They’ve built a model of consistency and a steady (if unspectacular) pipeline
A few weeks ago, I decided to take a hard look at the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mozeliak years- the years in which John Mozeliak has led baseball operations for the franchise. A lot of (understandably) disappointed fans are clamoring for a change, but Mozeliak’s 14-year tenure is worth at least a good, hard look before deciding that’s a good idea. You can find the first two installments in the related links below.
It’s also worth rehashing the caveat from the first article. Baseball front offices are not led by auteurs. Anything unearthed here is attributed to Mozeliak because his stamp is all over the franchise, but we can all be honest and acknowledge that these decisions are made collectively with input from ownership, Michael Girsch, scouts, field staff, the team of quants, and so many more. MLB baseball operations heads are less Truffaut, more the Russo brothers.
That’s especially true for the focus of today’s article- draft and development. The people who run baseball operations departments oversee these components, but the overwhelming majority of the granular parts are left to their trusted lieutenants. When we talk about draft and development with regards to the Mozeliak years, know that it’s as much about Randy Flores, Gary LaRocque, John Vuch, Dan Kantrovitz in past years, and hundreds more. It falls on Mozeliak to hire the right people and let them do their thing. It probably never falls on Mozeliak to make individual draft decisions or operate a scouting staff.
Oddly given that complicated caveat, this is a much simpler category than the last two- trades and free agency. There’s nuance, but you can gauge the effectiveness of a farm system in a few specific ways.
- Are they providing the MLB club with cost-controlled production?
- Does the organization have a sufficient combination of either prospect depth or top-end prospect talent?
- Are they producing prospect talent at the highest level- meaning, top-ranked prospects?
In each case, we have an obvious tool to use to measure the Cardinals’ success in the Mozeliak years.
Does the farm provide the MLB club with cost-controlled production?
We can determine how much production they’re getting from youngsters by simply looking at team fWAR from players age 25 and under. Some players will get past their cost-controlled years by age 25, and some will have arbitration years that extend beyond age 25, but 25 itself seems like a good dividing line. And yes, players are still cheap after their first three years but it gets complicated after that. Plus, it gets at the organization’s goal of graduating several minor leaguers to the MLB club each season.
How have the Cardinals fared compared to the league in 25 and under production during the Mozeliak years?
First things first- those 2008 and 2009 results look awful, but it was a system still reeling from the Walt Jocketty years. The 2020 results look bad but it was such an odd season that it’s hard to hold it against the draft/development team. The flurry of doubleheaders forced the Cardinals to press a lot of young players into roles they wouldn’t have had in a normal season. As a result, Roel Ramirez (-0.4 fWAR), Jake Woodford (-0.3), and Ricardo Sanchez (-0.1) sunk the team by almost a full win. It’s hard to believe they’d get enough playing time to do that if half the roster wasn’t on the Covid-IL. Without those three alone, the Cardinals would have ranked 16th. Obviously their time counts, but it’s easy to see why they deserve a 2020 mulligan. Even this year is a bit of an anomaly. With better health from Jack Flaherty, they’re likely anywhere from 14th to 18th.
Before 2020, Mozeliak’s Cardinals had enjoyed six consecutive seasons in the top half of the league. Four of those were top 10. The 2015 squad has the 7th highest total of any MLB team from the 25 and under crowd since 2008. Their five year rolling total from 2015 to 2019 is the 6th best five-year total in the sample. The teams ahead of them- the 2012 Rays, 2014-2016 Braves, and 2018 Cubs– all had the benefit of high draft picks in the years preceding their youth bonanza. The Cardinals had no such benefit.
The Cardinals had a well above average window in youth production in the 2010s, certainly top 10. Even the 2019 squad was bolstered by Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Jack Flaherty, and Dakota Hudson. It’s hard to say how long it would take the franchise to fully take on Mozeliak’s direction and abandon Jocketty’s, or how long it would take to see results, but a 3-4 year window for Mozeliak’s people to do their thing seems like a reasonable guess. Sure enough, right around 2013 is when they started to break out.
- Since 2013, only three teams have a higher fWAR from the 25 and under group.
- Since 2015, it’s just four better teams- one of which is the Dodgers, who lead the Cardinals by 0.9 fWAR.
- Since 2017, they’re seventh.
You get the idea. This recent fade doesn’t look good, but it’s understandable given the circumstances.
Does the organization have a sufficient combination of either prospect depth or top-end prospect talent?
Or put more succinctly, how have they ranked in Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings in the Mozeliak years? That’s as good a proxy as any for how industry insiders viewed the overall health of the farm system. Teams can get to the top multiple ways, but it’s generally some combination of depth (mid-range talent and future contributors) or monsters (players at the top of the rankings).
Here are the Cardinals during the Mozeliak years:
Early in his tenure was the nadir- the 2010 club ranked second to last. It’s only grown from there. They boosted their ranking each of the next three seasons, peaking at #1 in 2013. They’ve been in the top half of the league every season since 2012. That type of consistency is not common. The Braves did it for 21(!, 1992-2012) consecutive years, the Marlins did it for 11 (1996-2006), the Twins for ten (1999-2008), the Astros did it for 13 from 1990-2002, the Yankeees for 13 (1990-2002), the Rays for 14 (2000-2013), Toronto for 12 (1986-1997), and the Expos for 10 (1986-1995). That’s the Ten Plus Club.
Recent vintage is lacking in the impressive peak that 2013 reached, but they’ve also avoided the valleys that just about every other team has. They’re creepy in their consistency, which means they have a pretty good shot every single year of their farm system providing MLB production, even if it’s only middle of the pack. That’s hard to do for any club, and it’s especially hard for one that never drafts in the top 15, and even harder considering the lost draft class from the Correa/Astros hacking punishment.
Eventually you’d like to see a season or two in which they break through to the top 5. However, an annual farm system in the 10 to 15 range is a fine consolation, especially if it means avoiding the kind of barren years that destroy teams in small-to-mid sized markets like St. Louis.
Are they producing top-ranked prospects?
Here’s the number of BA top 100 prospects the Cardinals have had by year:
- 2008: 3
- 2009: 3
- 2010: 1
- 2011: 2
- 2012: 6
- 2013: 6
- 2014: 4
- 2015: 3
- 2016: 1
- 2017: 4
- 2018: 2
- 2019: 3
- 2020: 3
- 2021: 4
That’s a total of 45 since 2008, which ties them with the Mets and Orioles for 16th. They peaked in the 2012 to 2015 window, when their 19 top prospects tied for 5th best. Oddly, the ugly 2017 draft didn’t create too many waves for them. Their total since then (16 top 100s) is 14th in baseball. Almost any way you slice this info, they’re about average at producing top talent. Over the last 10 seasons (since 2012), they’re 10th; 13th since 2013; and 15th over the last three years. If we go from 2015 to 2021, they fall down to tied for a not-great-but-still-respectable 19th.
Now consider where they’re picking in the draft most years. They picked 13th overall in Mozeliak’s first year, which became Brett Wallace. Since then, their first pick has been: 19th, 25th, 22nd, 19th, 19th, 27th, 23rd, 23rd, 94th, 19th, 19th, 21st, and then 18th this year.
Now think about who their most productive under-25 players have been in the Mozeliak years. Paul DeJong has the most position player fWAR with 10.5 and never appeared on a top 100 list. Harrison Bader is 5th at 5.5 and never hit the top 100. On the pitching side, Michael Wacha (10.3) is 2nd, Jack Flaherty (8.7) is 3rd, and Jaime Garcia (7.8) is 4th. Wacha only got as high as 76th while Flaherty and Garcia never made the list. That’s to say nothing of players like Matt Adams (3.0), Tommy Edman (4.1), and Lance Lynn (3.1) who never sniffed a top 100 list.
This is all a long way of saying that the Cardinals in the Mozeliak years do more with less. What they lack in top 100 prospects, they make up for with more contributors or contributors outside of the top 100, at least historically.
The Elephant in the Room
This is an article about draft and developent- that last part being the operative word here- and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the minor league products who have left and found success elsewhere. I mentioned last week that Carson Kelly and Adolis Garcia both found new approaches with their new organization and discovered new production. In other articles in this series, I’ve raised questions (which we don’t know the answer to) about why they couldn’t get better production from Lance Lynn and Marcell Ozuna. How about some of the others?
Randy Arozarena: He’s been a 120 wRC+ hitter at the MLB level. In the Cardinals farm system, he had wRC+’s of 134 (A+), 115 (AA), 211 (102 PAs at AA in 2018), 81 (AAA), 162 (AA), and 151 (AAA). In other words, he’s underperformed his minor league numbers. Trading him might have been a sin, depending on how Matthew LIberatore develops, but developing him sure wasn’t. They had him ready to contribute.
Luke Voit: 133 career wRC+ in MLB. As a Cardinal farmhand, it was 115 (A), 124 (A+), 134 (A+), 145 (AA), 152 (AAA), and then 135 in his last year as a Cardinal at AAA. That… sure looks like a player whose development could become a 133 wRC+ hitter in MLB.
The same turns up for Oscar Mercado, if not worse. Mercado didn’t hit much as a Cardinal farmhand, nor has he done so in Cleveland. The Kelly and Garcia items are a concern- it would have been nice to find those swing adjustments in St. Louis. However, the Arozarena/Voit deals are more a problem in undervaluing what those players were worth on the trade market.
They’re not the best team in baseball at draft and development under Mozeliak, but few teams do more with less. The recent hiccup in under 25 production is a small concern even with the caveats, as are the players enjoying breakouts elsewhere. In fairness, the organization has pushed hard in recent years creating a pitching and hitting lab to aid development. Whether or not those choices reap rewards, and their current batch of top 100s develop, will determine the Mozeliak Cardinals’ ability to rebound in this realm. As it is, they’re an eerily consistent organization when it comes to overall talent. A bumper crop every few years would be nice, but always having at least a modest crop is a decent consolation. Whatever you think of the Cardinals under Mozeliak, their ability to draft and develop has been above average.