December 18, 2007
Wait 'Til Next Year
Before the 2005 season, the St. Louis Cardinals were rated as the most barren farm system in the Major Leagues. The team's promise at the major league level was balanced against a very light farm system--a pairing that was surely worth their World Series ring, mind you--foretold by a disastrous top five prospects list:
Blake Hawksworth's 2004 season that preceded this ranking consisted of seven earned runs in 11 innings in the Florida State League. Injured and faced with a bleak 2005, Hawksworth still ranked higher than the clubs previous first round pick, Chris Lambert, who was considered a reach from the day he was drafted. To make matters worse, the system was bereft of hitters after Daric Barton was traded away to Oakland. The team's only real offensive hope was that Chris Duncan's breakout in Double-A--.289/.390/.473 in his sixth pro season at age 23--was a sign of things to come.
After the 2003 draft, the team ended their on-again, off-again relationship with Scouting Director Marty Maier, and returned the job to John Mozeliak, who had run the 1999 and 2000 drafts. In those two drafts, Mozeliak found Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and Coco Crisp, their last truly productive hauls. However, Mozeliak was seen as a placeholder, and was handed a "Moneyball" ideology to guide the club's drafts. This approach led the Cardinals to settle for the best college player on their board in the draft's first 26 rounds. Predictably, the results have yielded only one even semi-noteworthy player: Jarrett Hoffpauir. The Cardinals then moved Mozeliak back to a different baseball operations role, and brought in an outsider, Jeff Luhnow, to revamp the scouting department.
Fast forward to the present--GM Walt Jocketty has left and been replaced by Mozeliak. By this time, Mozeliak had direct exposure to Luhnow's running the minor league system and, given his scouting background, had surely seen the bullish changes first-hand. The result, symbolized by this week's trade of Jim Edmonds, has been a renewed focus on the future.
Luhnow's first draft in 2005 was a gift--six selections in the first 78 picks. As a result, the yield was plentiful, resulting in the system's top three prospects. The first, and most important, came with Luhnow's first overall selection, when the Cardinals took sweet-swinging center fielder Colby Rasmus. From the day he entered the franchise, Rasmus was considered to be Edmonds' successor in St. Louis, and dealing the veteran flycatcher to San Diego now makes that possible.
Their fourth-round pick from that same crop, catcher Bryan Anderson, should be so lucky. Like Rasmus, Anderson handled an aggressive jump to Double-A well in 2007, hitting .298/.350/.388 as a 21-year-old. That seasonal line doesn't capture that Anderson subsequently struggled against southpaws and withered in the season's later months, but at the break this was a guy hitting .328/.387/.460. The first-half line represents Anderson's potential future, certainly as a better player than Yadier Molina if all breaks right. However, the presence of the latter will give Anderson the time to properly develop.
Finally, the Cardinals may have landed the steal of the 2005 draft in the 22nd round when Jaime Garcia fell into their laps. The southpaw probably won't make a huge impact until 2009, but as a left-hander with putaway stuff, his potential value is huge. Slotted behind Carpenter and Wainwright--and potentially in front of Reyes--the Cardinals could have big-time talent in their rotation.
The 2005 draft also offered some depth that, if everything breaks right, will also come up sometime in the future. Supplemental first-rounder Tyler Herron is among the most underrated right-handed pitching prospects in the minors, as his 2007 numbers include lots of strikeouts and groundballs, and just 26 walks in 137 1/3 innings. A few levels ahead of Herron, Mitch Boggs might start some games for the Cardinals in 2008. Boggs is reminiscent of Micah Owings, a big sinker-slider pitcher and a good arm for the back end of a rotation. Finally, don't be surprised if reliever Kenny Maiques flies up the system's ladder because of his dynamite stuff next season.
Luhnow's 2006 and 2007 drafts should get a little more time before any detailed analysis is possible, but there are certainly things to like here. Perhaps the most obvious talent is Chris Perez, who will be closing in St. Louis the day Jason Isringhausen leaves; Perez is stingy with hits, and his slider is among the best in the minors. Adam Ottavino was chosen before him, and while his upside is limited, he had a big season with a sinker in the Florida State League. It's also worth keeping an eye on shortstop Allen Craig, outfielder Jon Jay (health issues notwithstanding), and first baseman Mark Hamilton.
It may have been a reach when the Cardinals opted for Pete Kozma last June, but the Cardinals truly believe in the Oklahoma shortstop and knew he would be gone before their next pick, the 36th overall. Two fantastic subsequent picks in the early rounds were Clay Mortensen and Jess Todd. Both are groundball/strikeout pitchers who should move through the system quickly, and both project as starting pitchers or dominant relievers. First baseman Josh Dew, outfielder Tyler Henley, and right-hander Deryk Hooker are all worth watching as well.
In three years, Luhnow has turned around the Cardinals farm system, bringing it back up to the middle of the pack. As the club's new GM, Mozeliak has faith in Luhnow's crops of talent, as evidenced by his already opening up a hole for Rasmus, but also not sitting still, adding David Freese and Brian Barton this month. Freese is something of a Wes Helms clone at third, while Rule 5 pick Barton is probably a fourth outfielder. Both offer value in this organization.
While the Astros have sold out their future this winter to mount some sort of shot at competing in 2008, the Cardinals are showing signs of doing the opposite, with an eye towards developing a more home-grown supporting cast to surround Albert Pujols. It was once true that the future of the Cardinals needed to come from outside the organization, but the long-term plan Mozeliak and Luhnow are developing looks to change that.