The Cardinals of the early 2000s benefited greatly from Walt Jocketty's willingness to trade prospects willy-nilly for veterans. Statistical analysis was still infantile at the time and in a battle of scouting departments, Jocketty usually did well for himself. The addition of guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen at relatively cheap costs proved fortuitous.
The Cardinals of the late 2000s surely look like a transitional period in retrospect. The team went through a rebuilding process that was masked largely by the club's ability to spin gold with mediocre pitchers and having the best player in MLB during his prime. Albert Pujols of the late 2000s masks a lot of sins.
Now the Cardinals find themselves reaping the bountiful harvest of prospects they've been caring for since 2005 on. The organization has built depth in their system and blue-chip prospects that is arguably the best in the league. I'd take the Cardinals pre-arbitration team over just about anyone else's.
The Cardinals aren't likely to see the arrival of pitchers like Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal for a while again and almost certainly not at the same time. The coincidence of their ascendance to the majors makes for a formidable amount of young, cheap talent producing at the same time.
In a few years, it will make for a formidable amount of young, highly credentialed talent headed for arbitration at the same time.
This will be the Cardinals next looming decision on a large scale and it is a fascinating one. The Cardinals aren't the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics that have to trade away their talent. The club has shown a willingness to extend young players when it makes sense for both sides (see: Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig). But extending one or two players is different than extending five or six. The club has also seen some of their early contract extensions hampered by injuries. Their is risk there.
So while the Cardinals don't have to be the Rays or Athletics, in a sense they get to be those teams -- or at least the best part of those teams. The Cardinals will have the chance to be supremely opportunistic over the next 3-4 years. They get the chance to watch for the next Wil Myers who is about to hit the market from a desperate GM and then trade for that player from their stock of players approaching free agency.
David Freese isn't a perfect parable for this story. He was coming off a down year and the Cardinals received an injured player in return. As much as anything, this was a swap of underperforming players. From a contract perspective, however, this is exactly the type of deal the Cardinals will be looking to make in coming years. They shift a player whose salary is rising and whom they aren't overly interested in extending to another club for a cost controlled, younger asset.
The trade of Freese has all sorts of complicating factors but it's the first indication in some time that he Cardinals are willing to part with some slightly aged Fabrege eggs -- to resurrect the derisive Joe Strauss term from a few years ago. (PS - I have to wonder if Strauss sees how foolish that all looks now that said eggs were the foundation of the Cardinals post season run last year. I'll guess he lacks the introspective quality to acknowledge it. Alas.) The club now has to figure out how to transition from trading those medium value players like Freese to trading someone with a lot more value that they can't agree to a club-friendly deal with.
If you've watched the Athletics or Rays over the years, what they've shown is that there is a pretty clean timeline for moving a player. Somewhere between that player having two seasons of arbitration left and having one season of arbitration left. Basically, there's a two offseason window with a summer trade deadline in between. Trading players too early is giving up too much of their surplus value. Trading players too late means a diminished return during the trade. Call it the Goldilocks of trade timing: not to early, not to late but just right.
Each trade is it's own beast and no one is immune to a bad trade. The particulars of what dumb/desperate GMs are out there in any given offseason vary. The availability of other prospects that interest a team changes. But the Cardinals have an opportunity to turn their drafting success into a cyclical product that essentially rebuilds itself -- while continuing to augment through the draft.
The Athletics and the Rays have shown what that model looks like. The Cardinals can emulate it. The fun part is that the Cardinals can emulate it ... and then spend another $60M a year that those clubs can't.
It's a good time to be a Cardinals fan.