As many of you know, I'm not a business-oriented person. I write about baseball. But one thing I remember about Marketing 101 are the different ways advertisers appeal to consumers. One of those is "envy" (My neighbor has a Lexus and all I have is this 1967 Volkswagen van, I'm sooo inadequate).
In what has been a continuing trendlately, Gordon Wittenmeyer spot, (Mark Potash wrote a similar piece yesterday) it is the Cubs that are portrayed as the 1967 van and the Cardinals are the Lexus. But it goes beyond that. Commercials often try to pander to their audience and tell you that it's pure smarts that put your neighbor in this enviable position. And that if you do what they do, then you can be smart too!
Wittenmeyer wrote such ad copy for the Cardinals and disguised it as a newspaper article. But like most advertisements, it's a one-sided presentation that is meant to draw out emotion and get you to buy. Congrats on that, but is there truth in advertising here?
The implication among many has been that you can build your farm system and win at the same time, but there is one key difference here. The Cardinals are not building. They are sustaining a successful organization that was most recently built over a period of years starting over two decades ago.
The Cubs want to be exactly that kind of team -- the kind that sustains success indefinitely the way the Cardinals have, but it will take time for the Cubs -- just as it took time for the Cardinals in the late 80s and early 90s. In that era, the Cardinals went to the playoffs once in 12 years and had only one other season in which they finished as high as 2nd. They finished 4th or below in nearly half (5) the time during the 1988-1999 years.
It wasn't until the year 2000 that the Cardinals became the year-to-year contender they are today, and while those pre-2000 teams were better than the Cubs are today, it was a different CBA that allowed for mediocre and good teams to exploit loopholes when it came to acquiring talent. There is no question that the Cardinals did this well, but that road to rebuilding has been closed by the new CBA so the Cubs have had to take a detour. But even with those old CBA advantages, the Cardinals first round and first round supplemental pick history since they have had their sustained success -- from 2000 until the end of the old CBA in 2012-- isn't exactly the goldmine you've been led to believe.
Let's take a look at that draft history...
- 2000: Shaun Boyd, Blake Williams
- 2001: Justin Pope
- 2002: No pick
- 2003: Daric Barton
- 2004: Chris Lambert
- 2005: Colby Rasmus, Tyler Greene. Mark McCormick, Tyler Herron
- 2006: Adam Ottavino, Chris Perez
- 2007: Pete Kozma, Clay Mortensen
- 2008: Brett Wallace, Lance Lynn
- 2009: Shelby Miller
- 2010: Zach Cox, Seth Blair, Tyrell Jenkins
- 2011: Kolten Wong
- 2012: Michael Wacha (* CBA agreed on but not fully implemented until the next season)
The Cardinals struck gold once and that is with a good, but one year sample size of Michael Wacha. They also did well the previous year when they got a potential long term starting 2B in Kolten Wong. Lance Lynn has also been productive as a mid-rotation starter. It's been a good run the last few years and that's what tends to stick in our memories, but a longer-term, more balanced look shows that it comes on the heels of an even longer dry spell where there were many more misses than hits.
Two of those cases involved some luck. It was not just skill. Both Wong and Wacha were rated much higher than where they were drafted. Wacha, in particular was a candidate to go #1 at one point, but later slipped closer to the 8-12 range -- and once he slipped past the Pirates at #8, it became more a question of signability. The Cardinals didn't just outsmart everyone else, they had a gift fall onto their laps. We can give them credit for accepting that gift while other teams did not, but let's not pretend they saw something in Wacha that no one else saw. It happens in the draft all the time. Sometimes you get lucky, but you have to be just smart and opportunistic enough to take advantage of that. The bigger picture look at the Cardinals draft history, however, shows they aren't always lucky. How many of the players before Wong, Lynn, and Wacha were ever good enough to be on the Cardinals playoff rosters?
And while the Cardinals have more recently added some later round picks on their roster, their success wasn't built that way. They've been able to sustain success by adding to an already good team and good organization. These were players the Cardinals passed over numerous times themselves (i.e. Allen Craig in the 8th round and Matt Carpenter in the 13th round) in order to take names you've never heard of. Did the Cardinals really think they were going to be that good but took the chance and waited anyway -- or were those players the result of an excellent draft process under the old CBA, one in which they built tremendous depth over time? The latter seems like the more plausible answer. And it appears that the Cardinals will continue to get extra picks because of their small market size status under the new agreement, so it wouldn't be surprising if they continued some level of success under this new CBA, but to what extent remains to be seen.
But let's get back to that Cardinals team that started their current run of playoff appearances..
How did the Cardinals build that breakthrough 2000 team? Let's go through their starting lineup and rotation...
- C: Mike Matheny: low cost FA ($750,000)
- 1B: Mark McGwire: Acquired via trade from A's team in 1997
- 2B: Fernando Vina: Acquired via minor trade with the Brewers
- SS: Edgar Renteria: Acquired from Marlins in 1998 in fire sale
- 3B: Feranndo Tatis: Acquired via midseason trade from the Rangers in 1998
- OF: Ray Lankford: 3rd round draft pick in 1987
- OF: Jim Edmonds: Acquired via trade in March of 2000
- OF: JD Drew: 5th overall pick in 1998 draft
- Darry Kile: Acquired prior to 2000 season in trade with Angels
- Garret Stephenson: Acquired via 1998 trade with the Orioles
- Pat Hentgen: Acquired prior to 200 0 season in trade with Blue Jays
- Rick Ankiel: 2nd round pick in 1997
- Andy Benes: mid-level FA signing
So what do we have here?
First of all we see a lot of trades and many of those trades were acquired using young talent from their farm system. We also see that those trades were made over a course of 4 years. It didn't happen all at once -- it happened when the opportunity arose -- sometimes being opportunistic of cash-strapped teams (McGwire, Renteria), sometimes buying low on a player coming off an off-year (Jim Edmonds), and once making a trade deadline deal for a young talented player when the team showed some progress (Tatis).
The Cardinals also started trading young talent for veterans once they started to taste intermittent success, not coincidentally the talent acquired by trade in the 2000 lineup/rotation were all acquired right after their unexpected 1st place finish in 1996. They didn't get those players before they had some success and good reason to make those kind of bold, win-now moves.
Another thing to note: Their pitching staff wasn't a dominant one. It was made of the type of acquisitions that aren't too different from the one Cubs have made with Travis Wood, Jason Hammel, Scott Feldman, Paul Maholm, and Edwin Jackson. Three of the Cards rotation pitchers in that 2000 season had an ERA of 4.49 or higher. These weren't magical acquisitions, but they were solid additions to an already emerging team.
We also see the Cards were not originally built with shrewd late first round picks or picks beyond the 2nd round. Drew and Ankiel were blue-chippers and Ankiel only dropped because of outrageous demands that caused him to slip into the 2nd round, something that likely doesn't happen with the CBA that is now in place.
That brings us to another point. The Cardinals were later able to pick up good later round picks because they exploited the draft loopholes better than the old Cubs front office. The Cubs current front office, meanwhile, was doing the same thing with the Boston Red Sox at the time -- but those loopholes were closed when they came to the Cubs.
So while the process may have been a little different, there were no magic beans that helped build the Cardinals current juggernaut. It happened under a different CBA with over a decade of hits and misses in the draft and in trades -- and the process only accelerated after the surprise 1996 team showed that the team was getting close. And even then it took until 2000 before the Cardinals found the sustainable success they enjoy today. The modern incarnation of the Cardinals was created through good, hard work and good scouting -- but it did not happen overnight.
If you envy the Cardinals, then you should know it was a process and not the product of quick-fix solutions that worked without fail. You should envy the Cardinals because they followed a process that they believed in and stuck with despite some ups and downs and a long (for them), playoff drought; you should envy the patience, resilience, and occasional strokes of brilliance they showed before they were able to get where they are today.
You should envy all of this because that is how long-term success is really achieved. It takes time. It means investing your assets wisely, It means taking opportunities when they come -- and it even takes a little bit of luck. It may not feel like it to you, but the Cubs are trying to do exactly that and by most accounts, they are well on their way. In a few years, the Cubs will have their own Lexus and there will be other teams who will envy their organization.
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