The Cardinals Still Benefiting From the First Farm

With their victory tonight, the St. Louis Cardinals are up 2-1 in the NLCS and in good position to defend their National League title from 2011. They are also, by far, the most farm-developed team in the hunt for the World Series. As John Sickels recently wrote, 64 percent of their roster was developed by their farm system, compared to 40 percent for the Giants and 32 percent each for the Tigers and Yankees. The Cardinals famously developed the first modern farm system, under Branch Rickey. They are still, clearly, ahead of the curve.

Sickels looked at all 25 players on the Cards’ 25-man roster, and all but eight were originally drafted or signed by the Cardinals. (Mark Rzepczynski and Chris Carpenter were originally drafted by the Jays; David Freese was originally drafted by the Padres; Kyle Lohse was originally drafted by the Cubs; Adam Wainwright was originally drafted by the Braves; Matt Holliday was originally drafted by the Rockies; Carlos Beltran was originally drafted by the Royals; and Edward Mujica was originally signed as an international free agent by the Indians.)

That’s really quite remarkable. If the 2012 Cardinals were to win the World Series, they would be the most homegrown team to do so in well over a decade: the last World Series winner to be more than 50 percent homegrown was the 2002 Anaheim Angels, 13 of whose players were original Angel draftees or signees.

I wasn’t able to look at all recent playoff teams — and would love it if one of you could find more examples — but the closest comparable modern team I was able to find was the 2005 Atlanta Braves, the “Baby Braves” team that won the NL East and lost the Division Series to the Astros. That team used 18 rookies in its quest for the pennant, setting a record for most rookies on a playoff team, and its playoff roster contained 15 players originally signed or drafted by the Braves.

This team is anomalous for the Cardinals of recent years; the 2011 World Championship team was 44 percent homegrown (11 out of 25) and the 2006 champions were around 40 percent, if you give them credit for signing So Taguchi and drafting Braden Looper: Taguchi played a long career for the Orix Blue Wave before debuting with the Cards, and Looper pitched eight years with the Marlins and Mets before coming back to throw meaningful innings for the Cardinals. (I have to say “around 40 percent” because only 23 players actually appeared in a game in the World Series for the Cardinals, and I couldn’t find out who the two benchwarmers were.)

So, even though their team originated the notion of the modern farm system, it would not be accurate to say that the Cardinals have always been this homegrown. Far from it: back in 2009, the Cardinals writer on scout.com wrote, “The Cardinals farm system has been a barren wasteland for years.” It just goes to show that in a well-run organization, it doesn’t take long to make the desert bloom.

Branch Rickey was, first and foremost, a businessman, and two of his insights from nearly a century ago still undergird everything that we do in baseball analysis today. First, he realized that the tool of statistical analysis can be used to build a competitive advantage. As early as 1914, he hired a sportswriter, Travis Hoke, as a part-time statistic-keeper for the Browns. Later, when Rickey was with the Dodgers, he hired Allan Roth, the first full-time statistician in baseball history.

Second, Rickey realized that you can get a lot more bang for your buck by spending on player development than on the free agent market, and so he convinced the owner of the Cardinals to purchase stakes in numerous independent minor league franchises, which he then used as a pipeline of talent to the major leagues. That’s still true today: a team with a strong minor league system is likely to be a strong team.

The Cardinals have been feasting off their first-mover advantage for nearly a century. It is not surprising that the most successful franchise in baseball history is the Yankees. New York is the most populous and wealthiest city in the country: you would expect that city’s teams to have a revenue advantage. It is somewhat surprising, however, that the second-most successful team, in terms of championships, is the Cardinals.

The phrase “second-most successful” can be a bit confusing, so here is what I mean. The Cardinals franchise has the second-most world championships of all time, behind only the Yankees, though the franchise is actually fourth of all time in wins [behind the Giants, Cubs, and Dodgers] and winning percentage [behind the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers]. Moreover, many of the Cubs’ franchise wins occurred prior to 1900, when they were the White Stockings and then Colts. The Cardinal franchise, which started life as the Brown Stockings, is seven years younger than that of the Cubs. However, baseball measures greatness in championships, and because the modern World Series began in 1903, there’s no advantage that goes to teams that have been around since the 1870s like the Cubs.

The Giants and Dodgers both switched coasts, which makes the franchise analysis a bit difficult: the nicknames were the same, but their fan and revenue bases were totally different. Still, you’d expect the Dodgers and Giants to be able to compete with the Cardinals for championships, considering the relative size of the metropolitan areas of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to St. Louis. Likewise the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, and Chicago White Sox, who never moved, and who come from cities with a much larger metropolitan area population than St. Louis.

The Cubs were latecomers to both the farm system and to night baseball, which hampered the team financially; the Red Sox are well-known for fiercely resisting integration. Both clubs were hampered for years by these decisions.

In all events, St. Louis is something like the 19th-most populous metropolitan area in the country; there is no structural reason why the teams of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago should all have experienced less championship success than the Cardinals. Branch Rickey’s legacy is a major piece of the explanation.

The Cardinals may not win it all this year, but they have a core that they’ll control for years, from Lance Lynn to Allen Craig, Jaime Garcia to Jason Motte, Shelby Miller to Yadier Molina. They’re well-positioned for the long haul. Just the way Branch liked it.



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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


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benjh5
Member
3 years 10 months ago

Rickey couldn’t have known that building a team through a farm system was better than through free agency because at the time free agency didn’t exist. The point remains valid, but I doubt Rickey predicted the addition of free agency to MLB that occurred in the 1970’s.

snoop LION
Guest
snoop LION
3 years 10 months ago

“and so he convinced the owner of the Cardinals to purchase stakes in numerous independent minor league franchises, which he then used as a pipeline of talent to the major leagues.”

Some where in the middle of the article before your “lets correct a fangraph author comment” alert switched on

olethros
Guest
olethros
3 years 10 months ago

Freese and Wainwright both spent significant time in the Cards minor league system before being promoted, too. Freese was traded for the corpse of Jim Edmonds, and Wainwright for Ray King, I think.

Bad Bill
Guest
Bad Bill
3 years 10 months ago

Not quite. Wainwright came to the Cardinals with King and Jason Marquis in the trade that sent J. D. Drew and Eli Marrero to Atlanta. The Braves were widely considered to have “won” that trade at the time. Riiiight…

Bad Bill
Guest
Bad Bill
3 years 10 months ago

Win-win is reasonable in hindsight, and just calling it a win for the Cardinals may be closer to the truth; although Drew was very good (one of the more underrated players of the last 30 years, IMO), he only had one (excellent) year in Atlanta, and they didn’t get anything for him when he left via free agency. However, I’m not sure that Thomason’s view was the consensus one at the time. Yes, most observers thought Wainwright would have a career. I’m less convinced that they thought he’d become Wainwright. Many writers also thought the Cardinals had overpaid to get him, expecting Drew to go on to great things once he and TLR parted ways. He did (2004, right after the trade, was his best year), but Atlanta couldn’t or wouldn’t keep him.

exxrox
Member
exxrox
3 years 10 months ago

I wouldn’t say the trade worked out as good as it could have for the Braves…the point of the Drew rental was obviously to go for it and try to win a world series. They did not do that, despite Drew’s efforts. I’d think the optics of this deal would be a bit different had they been able to hang a flag for the mere price of Adam Wainwright.

Think about the Red Sox not regretting trading Hanley/Anibal. They won the series with Beckett and Lowell, and while they weren’t rentals they certainly accrued less WAR than the guys they traded. But it was still a “win” as far as the ultimate goal was concerned.

stan
Guest
stan
3 years 10 months ago

I remember the big part of the trade being that the Cardinals were free from Drew’s salary. The money they would have spent on Drew fit very neatly into their salary obligations for Jeff Suppan and Reggie Sanders. They really needed King too. The big thing was to get something for Drew right away since it would be crazy to give him a long-term deal (something which the Dodgers and Red Sox later found out).

Anon
Guest
Anon
3 years 10 months ago

Situational lefty you say…. Remember LaRussa was the manager.

Doug Dirt
Guest
Doug Dirt
3 years 10 months ago

Light years ahead of the Reds. Why waste draft picks on Billy Hamilton? So dumb.

Cards do it right. Get players who are more substance than flash.

Byrne
Guest
Byrne
3 years 10 months ago

‘substance’ being the operative word

Vince Coleman
Guest
Vince Coleman
3 years 10 months ago

The Cardinals were 30 years ahead of the curve on that one.

Bad Bill
Guest
Bad Bill
3 years 10 months ago

The two non-appearing players in 2006 were backup catcher Gary Bennett and reliever (the late) Josh Hancock. Neither came up through the Cardinals system.

The “barren wasteland” farm system of 2009 really wasn’t as barren as all that. Boggs, M. Carpenter, Chambers, Craig, Cruz, Descalso, Freese, Garcia, Jay, Kelly, Kozma, Lynn, Miller, Robinson, and Salas were all down on the farm (one Cardinals farm or another) that year, along with various other guys who are now playing for other teams (Brett Wallace, Colby Rasmus, etc.). Most had been in the system in 2008 as well. The system wasn’t so much “barren” as “overlooked;” few of these guys were even on most minor-league commentators’ radars, except as fillers for top-10/15/25 lists, and most weren’t expected to amount to much. There’s a message in there somewhere.

Nick44
Guest
Nick44
3 years 10 months ago

Is the message “Luhnow is smart”?

Bad Bill
Guest
Bad Bill
3 years 10 months ago

Partly (Houston is going to be very happy with their new GM, I think), but it’s a longer-running thing than that. St. Louis trails only Oakland and (barely) Toronto in WAR accumulated by currently active players that they drafted, with Philadelphia and Texas microscopically behind them. Not all of those players signed with the first team that drafted them, of course.

Matt
Guest
Matt
3 years 10 months ago

The two guys who didn’t appear in the 06 World Series were Gary Bennett and Josh Hancock (RIP), neither of whom was drafted by the Cardinals, so no change there.

Matt
Guest
Matt
3 years 10 months ago

Dang it, Bad Bill beat me.

Trevor Rosenthal
Guest
Trevor Rosenthal
3 years 10 months ago

I’m not as good as I look.
Twelve months ago, Baseball America didn’t even have me in their top 20 Midwest League prospects. That’s low-A. They also said I throw 91-93, so don’t trust those FOX radar guns!

Jay
Guest
Jay
3 years 10 months ago

12 months is a long time. I think Baseball America would admit they overlooked Rosenthal to some extent. He’s now widely considered at least a top 100 prospect and quite possibly top 50. As for the velocity, why would they only crank it up for him? Other pitchers’ velocities haven’t been different than normal. The guns at the stadium show the same thing as the TV. It’s possible that the guns are a touch hot but if you think those pitches are going any less than 98 mph then I bet there are some Giants and Nationals hitters who would vehemently disagree.

Also I don’t know why BA would say he topped out at 93. I’ve heard people say he was capable of 97+ since he was drafted.

cpebbles
Guest
cpebbles
3 years 10 months ago

I trust PitchFX, which puts Rosenthal’s max velocity at 100.6 MPH.

GG
Guest
GG
3 years 10 months ago

BA had you topping out at 98 as a starter before the 2012 season.

jim
Guest
jim
3 years 10 months ago

well, marc hulet had you as number 7 in a strong cardinals system pre-season, saying you range up to 95 as a starter; with age and training, it’s not inconceivable that you could be hitting triple digits in relief

arch support
Guest
arch support
3 years 10 months ago

The bloggers at Future Redbirds have been talking about Rosenthal as a top prospect since the year after he was drafted. And as far as I’m aware, they were the first and only ones talking about him for a long time. So it would seem he WAS overlooked by national rankers.

michael
Guest
michael
3 years 10 months ago

Why aren’t players acquired through trade but graduate from the team’s farm system considered? Teams exchange assets in return for specific minor leaguers whom play under team control at minimal cost for years as a draft pick would. The principles of using cost-controlled players and successful talent evaluation still apply, as with developing players from the draft.

Senior Circuit Court
Guest
Senior Circuit Court
3 years 10 months ago

It’s not just home grown talent. It’s home grown talent that has won together in the minors. 12 on the current post-season roster have played on at least one minor league championship….Molina, Motte, Jay, Craig, Boggs, Garcia, Freese, Robinson, Descalso, Salas, Lynn, Rosenthal. And Chambers and Cruz were on the 2010 PCL runner up team in 2010.

Pirates Hurdles
Guest
Pirates Hurdles
3 years 10 months ago

Winning together in the minors is meaningless. The Bucs had a group from Huntington’s first draft in 2008 move up winning big at A+, AA, and AAA that almost completely lack MLB impact talent.

Jay
Guest
Jay
3 years 10 months ago

Looks like we have two bits of anecdotal evidence. Neither is more valuable than the other.

Bert
Guest
Bert
3 years 10 months ago

Also, in 1903, at the time of the first World Series, St. Louis was the 3rd most populous city in the US.
Secondly, the Cards have always had great management, top down. It helped they were Busch’s plaything starting in the 60’s. Now DeWitt, is a wise, and shrewd business man, who seems to always have the right people in charge.

Bad Bill
Guest
Bad Bill
3 years 10 months ago

Of course, the “Busch’s plaything” bit also had much to do with why they made the idiotic Carlton/Wise deal, and also why they had a rare bad stretch in the early 90s. Good owners don’t necessarily stay good as they age, and their children may not have the same whatever-it-takes as they do, a fact that applies to baseball players as well (and is something for Yankees fans to think about).

Eastsider
Guest
Eastsider
3 years 10 months ago

It is interesting that the eight players signed by other teams are, other than Molina and Motte, the Cardinals top shelf talent (although time may tell about Rosenthal. That guy looks amazing). It is also interesting that only one of those eight are relieivers. It looks like the Cardinals are only going to spend for position players and hope to develop their own relieivers.

Samuel
Guest
Samuel
3 years 10 months ago

The Cardinals have been one of the best teams (if not the best) team in WAR per free agent dollar spent over the past decade. That and Albert Pujols are the biggest reasons they’ve been so successful over those years, although as this article points out the formula has changed.

Felonius_Monk
Guest
Felonius_Monk
3 years 10 months ago

Given the price of relievers on the free agent market (i.e. close to double the cost of position players, per-WAR, for top tier relief talent), you’ve got to concede that that’s a sensible strategy.

Also, the Cards have a pretty good record of graduating their top-end starter prospects via the bullpen, which means that every year there’s one or two high-quality, live arms in the pen who end up being quality starters the year after. Rosenthal/Kelly/Miller this year, Lynn the year before, and guys like Garcia and Wainwright have graduated via the pen in previous seasons.

Chris Long
Guest
Chris Long
3 years 10 months ago

Not a single mention of Sig Mejdal? He was the Director of Draft Analytics at St. Louis and deserves a large chunk of credit for many of these players becoming Cardinals (as well as some of the minor league players acquired via trade, like Freese).

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 10 months ago

If we go back 2-3 years, guess where FG rates StL in their organization ratings? Due to having an old team and a vacant minor league system?

In just two short years, their major weakness has become of one their strengths.

Go figure.

Wade8813
Guest
Wade8813
3 years 10 months ago

It seems to me that the percentage of homegrown players doesn’t matter as much as the total contribution of homegrown players.

Antonio bananas
Guest
Antonio bananas
3 years 10 months ago

The cardinals seem to be very good at drafting guys that have 2-4 pretty good contributing years. A lot of “solid” guys that get called up fairly late as far as typical elite prospects go. Seems like a quantity over quality thing. Might change with their current ridiculous farm though.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
3 years 10 months ago

As always, an outstanding post from Alex.

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