The Cardinals Like ‘Em Old

Allen Craig is a bit of a beast. Reading through last year’s list of accomplishments can be dizzying. Craig is also turning 29, and he only has one full season under his belt.

The reasons it took him so long to get here are specific: He got injured some, a legendary player blocked him at first base and his glove didn’t allow him to play where his team needed him. But there is a chance that he’s so very, well, Cardinal. Look around his team and you can see it. Matt Carpenter debuted in his age 25 season. David Freese (26), Adron Chambers (24), Shane Robinson (25) and Jon Jay (25) were all “older” debuts. Once again, there are specific reasons for each of these, and there’s also a chance this is part of the Cardinal Way.

Testing this assertion is a little tougher than ruminating on the state of the current young people on St. Louis’ roster. That’s especially true since regimes come and go, and you never know whom to blame or to credit for current successes or failures.

We could go back to 1990 to try and get a decent sample. Of course, the Cardinals have had three general managers in that time, but one of them was there for 13 years and could have set some sort of tone that’s still in place. And we could ask how many positional rookies have been older than 26 on each team since that year. And then we would see this table. (Players traded during their rookie eligibility were counted with their debut team.)

Team Total
Twins 11
Marlins 11
Padres 10
Expos 9
Royals 9
White Sox 9
Reds 8
Mets 8
Cardinals 7
Tigers 7
Athletics 6
Pirates 5
Cubs 5
Indians 5
Mariners 5
Brewers 4
Rockies 4
Astros 3
Phillies 3
Yankees 3
Angels 3
Braves 3
Dodgers 3
Diamondbacks 2
Giants 2
Orioles 2
Rangers 2
Blue Jays 1
Devil Rays 1
Red Sox 1

The Cardinals are in the upper half, yes. Upper third even. But that’s hardly a trend.

But this is also very specific. As a team, you could conservatively advance your prospects or draft college players and still end up with few 26-year-old rookies. Perhaps you’re a team, like the Rays, which needs cost-controlled players and would never let a rookie get that old without trying him somewhere in the field.

So let’s have at this another way. Jeff Zimmerman, what’s the average debut age for position players by team since 1990?

Team age (1990) age (2000) total (1990) total (2000)
Mets 25.3 25.5 155 87
Cardinals 25.2 25.4 154 87
Athletics 25.1 25.3 171 90
Astros 25.1 25.2 139 80
Yankees 25.2 25.1 141 81
Padres 25.0 25.1 175 114
Pirates 24.8 25.1 163 91
Reds 25.0 25.0 151 93
Red Sox 24.7 25.0 128 70
Angels 25.1 25.0 155 87
Expos 24.8 25.0 183 94
Mariners 24.9 25.0 164 95
Phillies 24.9 25.0 131 67
Dodgers 24.6 25.0 138 77
Orioles 24.6 25.0 160 103
Brewers 25.2 24.9 139 77
Twins 24.6 24.9 155 86
Giants 24.9 24.9 142 84
Rockies 25.0 24.8 138 91
Royals 24.7 24.8 172 97
Indians 24.6 24.8 138 87
White Sox 24.9 24.7 152 78
Rangers 24.6 24.7 151 92
Tigers 24.6 24.6 171 102
Cubs 24.7 24.6 157 98
Blue Jays 24.4 24.6 160 89
Diamondbacks 24.5 24.6 108 94
Braves 24.3 24.6 144 86
Marlins 24.3 24.4 150 95
Devil Rays 24.6 24.4 94 80

Well, I cheated. I sorted the table since 2000 to push the Cardinals from fourth to second. But still, St. Louis has had baseball’s fourth-oldest-position-player debuts since 1990 — and the sample is 154 young men. The differences are tiny, but the ‘n’ is decent, and the differences were always going to be small. No team in baseball is running out 19-year-olds on the regular, at least not yet.

You might see a general agreement between the two lists and be tempted to make a causal link. The Cardinals at the top and the Rays and the Blue Jays at the bottom of both lists? This is about competitiveness. The Cardinals have a stacked team every year and rookies need to wait their turns. That fits the Craig Conundrum, and it makes a sort of sense. But then… Mets? Well, the Mets were competitive in the 2000s, snark aside, and the Athletics are pretty far up there for a team that has more in common with the Rays and the Jays. And what about the Padres?

There’s another direction that this might flow. If you pick more college position players, then you get older debuts? So let’s look at the Cardinals top-ten draft picks since 1990:

# HS College
Round 1 19 9 10
Round 2 12 6 6
Round 3 14 11 3
Round 4 14 6 8
Round 5 12 4 8
Round 6 11 2 9
Round 7 10 10
Round 8 13 2 11
Round 9 9 1 8
Round 10 14 2 12
Total 128 43 85

The draft always has its quirks. We know that a ton of college seniors were taken in the 10th round after new CBA rules changed the most recent draft, for example. So it’s not too strange that the Cards haven’t taken a high school position player in the seventh round since 1990. Only just a little strange, though. But in these 10 rounds, which constitute the large part of the major leagues, the Cardinals took high school players 33.5% of the time. It’s hard to find draft-wide numbers for every year, but at least in 2008, the draft hit a low with 32.2% high school players. From this analysis, the Cardinals don’t seem to be too college-heavy.

But you might notice that the later early rounds are decidedly more college-heavy. So let’s return to those players who are currently on the field in St. Louis. Craig was drafted in the eighth round. Matt Carpenter was drafted in the 13th round. Matt Adams (23rd round) and Adron Chambers (38th round) fit the mold. Maybe the Cardinals’ college picks just worked out better.

If you flip the script, Jon Jay was drafted in the second round and was one of the best success stories of the Cardinals’ recent early picks. Of course, back in the day, there were players like J.D. Drew (first round, college), Dmitri Young (first round, high school), and Yadier Molina (fourth round, high school), too. So it’s hard to say definitively that the organization has failed in the first five rounds and succeeded on college picks in the later rounds.

These things don’t often have a clean answer. The Cardinals are a competitive team, and sometimes it takes a bit to crack their starting lineup. They don’t take college players more than most, but perhaps they have been successful on the college players they have taken. And maybe to their credit, they are willing to give older rookies a shot at regular playing time despite their age.

The Cardinals don’t quite prefer them old. But even with older players, they are ready to play ball. It might just mean more peak years under team control.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

32 Responses to “The Cardinals Like ‘Em Old”

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  1. EEOC says:

    Jon Jay was drafted out of the University of Miami.

    David Freese wasn’t drafted by the Cardinals.

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  2. Jonathan says:

    The Athletics’ position makes sense to me from their general aversion to drafting high school players in the upper rounds of the draft (where you’re most likely to get guys who debut at all) over the last couple decades. If you figure their average draftee is 21 or 22, and that the average time in the minors is 2-3 years, you can see how that philosophy would push them toward the top.

    You might also include how the pressure to find production from the scrap heap has led to pilfering of other teams’ organizational depth. That can typically mean making regulars out of players who flame out at AAA elsewhere, in other words, guys who are already 24 or 25.

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  3. Anon says:

    Another side to the competitiveness argument. Better record teams get lower draft picks, which tend to be worse than higher picks. Better prospects advance quicker through the minors.

    The Cardinals have never had a #1 overall pick in the draft. Lately, they have consistently been in the bottom half of the first round.

    It certainly isn’t the only factor, but it may be a significant factor.

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  4. olethros says:

    I suspect that the final sentence of the article explains this phenomenon.

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  5. Grant says:

    I highly expect this Trent to be broken with Oscar Taveras.

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  6. TKDC says:

    The Braves are tied with the Marlins since 1990 and I think they’ve been pretty good since then.

    One thing I think would make this better (not that I’m volunteering) is to limit the players that are counted in some way that only includes guys that are likely to be real prospects, as opposed to journeymen filler.

    Perhaps you could limit it to players with a certain number of PAs in their first 3 years, such as maybe 400? That would include most players that teams actually believe in, while excluding most AAAA players.

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  7. d_i says:

    This sparks my interest in a pick by pick/round by round breakdown of HS vs college league wide and teams that are outliers either way. Has there been a study/article recently about that?

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  8. padsfs says:

    Craig isn’t turning 29 until July 18th. He’s hardly “turning 29″ here in January.

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  9. padsfs says:

    Craig debuted in 2010 and was blocked that year at 1B by Pujols and in the OF by Holliday/Ludwick/Jay

    He also spent the majority of 2011 with the ML club, behind Pujols/Berkman/Holliday

    I would call 2013 his third full big league season and at 28 years old (not 29), that isn’t such a suprisingly late debut.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      He’s turning 29 this season, that’s all I meant. And on most other teams, he’d have debuted earlier. The fact that he was blocked was tackled in the piece, and the fact that the Cardinals have had old debuts goes beyond Craig. He was just an entry point.

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      • Bad Bill says:

        Blocked and tackled … Poor, Sarris, poor.

        A couple of minor corrections. Matt Carpenter actually made his debut at age 25, in a brief 2011 cameo. Matt Adams debuted at age 23. Freese debuted at 25. (As others have pointed out, he wasn’t a Cardinals draftee, coming over from San Diego in a trade for Jim Edmonds, after having reached only high-A at age 24. The Cardinals weren’t the only team bringing him along slowly.) None of these affect your basic point.

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    • TKDC says:

      It’s hard to look at how well Craig hit in the minors and not believe that on another team he would have likely made his ML debut by 2009.

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  10. tommy says:

    Maybe its the sites I read, or selective memory, but I am surprised the Mets came in first on your table. I have (had) the sentiment that they rush their players. Probably from FMart being around their system for so many seasons.

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  11. CircleChange11 says:

    It is something interesting.

    The Cardinals have never seemed to avoid “older” prospect or minor league players. Even back in the years (80s) when they seemed to have 6 major league outfielder, but only 3 could start). I’m thinking of acquisitions like Ryan Ludwick, david Freese, etc … guys that were no longer really considered “prospects” but developed major league talent.

    StL does not seem to be afraid of age or aging at all, given their roster.

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  12. Rick says:

    It’s also widely believed in St.Louis that Tony LaRussa wasn’t fond of young players. Tony’s name isn’t mentioned in your article but I think he really set the tone. One can’t argue with Tony’s success, so maybe his approach was a good one, but it also alienated guys like Brendan Ryan, Anthony Reyes, and Colby Rasmus.

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    • kramer says:

      While I do tend to agree with you, we should look at it both ways…… he did give Wainwright a chance to close in the playoffs, he let albert pujols start at age 20 (I believe), Kyle McClellan made the team straight out of AA (or lower) he let yadiers bad bat play at the MLB level while a lot of people prob would have kept him in the minors. I’m sure we are forgetting examples of both, but I think Tony wanted a maturity more than anything

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Ha, he “let” Pujols start. I think it had a lot to do with LaRussa. He very much liked vets. The braves have been about as successful as the cards, but Bobby Cox was more apt to favor young players. I think in those 2 instances, because of how long the regimes lasted and their obvious philosophies, you can look at the manager and deduce a strategic philosophy.

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    • Samuel says:

      You could say he doesn’t like young players such as the ones you mentioned… or you could say he doesn’t like bad plays. As Kramer pointed out, he let Pujols play (albeit after the injury to Bonilla) and he’s let other young guys have big roles when they’ve really earned it.

      People blame LaRussa for the poor performance of guys like Rasmus and Reyes, but given the play of Rasmus and Ryan and Reyes after leaving the Cardinals… the only conclusion is that it’s more on those players.

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  13. Bryce says:

    Cards like to maximize player values by controlling them during their prime years 28-32. They accomplish this by delaying their start times for players.

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    • themiddle54 says:

      28-32 are not prime years.

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        It might still make sense. If you have five years of a player, it might make sense to start those five years at 25 with position players, on average, rather then let them go right at their peak by starting them at 23.

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      • Samuel says:

        This idea makes some sense, but it’s probably not truly involved in the Cardinals’ decision calculus.

        I suppose it’s possible since they know they could delay moving up a player like Craig due to the fact that they simply didn’t need him on the roster, but if they had room he surely would have been playing.

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  14. Bad Bill says:

    The importance of the Cardinals almost never having a really high draft choice can’t be overestimated. If one looks at the average age of players on their first appearance in the major leagues (no matter how brief) as a function of draft slot, based on the most recent ten in that slot who’ve made it, the curve looks like:
    Slot 1: 21.5
    Slot 2: 21.9
    Slot 3: 22.3
    Slot 4: 22.5
    Slot 5: 22.3
    Slot 10: 22.6
    Slot 20: 22.7
    Slot 50: 23.7
    Slot 100 (you have to go all the way back to 1977 to find ten guys from this slot who made it): 23.6

    Given that only once since 2000 have the Cardinals had a draft pick in the first 15, it’s hardly surprising that their players take a little longer to make it to the Show; so, among draftees taken after the first ten or so, do everyone else’s. You just don’t find a Harper-style prodigy when you’re drafting 22nd, which has been the Cardinals’ average slot for the last ten years.

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    • Sparkles Peterson says:

      “Trout was drafted by the Angels 25th overall in the 2009 MLB Draft.”

      It does happen, it’s just rare for the entire league to misread a prospect that good.

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  15. SeanTronX says:

    “The signing of Jason Simontacchi” – legendary socks

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  16. NoItAll says:

    Wake up youngins, they’ve been doing this since Bob Gibson.

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  17. Bryce V says:

    Being a birds on the bat fan I believe our draft preparation and execution was crap before Jeff Luhnow. Walt Jocketty sign and traded for veterans , TLR played his veterans, and Dave Duncan could resurrect ANYONES career. This created a perfect storm. In response to Kramer there’s no denying Pujols or Wainwrights curve. That is what left Beltran looking …

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  18. Bryce V says:

    Lol. IMO

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  19. Jacob says:

    The over 26 rookie list means nothing. Look at the Team at the top. The Twins were one of the best between 200 and 2010. Winning the division 6 times in 10 years. Then look at the Rays only 1 player But before 2009 they stunk. Like i said it doesn’t mean anything

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