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sir walter

it never ends, does it . . . . already i feel like this off-season has lasted a whole month.

on tuesday i received answers from jeff luhnow to my latest batch of questions about the farm system. i'd been planning all along to post them today; in light of yesterday's announcement you might find them particularly interesting (esp. the next-to-last question). scroll down; they're in the post directly below this one. additional discussion at Future Redbirds.

as for sir walter: above all, i will miss his patience. it might seem like a strange thing to say, insofar as jock's ouster apparently was precipitated by his unwillingness to wait for the kids to develop. but i always thought jocketty had the ideal pace for a general manager. he was like de niro's character in The Deer Hunter --- known for taking down his prey with one shot. he tracks without haste, without worry, seemingly without doubt. others might cover twice as much ground, but it's wasted effort, all for show --- they chase dead ends, squander rounds on wild shots, and lose kills they might otherwise have got. this guy just trudges along with his rifle dangling at his shoulder and his senses open to the world --- doesn't hurry, doesn't call attention to himself in any way, just surveys the field and waits for his opening. when he finally makes his move, you damn well take notice.

that was jock at his best. beginning in 1999, he broadened the cardinals' talent base through a series of stunningly advantageous trades:

  1. looper and spare parts for edgar renteria
  2. a bunch of nobodies for darryl kile and dave veres
  3. juan acevedo and spare parts for fernando vina
  4. bottenfield and kennedy for jim edmonds
  5. tatis and reames for steve kline and dustin hermanson
  6. lankford for woody williams
  7. polanco and spare parts for scott rolen
  8. narveson for larry walker
that sequence of moves rivals the one that bing devine and bob howsam orchestrated back in the 1960s to assemble the original El Birdos. according to steve treder of the Hardball Times, "In the history of baseball, there has never been a championship team so dependent upon clever trade acquisitions as the 1960s Cardinals." the 2004-06 cardinals might run a close second. nearly all his acquisitions were 30 or younger, in their prime and positioned to be long-term contributors to the franchise.

jocketty also deserves credit for locking up pujols for most of his prime after the 2003 season --- incredibly far-sighted move. throughout his 13 years at the helm, jock always projected an air of steady calm, almost never acting out of panic. it happened maybe only once --- when he made a risky trade for mark mulder one day after the pitcher he really wanted, tim hudson, got dealt to the braves. it was the last trade of any consequence that jocketty made, the last one that would have a long-term impact upon the franchise --- the one, in the end, that proved to be one trade too many. since then --- except for one blessedly, memorably fortunate october --- it has been all downhill. the mulder trade was a sign that jocketty's prey had learned to detect his approaching footstep and stay out of range; he was no longer able to sneak up on them and get off a clean shot. that trade probably seemed like a clean shot to jock at the time --- in its outlines, it very much resembled the darryl kile trade --- but the prey had adapted. walter never regained the advantage.

the mulder deal marked a turning point not only in that sense, but also in this one: it put the cards on an irrevocable win-now footing. prior to 2004, the cards and their fans never took october for granted. after their first playoff appearance in half a decade in 2000, the team barely made it back in 2001 and repeated in 2002 (the year kile died) only via a monumental act of collective will. after the depressing and fruitless 2003 season, the cards were written off as non-contenders entering 2004; indeed, in their big trade that off-season the cards gave up veterans (drew/marrero) for youth (marquis/wainwright/king). the transaction wasn't designed to pay quick dividends, but it did --- and (as i noted a couple weeks back) we're still reaping the profits and will be for years to come. . . . .

i'm digressing. after coming so close in 2004, the cards' horizon --- the fans' and the front office's --- seemingly shortened. after 105 wins and a world series appearance, simply making the playoffs no longer cut it; dominance was now the standard, and closing the deal in october the paramount goal. were we spoiled? i don't think so; st louis hadn't hoisted a championship flag in almost 25 years. we wanted it badly and we got our wish, but the intensified focus on short-term returns commensurately diminished the investment in the future. we made the tradeoff willingly, and it was worth it, but the organization couldn't sustain the win-now approach indefinitely --- no organization can, 'cepting the yankees. walter, though, couldn't or wouldn't shift out of that mode.

a lot of observers still don't see the need to change; they think the cardinals can stay on top forever, and would do so if only the owners weren't such scrooge mcducks. (a lot of these people, comically enough, are the same ones who denounce spendy teams like the cubs and yankees and red sox for trying to buy a championship.) i addressed that issue on monday, and i'd like to revisit it today with a small thought exercise. go through it with me; it know it won't change anyone's opinion, because opinions are incredibly hardened in these matters, but just go along with it anyway. humor me. let's say the owners had given walt the resources to sign any pitcher he wanted this off-season ---- weaver, suppan, miguel batista, ted lilly, jason schmidt, take your pick. do you realize who this signee would have replaced in the rotation? not kip wells; he was the cards' first off-season pickup, inked to a deal on november 28, and upon his acquisition tony immediately declared him the #2 starter. nor would this hypothesized signee have displaced anthony reyes; the cards needed at least one minimum-wage earner in the rotation for payroll relief, and reyes had shown enough promise in 2006 to merit first shot at that role. he went out and earned his spot in the rotation with a 3-0, 2.70 spring-training performance. it goes without saying that carpenter wouldn't have been the odd man out (duh --- i can't believe i even sacrificed any fingertip cells typing out that sentence). so if a high-priced free agent were in the rotation, he would have taken the place of one of the 2007 cardinals' two best starters, looper or wainwright --- and it probably would have been wainwright.

remember now, the team went into the off-season planning to bring him back as a reliever (see this post from november 13), and not entirely without reason --- izzy's return was far from certain, and wainwright was a proven success as a setup man / closer but an unknown quantity as a starter. at about the same time, tony / dave began talking up looper as a starter --- that trial balloon was floated in mid-november, and the cards never changed their tune. so if they'd signed, say, miguel batista, they very likely would have entered 2007 with a rotation of carp, batista, wells, reyes, and looper, with wainwright setting up isringhausen. and after carpenter got hurt and reyes/wells flamed out, wainwright still probably wouldn't have gotten a chance to start. if he were throwing well as the 8th-inning guy, then tony would never have moved him --- la russa doesn't mess with success in the bullpen. and if wainwright weren't throwing well? then he'd just be a struggling 2d-year pitcher with 0 big-league starts on his resume --- not the kind of guy who's likely to displace mike maroth or joel pineiro on tony/dave's watch.

so it was the owners' refusal to overpay for jeff suppan or miguel batista that opened a rotation slot for wainwright --- nay, that forced him to the rotation. some regard that as cheapness on the owners' part; i consider it a healthy commitment to player development. the owners declared that commitment over a year ago; it's the commitment jocketty refused to make, and the reason he had to go. he wasn't necessarily hostile to player development --- he had many opportunities to trade away rasmus and reyes the past couple of years, and no doubt got offers on hawksworth and garcia and various other prospects; he didn't bite. he was a responsible steward of the team's young players. but --- particularly after 2004 --- he kept putting obstacles in their way, blocking their paths with one dead-weight veteran or another. when, heading into 2006, the cards had an opening in the rotation and two youngsters (reyes and wainwright) available to fill it, walter still felt compelled to add sid ponson. when he had tyler johnson available to get lefties out, he felt ricardo rincon was an upgrade; when he had john rodriguez and chris duncan available as outfielders, he still thought the cardinals needed juan encarnacion and larry bigbie. think about that last one for a second: larry bigbie was anointed the starting left-fielder heading into 2006. if he doesn't get hurt --- if he holds down the spot as a left-handed version of encarnacion --- then chris duncan never gets a chance to play.

that's the real cost of overindulging the "win now" mentality: it's not the monetary cost, it's the opportunity cost. you expend the opportunity on a proven mediocrity and thereby deprive a younger but potentially better player of a chance to help your team. that very pitfall nearly cost the cardinals everything in 2006. they began with an opportunity in the rotation, and wainwright earned it with a stellar spring --- but they spent the opportunity on ponson, who failed miserably. as the season progressed they squandered opportunity after opportunity on injured (mulder and isringhausen) and failed (marquis) veterans, to the point that they nearly drove the team off a cliff. in octber --- completely out of options, and as a last resort --- they finally gave the opportunities to younger players. lo and behold, the kids outperformed their elders and helped bring home a championship.

now --- do i hold the owners blameless in all of this? absolutely not. the baseball people in the organization wanted aj burnett back in december 2005, and burnett badly wanted to come to st louis, but the owners refused to pony up; two years later, his contract looks like a bargain. a few days after they cheaped out on burnett, jocketty engineered a deal that would have sent marquis and suppan (both in the last year of their deal) to arizona for javy vazquez (under club control for at least 3 years) and a dbacks' prospect. it was a vintage jocketty maneuver --- creative and daring --- and it would have given the cards two formidable workhorses (carp and vazquez) through at least 2008. but the cardinal owners insisted on getting cash back in the deal, and the dbacks refused to provide it; the deal fell through. good on walt; bad on the owners. (arizona fans can be glad that dewitt & co balked; the dbacks got a much better package from the white sox a few days later, obtaining el duque, luis vizcaino, and chris young in exchange for vazquez.)

i gave this opinion on monday: "raising payroll isn't the main solution going forward. it's much simpler, and more complicated, than that: they need to do a better job of evaluating talent and developing players." jocketty apparently didn't see it that way; he saw the problem mainly as one of payroll and sought a payroll-oriented fix. he's entitled to his opinion, and i'm sure we all respect it --- even those of us who disagree. i also respect him for stating his priorities clearly, and forcing this issue to a head; his honesty enabled the franchise to make an informed decision about the future. it's what you'd expect of the man. he has always been a first-class act and a figure of integrity . . . . well, maybe it wasn't so first-class of jock and his posse if they were really executing reprisals against people for merely talking to jeff luhnow, as has been reported. but if that's the worst thing you can say about a guy, he's got stronger character than most. admiration, gratitude, respect --- these are the feelings i'll always have for mr jocketty. wherever he might turn up in the future, whether in or out of baseball, i wish him the very best. it has been incredibly rewarding to have him on our side for these last 13 years.

thanks for everything, sir walter.