How the St. Louis Cardinals Turned Baseball America's No. 1 Farm System Into No. 7 in One Year

Jamie Squire

Entering the 2014 season, the St. Louis Cardinals have the No. 7 farm system in baseball entering the 2014 season. How'd they manage that?

Buried in Derrick Goold's excellent article for the Post-Dispatch on the St. Louis Cardinals' plans to "go global" in their player development scheme is the nugget that Baseball America has ranked the St. Louis farm system No. 7 in Major League Baseball. Here is a how-to guide on getting ranked as having MLB's No. 7 farm system:

1. Start with the No. 1 ranked farm system in MLB.

Entering 2013, Baseball America ranked the Cardinals' collection of prospects as baseball's best. In Goold's article on last year's Baseball America Cardinals top prospect list, to which he contributed, the Cardinals beat reporter explains how the 2013 top ten was put together. Goold did something similar this year with what the scribe termed his "Birdland Seven" and at Baseball America, for that publications official 2014 top ten prospect list.

On the surface, a drop from first to seventh seems a clear downgrade. After all, St. Louis fell six spots. But when we take a step back and consider just how many faberge eggs hatched into Cardinals during the 2013, the No. 7 ranking for 2014 becomes pleasantly surprising for just how high it is.

A rookie is no longer a prospect. Baseball America considers players who qualify as an MLB rookie to have graduated from prospectdom to the big leagues. That is, they no longer count for ranking farm systems. Pitchers and batters have different thresholds for becoming a bona fide Major League rookie:

  • Batters: 130 at-bats.
  • Pitchers: 50 innings pitched.
  • For both: 45 or more days on the active MLB roster during the period of 25-man limitation.

The graduation of top prospects to major-league rookies is a recipe for downgrading the majors' best farm system.

2. Graduate your No. 2 prospect to the St. Louis rotation out of spring training.

This time last year, Shelby Miller was widely considered the Cardinals' second-best prospect--behind Oscar Taveras. Miller struggled during the first half of the 2012 season in Memphis, but improved in the second. And so the Cardinals gave him a September call-up and ultimately promoted him to the NLCS roster.

In the spring of 2013, the Cardinals had Miler participate in a spring training contest with Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal for the prize of a spot in the major-league rotation. Miller won the contest but lost the war. In October, he sat in the bullpen, unused, while Kelly posted a 4.15 ERA in four postseason starts. Nonetheless, Miller's 3.06 ERA over 173 1 /3 innings earned him a third-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

3. Assign your No. 4 prospect the role of set-up man out of spring training.

Trevor Rosenthal and his atomic fastball emerged as a potent weapon in relief for the Cardinals late in the 2012 regular season. In October, Rosenthal was all but unhittable, striking out 50% of the Nationals and Giants he faced while posting a 0.00 ERA and 0.33 FIP for October. Rosenthal's impressive pitching ensured him a spot on the St. Louis pitching staff in 2013. In spring, he competed to pitch in the rotation, but manager Mike Matheny was quick to demote him to the bullpen. Rosenthal became the closer after Jason Motte tore his UCL, Mitchell Boggs imploded, and Edward Mujica suffered from shoulder fatigue. Closer is the role the man whose stuff Bryce Harper called "absolutely fuego" will own in 2014.

4. Use your No. 6 prospect as a spot starter and reliever before promoting him to the postseason rotation.

Michael Wacha impressed in minor-league relief after the Cardinals selected him 19th overall in last year's draft. It was enough to land him in the top ten of most (if not all) St. Louis prospect lists. In an appearance on the MLB Network during last month's winter meetings, general manager John Mozeliak explained the Cardinals' plans to "bank innings" with Wacha so that the club could use him down the stretch and in October. Consequently, despite Wacha impressing in spring training, the Cardinals sent Wacha to Triple-A Memphis to start the year. St. Louis promoted Wacha to spot start and used him in relief. By the end of the year, Wacha was in the big-league starting rotation and was instrumental in helping the Cardinals to win the franchise's 19th NL pennant.

5. Promote your No. 7 prospect to the St. Louis bench and then install him as the first base starter after an injury.

In 2011, Matt Adams was the Cardinals Minor League Player of the Year after batting .300/.357/.566/.923 in the lefthanded hitter's paradise of Springfield in the offense-heavy Texas League. The next year, Adams sculpted a .329/.362/.624/.986 stat line out of Triple-A pitching during a Pacific Coast League season that was cut short by injury. Adams hit well enough in the spring to push his way onto the Cardinals' bench. When Allen Craig suffered a freak Lisfranc injury while rounding first base and attempting to avoid an umpire, Adams stepped in and the lineup barely missed a beat.

6. Promote an unheralded lefthander to the big-league bullpen and have him post a 0.45 ERA, 2.29 FIP, and 32.9% strikeout rate.

Entering the 2013 season, how many of you knew who Kevin Siegrist was? After spring training, how many of you knew of Siegrist? As often happens over the course of baseball's 162-game season, injuries and volatility in 2013 led to the Cards revamping the bullpen during the season. Enter Siegrist, who leapt from Double-A, to Triple-A, to MLB on the strength of his blazing fastball. Siegrist's blistering stuff led to a minuscule ERA that cemented his role in St. Louis down the stretch and into October.

7. Promote a soft-tossing sinkerballer to the St. Louis bullpen.

Fans who follow the St. Louis minors knew of Seth Maness before 2013. The soft-tossing righty made a minor-league living by fearlessly pounding the strike zone with an unimpressive repertoire in terms of offspeed pitches and fastball velocity. But what Maness's fastball lacked in speed it made up for with downward movement. The righty's sinker was an excellent pitch that allows him to pound the zone with time and again. Maness is content to let the opposition beat his drastic sinker into the infield turf with the hope his infielders can then convert the grounders into outs.

Last year, Matheny grew fond of deploying the groundball specialist in thorny situations with the hope of getting a double play. During the regular season, it worked. A lot. Maness induced 16 GIDP and, as a result, posted a 2.32 ERA despite the fact that opposing batters posted a .281/.322/.403/.725 against him. For comparison, the NL batted .251/.315/.389/.703 overall in 2013.

8. Give the world a taste of your No. 3 prospect, but not enough to see him lose prospect status.

The Cardinals called righthanded stuff hypnotist Carlos Martinez up to St. Louis and then sent him back down to Memphis before ultimately promoting once again to the big-league club. The Dominican known as "Little Pedro" notched 28 1/3 innings with a ghastly 5.08 ERA. But the stuff, man, the stuff. Matheny was just as enthralled by Martinez's repertoire as this writer. The Cards manager thrust Martinez into key October spots. As a result we have this gif evidence of Martinez forcing Dustin Pedroia to kneel before him with a slider:

Martinezpedroia

via cdn.fangraphs.com

9. Don't call up your No. 1 prospect to the majors.

Entering last season, Oscar Taveras was a consensus top 5 prospect in all of baseball, thanks to the "cathedral ceiling" of his hitting ability. Even with the crowded outfield picture in St. Louis, it was not a question of if Taveras would make his MLB debut in 2013 but when. However, the baseball gods had other plans. A severe high-ankle sprain eventually required season shortening surgery that precluded Taveras from joining the Cardinals. For Triple-A Memphis, the lefthanded smiter of baseballs posted a .301/.344/.462/.803 line in just 46 games. Taveras again faces a crowded major-league outfield in 2014, but also must answer questions about how he'll bounce back after surgery. Nonetheless, Baseball America slots him in as the top St. Louis prospect for a second straight year.

10. Move your No. 9 prospect from third base to catcher.

Carson Kelly played third base for Johnson City in rookie ball after the Redbirds drafted him in 2012. Entering 2013, Kelly was ranked the organization's No. 9 prospect. He played third and designated hitter for State College and Peoria in A-ball. At season's close, the Cardinals announced that their 2012 second-rounder and his professional .674 OPS would move to catcher. Baseball America ranks Kelly, position "3B/C," as the tenth-best prospect in the system entering 2014. This season will be one of transition for Kelly and an important one in his development as a professional ballplayer.

11. Put together another good amateur draft.

Azru gave the Cardinals' 2013 draft a fairly positive review, even if the talent chosen was not very sexy. It was a draft class highlighted at the top by two southpaws: College changeup artist Marco Gonzales and Rob Kaminsky, a cold-weather high-schooler who is also armed with a good change. Gonzales, perhaps the most polished St. Louis pick of last year's draft, advanced the furthest in the system. Baseball America has taken note, slotting him in as the No. 5 prospect in the system. Kaminsky places ninth. So the club's two top 2013 draft picks are now in Baseball America's top-ten list entering 2014.

12. Develop another outfield bat to go along with Taveras.

Entering 2013, Stephen Piscotty was a third baseman about to embark on the transition from the hot corner to the corner outfield. Baseball America ranked him the No. 10 prospect on the St. Louis farm. In 2013, Piscotty bloomed in the right fields of Palm Beach and Springfield. In Double-A, the righthanded batter posted a .299/.364/.446/.810 line that earned him a spot in the Arizona Fall League, where he opened eyes. For 2014, Piscotty finds himself the No. 4 prospect in the system. Piscotty seems poised to become yet another in the Cardinals' ever-growing list of impressive homegrown talents.

13. Add the Angels' No. 6 prospect.

If reports are correct, the Angels offered Peter Bourjos, one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, straight up for David Freese in a trade. But Mozeliak turned down the offer. Eventually, the two clubs agreed on a swap of Freese and righty reliever Fernando Salas for Bourjos and minor-league outfielder Randal Grichuck. After 2012, Grichuk was Los Angeles of Anaheim's No. 6 prospect in Baseball America's rankings. Grichuk is a slugger who rarely walks but also doesn't strike out as much as one might think, given his power. During the 2013 season, Grichuk was graded a top 20 Texas League prospect while posting a .256/.306/.474/.780 line. Long coveted by the Redbirds, Grichuck projects fairly decently as a major-leaguer right now. The trade caused Goold to rethink his St. Louis top prospect list, but it appears that the power-hitting Grichuk will not crack the Baseball America list unless a revision is made. This is as much a testament to the weakness of the Angels system as the strength of the Cardinals farm that a top ten Halos prospect entering last year can't crack the St. Louis top ten list this Hot Stove.

#

The Cardinals have come a long way since the days of Jocketty, when the club's farm system would frequently be ranked among MLB's worst. Mozeliak and his lieutenants have put together a self-perpetuating talent pipeline, just as DeWitt envisioned years ago, that allows the organization to promote almost half of their top-ten prospects yet still maintain a top-ten farm system. The future is bright for the Redbirds.

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