets declined his option this year, and he was back with the team that drafted him, and one that understand that he's better-suited as a set-up man.

Thompson is a nice find as a 16th round pick out of mighty Dixie State (which is in Utah, believe it or not). He had a high-profile scoreless inning streak in the minors two years ago, and as a control-oriented righthander, he's a good middle reliever. Wainwright has inherited the closer job with Jason Isringhausen's injury, having been selected over Looper, who has closer experience. A first-round pick by the Braves in 2000, Wainwright consistently put up good numbers in the minor leagues, yet his performances were also consistently below expectations, and that one breakout season never happened. Still, he was the main piece in the J.D. Drew deal. A starter until this year, Wainwright struggled to find a usable breaking ball throughout his career, but he's excelled in a relief role this year. Nevertheless, he profiles more as a high-quality set-up man because of his 91-93 mph fastball.

The Breakdown:

Free Agent Signs: 12
Trade: 7
Drafted: 6
International: 0
Waiver Claim: 0
Rule 5 Draft: 0

I'm going to leave the comment of the Cardinals system being moribund (above), but it's interesting to see six drafted players on that team, and noteworthy that two of them were taken in a round that required two digits. Unlike the Mets, who almost had a complete team turnover over the last 24 months, the Cardinals' reputation for loyalty to their players and vice-versa really shows here, as 14 of the 25 players on their post-season roster where here in 2004.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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