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Poised for Success: 2012 and Beyond

When the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006, it was a team that had been retooled for the playoffs after a thoroughly mediocre season. The 2006 Cardinals were not world beaters. They were not the offensive juggernaut of 2004 or 2005. There was no MV3 for the 2006 Cardinals. Yet they won nonetheless. The questions entering their 2007 season hadn't been answered in any tangible way by the unlikely World Series victory. The Cardinals would finish in third place that season in the Central Division with a sub-.500 record.

That Cardinals club had significant multi-year commitments to players as well. Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Chris Carpenter, Jason Isrighuasen, Mark Mulder and Juan Encarnacion all had multiple years left after 2006. In some cases, that was because of Walt Jocketty's ill-conceived notions of contractual loyalty (e.g. extending Jim Edmonds in November of 2006). There was another problem that the club was attempting to address at the same time as well. The farm system, which had been used heavily to acquire veteran players, was largely bereft of talent in 2005. Entering 2007, things had started to change.

In Baseball America's 2007 Prospect Handbook, the Cardinals top 10 was young. Or at least very new to the system. The farm was empty of high level elite talent and it showed. Take a look:

Top 10 Prospects in 2007
Player Year Drafted
Colby Rasmus 2005
Jaime Garcia 2005
Chris Perez 2006
Blake Hawksworth 2001
Jon Jay 2006
Bryan Anderson 2005
Adam Ottavino 2006
Mark McCormick 2005
Josh Kinney 2001 (Not Drafted)
Daryl Jones 2005

While that is a good stable of talent, four of those players have gone on to hold down starting positions or prominent roles, it was also a group of players that would take several years to mature. Contrast that with where the Cardinals are at now.

Top 10 Prospects in 2012
Player Year Acquired
Shelby Miller 2009
Carlos Martinez 2010
Oscar Taveras 2008
Zack Cox 2010
Kolten Wong 2011
Tyrell Jenkins 2010
Lance Lynn 2008
Eduardo Sanchez 2005
Matt Adams 2009
Jordan Swagerty 2010

Things have changed since 2007. The Cardinals have built up their presence in Latin America and international signings (Martinez, Taveras, Sanchez) are a different type of arrangement than a drafted American player. With that caveat, the Cardinals have 5 of their top 10 players acquired in the last 2 years. In 2007, it had been 8 of 10 and the other pair were relievers.

You can look at it by the stratification of talent through the minor league levels as well. In 2007, the Cardinals primary prospects played in the low minors. Entering 2012, that's no longer the case. There's a diversity of levels with representatives from the low-A Quad Cities all the way through AAA Memphis. It's a system that is poised for some immediate dividends (Lynn, Sanchez), some medium term yields (Miller, Cox, Adams, Swagerty) and some that are longer term (Martinez, Taveras, Wong, Jenkins).

I've alluded to the other aspect of the St. Louis Cardinals that is somewhat compelling when wishcasting the future: limited long term contractual obligations. In two years, the Cardinals will have obligations remaining with two players (Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia) amounting to nearly $25M. Contrast that to the 2011 NL team that won the most regular season games, the Philidelphia Phillies. Here is an example of how to create inflexibility in your payroll.

Obligations for 2014 as of 2/12
Player Name Contract
Ryan Howard $25M
Cliff Lee $25M
Jonathan Papelbon $13M

In 2014, The Phillies already have $63M on the books committed to 3 players. Setting aside the relative value of these players, that is a staggering sum of money. It is more than the entire payroll of six teams from 2012. It is over 40% of the Phillies 2012 payroll. There are only 4 teams that have more on the books for 2014: Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees. The commitments by the other clubs are representative of 6, 5, 4 and 4 player's salaries respectively. Should the Phillies exercise their option on Roy Halladay, they would jump to $83M and third place in 2014 commitments.

And yet, this isn't about how poorly the Phillies are being run -- though if you want to take that message to heart, I'm okay with that -- but rather that the Cardinals have a wealth of opportunities in front of them. With just $25M in commitments, the Cardinals have around 75% of their payroll to adapt to future needs. That may be commitments to Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina or it may be the acquisition of another star outfielder. The Cardinals have options.

St. Louis has been spoiled in the last 5 years by two unexpected World Series. And yet, the club is poised to potentially do big things. How many other teams can boast the following: a $100M payroll, limited long term commitments and a healthy if not thriving farm system. Go ahead and take a look for yourself. Is there a team that has positioned itself better than the Cardinals? There's an argument for Tampa Bay and for the Texas Rangers but is it a significant gap with where the Cardinals find themselves right now?

I've argued before that the Cardinals strike me as a team without a vision. I'm not sure my opinion of that has dramatically changed less I give you the wrong impression. They seem to be seizing on some current market inefficiencies to sign old/injured players who still have something left to offer the game of baseball. They've built a healthy farm system but from a comprehensive, forward looking perspective, I'm still tepid to the idea that the Cardinals have a grand vision. Maybe that's okay. If 2006 and 2011 can result without a club ideology, than perhaps a comprehensive vision is of questionable value. Tampa Bay, who would be my poster child for a club with a grand vision, may argue differently. Five years from now, the Houston Astros may argue differently.

Nothing is certain. Surely the improbable 2006 and 2011 World Series runs have shown that to us. Yet the Cardinals have positioned themselves admirably, whether by luck or by merit I cannot say. They can make the case as the best NL Central Division club on paper entering 2012. Perhaps more importantly, they can make the case for a healthy organization in the future.