Shelby Miller! I have it on good faith that he throws 120 miles per hour... to contact. That he has a 2:1 groundballs-batters faced ratio. That he is, depending on how ready you were to jump on the Anthony Reyes, Future Ace bandwagon following his crazy 8 K:BB stint in AA, the best-regarded pitching prospect in the system since Rick Ankiel, despite having yet to play a baseball game for money.
Last time the Cardinals became associated with trading prospects for veterans it wasn't—in most cases—the prospects themselves that killed them; it was that the those great 2000-2005 squads kicked off the dynasy by drafting future superstars like Shaun Boyd, Chance Caple, Justin Pope, and nobody in back-to-back-to-back-to-back first rounds. (That 2002 draft, in which the Cardinals gave up draft picks for signing Izzy and Tino Martinez, is particularly devastating; their first two picks retired in the Midwest League, momentary prospects like Travis Hanson lost their way before their first cup of coffee, and only Kyle McClellan and Brad Thompson have spent any time in the majors.)
So while trading the top prospect for retail-priced help is a bad habit to get into, it was exacerbated in the Jimmy Journell era by poor drafting. But this year the Cardinals have shown a desire to bring talent in and they ship it out.
1. Colby Rasmus. It's always good news when the biggest blow to your prospect list establishes himself, immediately, as a useful Major League baseball player. (On your team, that is.) Certainly his long-term profile—maybe even his short term profile—is much different from the fringe-average centerfield bat he's shown to this point, but his defense has been all-world enough, in its almost blandly graceful way, to make him a championship-quality player in year one.
But the loss of Rasmus left the Faberge Squad, as 2009 began, without the guy who'd single-handedly filled the Future Star quadrant since 2005. Even #2 on this list wasn't quite there—he was a guy, in Baseball America parlance, who would Hit No Matter What. With Rasmus, there was rarely any need for qualification.
2. Brett Wallace. Are you like me? Are you still following Brett Wallace's nightly exploits as though they were still over-the-fold Future Redbirds material? (It helps that, for the last few days, they have been—his .467 stint against Memphis has to have allayed some Athletics concerns about his lack of high-minors power.)
Just about to turn 23 and already in AAA, Wallace wasn't a Rasmus-style perennial on prospect lists, but his was the rare high-OBP fat-guy bat that received universal scout plaudits; it was so impressive a tool that his serious problems weren't enough to mar his premium-prospect tag. Losing Rasmus at the same time is part of what made the Holliday deal so tough to stomach; in his large-hipped vacuum the Cardinals were left with a toolsy outfielder with uncertain power projection and an international signing who's four months younger than Miley Cyrus.
The Cardinals traded a few Wallace types in their JockettyBall era. Daric Barton, the first Official Prospect Crush of Get Up, Baby! after his age-18 Ted Williams impression in the Midwest League, was further from the minors than Wallace, and not so loved by scouts, but he had just hit .313/.445/.513 with 69 walks against 44 strikeouts in a league full of college pitchers and known to suppress offense. He was also playing catcher.
Barton, selected the year after that disastrous 2002 draft, is kind of a Brett Wallace cautionary tale. While he was lighting up my pre-FR life, the Cardinals were racking up their equally disastrous 2004 draft, focused intentionally on affordability and implicitly on players with less upside than Daric Barton, or Brian Barden. Barton was the impact player, like Wallace, but he was also in a system that proved even thinner than this one.
3. Clay Mortensen. In my day, why, we called this guy Chris Narveson, and we were happy to have him, you know? None of this interchangeable back-of-the-rotation starter talk around our hot stove, and you know why? Because talking uses up the oxygen we'd saved up for that little fire.
4. Every right-handed reliever the Cardinals had. The organizational guys—Luke Gregerson, Mark Worrell, Luis Perdomo—were acceptable losses. If they're major prospects your system has greater and more pressing needs; although they'd certainly be useful now, it wasn't a matter of Mortgaging Our Future so much as reorganizing the team's value (a little more than was, in hindsight, advisable) in the present.
Jess Todd (and recent Talent Out graduate Chris Perez) are better bets in the future, and a little more difficult to let go; the Cardinals gave up real value in the future for the chance to replace Joe Thurston in the present. Jason Motte also made his last leap off prospect lists in 2009, and it's not been nearly as pleasant as Rasmus's. In all the Cardinals lost the makings of a great, cheap bullpen this year—some of it was traded, some of it just evaporated. That's not the most glamorous part of a prospect list, but it's tough to lose it.
5. Tyler Herron. What was the deal with that? He's in the Pirates system now, in case you hadn't heard, doing basically the same thing he was doing in Springfield, although apparently less uncoachably. Herron was part of the first salvo of attempted pitching depth, which didn't quite go as anticipated—from that run of supplemental picks and early rounders immediately following Rasmus and Tyler Greene, Mark McCormick has disappeared off the face of the earth; Herron is in Altoona; high schooler Josh Wilson has retired in each of the last two seasons; and closer-turned-hittable-starter-turned-hittable-closer Nick Webber is out of the system.
They did better later on, thankfully, or else the Herron move would make even less sense than it does as is.
1. Shelby Miller and Wagner Mateo! We haven't seen stat one on these guys yet, and I don't know anything I wouldn't be regurgitating third-hand, so I've lumped them together—but this is exactly what the Cardinals didn't have to fall back on after trading Barton or Adam Kennedy or H...H... I had another name, I thought, but Google isn't any help at all.
When the Cardinals traded for Mark Mulder they were basically without a farm system, top and bottom, and there was no real reason to believe that worried them. There was no lasting commitment to young players; they just happened to have a few of them, and then they didn't. This year the rights to two players, one of whom won't be a Major League factor for at least five years, were already in hand by the time the Cardinals' top prospect was gone. Beneath them there's depth, the pretty good-but (no fastball / fringe glove / no pop / Tommy John) guys that would have topped a prospect list in the three terrifying months between the start of the 2005 season and Colby Rasmus.
It's a great time to be a Cardinals fan, but even if your first stop after a hard day's work is the GCL box scores (Joe Mather and Mike Parisi played tonight!) the minor leagues are no longer bereft of stories. With the second round pick the Cardinals could have taken another college pitcher; instead they selected ex-superprospect Robert Stock, who could have just ended up another college pitcher anyway but is now putting up a .951 OPS as a defensively adept catcher.
It's not just the players who've flooded the system; it's an increased confidence that the people in charge of the system both know what they're doing and are interested in doing it. They might trade some prospects, but that's not the only reason they'd like to have some.