We're halfway through Year 3 of the massive, and much maligned, Cubs rebuilding project of terror. Rather than write about moves that have turned into absolute gold (Feldman for Arrieta, Marshall for Wood) or write about moves that are still perplexing (Edwin Jackson, Ian Stewart), I thought I'd cover something different: the St. Louis Cardinals.
Do you get the same cold chill when reading those words that I do? That same jealous anger? You want to hate them so much because their fans just suck in every single way, but you're also smart enough to recognize that everything about the way they carry out baseball operations is what you want for your beloved Cubs.
You're jealous that it seems like they've sprinkled pixie dust on broken arms like Chris Carpenter and turned them into borderline Hall-of-Famers. You're jealous because they find guys like Albert Pujols beyond the top 10 rounds of the draft. And you're jealous because they can win just 83 games in a season and still win the World Series.
Some have compared the way the Cardinals built towards what they are now to what the Cubs are currently doing, but this is only a somewhat fair comparison. The CBA was different 20 years ago, and the Cardinals were able to build a talented and deep minor league system without having to completely tank any seasons (although they did lose). Let's take a look at the history.
The Cards won 95 games and lost in the World Series in 1987. But starting in 1988, the franchise went the next 12 seasons without winning 90 games. They made the playoffs only one time, sneaking in with 88 wins in 1996. From 1988 through 1994, the Cardinals' record was 537-542.
In October of 1994, the Cards hired Walt Jocketty as their new GM, and guess what? They really didn't get a ton better. From 1995-1999, their record was 383-414. But Jocketty knew what he was doing.
When he started, the Cards had two top-100 prospects (Brian Barber and Dmitri Young). By 1999, they would have five guys in the top 100 and two more on the list that they had traded just months before. Jocketty made a habit of doing what is now commonly referred to as going “overslot” in the draft, as well as finding talent in late rounds that other people missed.
Among those diamonds in the rough:
1995: Junior Spivey (28th round)
1995: Kerry Robinson (34th round)
1995: Cliff Politte (54th round)
1997: Rick Ankiel (2nd round)
1999: Coco Crisp (9th round)
1999: Albert Pujols (13th round)
2000: Yadier Molina (4th round)
2001: Dan Haren (2nd round)
2003: Ian Kennedy* (14th round)
2003: Anthony Reyes (15th round)
2005: Jaime Garcia (22nd round)
Along with a solid run of 1st round picks, Jocketty had the Cardinals farm system stocked in the late 90's. He then used that system to make a few deals that set the team up for the beginning of that run of success:
7/31/1997: Eric Ludwick, Blake Stein, and T.J. Mathews for Mark McGwire
7/31/1998: Royce Clayton and Todd Stottlemyre for Fernando Tatis and Darren Oliver
12/14/1998: Armando Almanza, Braden Looper, and Pablo Ozuna for Edgar Renteria
11/16/1999: Manny Aybar, Jose Jimenez, and 2 others for Darryl Kile and Dave Veres
12/20/1999: Juan Acevado for Fernando Vina
3/23/2000: Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy for Jim Edmonds
If you weren't raised on 1990's baseball, there's a good chance most of those names mean nothing to you. But take my word for it: the Cardinals won every single one of those trades, most by a large margin. Their deep minor league system allowed them to build a core for their early 2000's success.
Then there are the notable free agent signings:
1995: Ron Gant
1999: Mike Matheny
2000: Andy Benes
2001: Jason Isringhausen
2002: Tino Martinez
2002: Chris Carpenter (1 year/$500K)
It's not like I'm leaving out his list of big, bad free agent deals, either. The Cards did a great job of assembling a core and moving forward with it while continuing to replenish the farm system, all without having to throw huge contracts at free agents. But the point of all of this is that it didn't happen overnight. Recall that Walt Jocketty arrived in 1994, but that the sustained success didn't begin until 2000.
You probably can see where I am going with this: patience, my friends. The Cubs are now halfway through the 3rd season of their total tear-down and rebuild. The good news is that Theo and the gang have built a deep, top-heavy farm system in a short amount of time. This fact is unavoidable in any conversation about the Cubs these days.
To me, the clear comparison is that Epstein and Hoyer are quickly approaching that position the Cardinals were in when they started putting together all of those deals. The top minor league players are about to explode into the majors in 2015. In 1998, the Cards won 83 games on the back of McGwire's historic season. But they had a bad pitching staff and their starting lineup's average age was 32.3.
With prospects like Morris, Ankiel, Tatis, Placido Polanco, and JD Drew arriving quickly, Jocketty recognized the proper time to build his core. Two seasons later, they would win the division. The Cubs must do the same at the trade deadline and going into the off-season. That means they need to seriously scrutinize any trade that doesn't bring back talent that can compete on the Major League roster next season.
With potentially an entire outfield to fill, plus a few rotation spots, and a ton of money to spend on the payroll in a relatively barren free agent market, the ball is in the Cubs' court. There are probably at least a few players on the trade market that they could target in the off-season. There are a handful of free agents that could fit in and help support the young core.
As we physically see the rebuild begin to turn the corner on the field, the pressure is finally on in the front office. It's time to start assembling a winner.
*Kennedy was drafted by the Cardinals after his senior year of HS but opted to attend USC instead; he was later drafted by the Yankees in 2006.
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