HOUSE OF CARDS

by Eric Samuels

The St. Louis Cardinals are heading to The World Series for the 19th time in franchise history (and the second time in 3 years), after defeating the LA Dodgers last night. What’s extraordinary, is that they did it with a roster payroll that’s half the size of the team they beat!

How did they do it? The Cardinals are essentially a small(er) market team (ranked 58th in the U.S. in population), so they know they can’t compete dollar-for-dollar with places like New York and LA. In fact, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers have the two highest ranked team payrolls in all of professional sport.

But, this isn’t “Moneyball.” Indeed, it’s a lot more like (an admittedly inferior movie) “Trouble With The Curve!”

The Cardinals organization understands that to be competitive, they can’t just buy talent. They have to develop it. It’s old-school in the truest sense: player development through scouting and a superb farm system.

Here’s a staggering comparison:

Of the 25 players on the St. Louis roster, 18 were drafted by the Cardinals and only two (Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran) never played an inning in the St Louis farm system. By comparison, only two Dodgers were drafted by Los Angeles.

St. Louis has embraced an increasingly rare philosophy in today’s short-sighted corporate thinking – it’s better to build than to buy, in the increasingly expensive free market.

As an example, back in 2009, a Cardinals scout travelled to Arkansas City, Kansas (that alone should conjure up images from a multitude of classic baseball movies), to watch the Cowley County Community College team take the field. Seriously, a community college team.

They had a 19-year old shortstop who had just switched positions to become a pitcher, but had only thrown a few innings. They saw something they liked and selected him in the 19th round of the 2009 player draft. The kid was put into their player development system where coaches worked with him on his fundamentals. Over the next few years, he made 66 appearances on the mound in the minor leagues, developing impressive control and a fastball of over 100-mph (the majority of pro pitchers throw, at best, in the mid-nineties).

Late last year, the Cardinals needed help in their bullpen and brought this young prospect up from the minors.  He met the challenge, throwing some pretty impressive short-relief work. Now it’s important to emphasize that some teams would have been tempted to use a player of this potential calibre in a higher profile position, but the Cards took their time with him.

At the beginning of this season, the Cardinals closer, Jason Motte, one of the most feared pitchers in the majors, suffered a season-ending injury to his elbow. Again, most teams would have taken this hot prospect, who had already proven he can pitch in the majors, and dropped him into that high pressure role. The Cardinals waited, using a multitude of pitchers to end games for most of the season, continuing to use the former shortstop in less pressure-filled middle-relief situations.

Until late September.

For reasons that only Cardinals coaches might reveal, it was decided in late-September, to promote Trevor Rosenthal to the coveted closer position on the Cardinals pitching roster. He has, in the short-term, met the challenge, anchoring the Cardinals pitching staff, up to the final ‘out’ in last night’s Pennant-winning game against the Dodgers.

Now to be clear, no one is saying that Rosenthal is the reason why the Cardinals are heading to their second World Series in three years. But the 22-year old is indicative of the philosophy that has made the Cardinals one of the most respected teams in professional sport.

Indeed, Rosenthal is one of 4 Cardinal rookie bullpen pitchers, who collectively,  only allowed the Dodgers a single run over 14 innings of relief pitching. Oh, and did I mention that Michael Wacha, the Cards 22-year old starting pitcher, who won last night’s 9-0 game (his second win of the 6-game series) and was named the series’ MVP,  is also a rookie who came up through the Cardinals organization?

But this is only part of the lesson to be learned in St. Louis. The other piece of the puzzle, which offers tremendous hope in the face of the increasing evidence that consumers are only interested in immediate gratification, is just how informed St Louis Cardinal fans are. They are tremendously knowledgeable and made to feel genuinely part of the process, understanding the commitment and risks of the Cardinal approach to player development.

When Albert Pujols left the Cardinal organization, after their 2011 World Series win, tears were shed throughout St Louis (including Pujols, who’s departure was quite emotional). But the fans understood that the payday the free-agent All-Star (and arguably one of the greatest players to ever play the game)  was about to receive, was simply not in the organization’s best interest.  Keep in mind that this was one of two major blows to the Cards, as manager, Tony La Russa, announced his retirement from the game, at around the same time!

But the fans moved on with the confidence that the Cardinals would find a way to fill the void, given the tremendous depth in the organization. Indeed they did. The Cardinals shocked just about everyone in Major League baseball the following season with an unexpected playoff run.

And to give you a visceral sense of just how committed St. Louis fans are to the players developed within their system: Last night when the Dodgers Skip Shumacher, stepped up to the plate to  pinch-hit, he received an ovation from the St. Louis crowd. Why would a home-town crowd applaud an opposing player? Shumacher came up through the Cardinals organization and was traded to the Dodgers after last season. Cardinal fans treated him as one of our own.

Cards fans ‘get it.’ And this isn’t because they’re that much smarter than other baseball fans. They’re  simply better informed. The Cardinal organization realizes that committing to its long-term strategy of player development requires just as much of a commitment to the development of an informed customer.

This is a House Of Cards that cannot tumble at the slightest injury, trade, or otherwise unpredictable incident or event. Because it’s built upon a foundation of principles that are bedrock solid. Look for talent (wherever it might be), develop your people’s skills (without expecting too much, too soon), take good care of them (and this isn’t only a financial issue), and manage your customer’s expectations.

Seems like a pretty good management strategy for just about any business, doesn’t it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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