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A Brief History of Cardinals Drafts in the 21st Century, Part Three: The Mozeliak Era Begins

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John Mozeliak takes over the general manager duties, and the scouting wing hones its craft.

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Author’s Note: This was originally planned as a five-part series; as of this morning I am changing course and making it six. The reason is this post you’re reading right now; the ‘08-’09 drafts are probably the most important I’ll write about, with 2009 in particular sucking up a lot of oxygen. So, in order to try and not have this end up at 7-8000 words, which even for one of my posts I realise is a bit tough to digest, I’m going to cut the Mozeliak/Luhnow years into two parts. -A

In part one of this multi-part series, we looked at the drafts of the early 2000s, in which the Cardinals did very little to improve their lot, and actually managed to put themselves in line for a rather serious crisis, in spite of the fact the major league club looked as healthy and robust as just about any club one could imagine.

In part two, we examined the initial drafts of the Jeff Luhnow regime, when he was still working under general manager Walt Jocketty. We looked at the enormous bumper crop of picks the Cardinals had in 2005, which unfortunately failed to produce the kind of talent windfall one might have hoped, the 2006 draft in which Luhnow and his department hit paydirt on several occasions by going with college performers, particularly those who had shown above-average hitting ability, while ignoring the fact some of those players lacked much else in the way of plus tools.

We then looked at the disastrous 2007 draft, and concluded that it was largely a simple fact of that year’s draft class being complete and utter shit as a whole, but also were forced to lay some blame at the doorstep of the organisation, which had a chance to take a few risks on potential high-payout bets, but went conservative and ended up with virtually nothing long term.

Following the 2007 season, Walt Jocketty was shown the door. The man who had built the dominant squads of 2000-2005 was out, having failed to come in line with the way Bill DeWitt wanted the organisation to be run. DeWitt wanted Luhnow and the promise of a sustainable, cost-controlled pipeline of talent; Jocketty wanted nothing to do with the new school analytics and seemed more interested in doing things the way he had done them in the past. Jocketty was great working within his oeuvre, trading for undervalued stars nearing free agency or signing veteran reclamation pitching projects for Dave Duncan to work with. Long term sustainability, though, seemed much less interesting to Walt. Or, maybe he just really couldn’t stand Luhnow personally; the issues that led to Jocketty’s departure have always been a little vague in terms of how much was personal, how much was professional, and how much was philosophical.

Following a flirtation with Cleveland’s then-assistant GM Chris Antonetti (which ended when the Indians made Antonetti an offer to stay and take over an increased role in the office in which he was already entrenched, which I can’t blame him for taking), the Cardinals ultimately turned to an internal candidate. John Mozeliak had served as Jocketty’s assistant GM, as well as having run a few drafts, headed up player development briefly, and thrown batting practice back in the Colorado days. In other words, Mozeliak had done most jobs within the organisation at one point or another, and he seemed a logical — if, at the time, uninspiring — choice to take over. I say uninspiring because, in the interest of trying not to view things strictly through the hindsight of knowing how successful Mo would prove, when he was hired there were many who saw it as a failure of the organisation. They couldn’t get the big name they wanted, had screwed up by handing Tony LaRussa a contract extension while trying to hire a GM, and were only turning to the guy already on the payroll because no one else wanted to come here. Luckily, we all know now that, in fact, Mozeliak was very much the right man for the job, but the optics in autumn of 2007 were, understandably, less than sterling.

But anyway, that’s where we are in our story. Mozeliak took over in the 2007-2008 offseason, tasked with helping to bring the organisation into a new age, incorporating new tools and new ways of thinking, not to mention bringing some harmony to the front office. He would need to coexist with Luhnow more peacefully than Jocketty had, and help the scouting director make the pipeline the Cardinals were hoping to establish a reality.

And when June of 2008 rolled around, we got our first look at what a Mozeliak/Luhnow draft might look like.

2008

Notable picks: Brett Wallace, 1B/3B (Rd 1), Lance Lynn, RHP (Comp), Shane Peterson, OF (Rd 2), Niko Vasquez, SS (Rd 3), Scott Gorgen, RHP (Rd 4), Eric Fornataro, RHP (Rd 6), Aaron Luna, INF/OF (Rd 9), Mitch Harris, RHP (Rd 13), Xavier Scruggs, 1B (Rd 19), Sam Freeman, LHP (Rd 32), Kevin Siegrist, LHP (Rd 41), Blake Murphy, C (Rd 43), Danny Miranda, LHP (Rd 50)

And here we have the first of two drafts that would really cement Luhnow’s reputation as a builder. The 2006 draft was a very productive one, with the Cards netting several future contributors by focusing on skills over tools, and in many ways this draft mirrored that one.

The first three picks of the 2008 draft were important, in an historical sense, for the Cardinals. Lance Lynn we can all appreciate immediately how important he was; he was a key bullpen contributor in the 2011 postseason run, and then moved into a prominent starting role for the next several seasons. Where Lynn will end up after this year is anyone’s guess; it appears he and the Redbirds will most likely part ways, but that’s not necessarily a given. And regardless of how his tenure here in St. Louis ends, Lynn has been a key part of the Cards’ rotation since 2012. That’s no mean feat.

Sandwiched around Lynn, though, are two other players who played a key role in the recent fortunes of the Cardinals, even if we barely remember why. Brett Wallace and Shane Peterson made up two thirds of the package sent to Oakland in return for Matt Holliday at the trade deadline of 2009, with Clay Mortensen from the 2007 draft representing the third leg of that deal.

Even now, nearly eight years on, the Matt Holliday deal is a tough one for me to really talk or think about. I remember at the time, there was a substantial body of thought that essentially claimed that trading for Matt Holliday meant trading for only the part of Matt Holliday that was still under contract, meaning when the Cardinals sent three players to Northern California they were doing so in return for two months of Matt Holliday, and that’s all there is to it. After the Redbirds and Holliday decided to take the plunge together on a long-term contract following the unceremonious playoff defeat of ‘09 at the hands of the Dodgers (and Holliday’s seemingly unforgivable error, at least for a decent chunk of the fanbase), the refrain coming from many of the more sabermetrically-inclined remained the same: if the Cardinals were so set on picking up Matt Holliday, they could have just signed him as a free agent. The trade has nothing whatsoever to do with the contract, and so the long term result should not be considered when looking back at the trade.

In the years since, I’ve come to think that line of thinking is far too dogmatic and limiting, much as I’ve come to feel about lots of the old new school thinking that was going through its growing pains (specifically, that point in the acquisition of knowledge when one realises how much one knows, but is yet unable to grasp how much one still does not know, which is perhaps the most important aspect of any knowledge), at the time. However, we saw that Jason Heyward was traded for, offered a contract, and then walked away. So paying the price to bring the player in before the big contract has to be signed is, admittedly, still of unknown value.

In other words, the Cardinals could have signed Matt Holliday to the same free agent contract they did without having traded for him first. But the question must be asked: would they have? It is unknown how much, if any, real value there is to an organisation and player having a chance to feel each other out in regards to a fit before putting pen to paper, but I don’t believe the value is zero. Perhaps it’s only the value of a test drive, and it’s the team selling itself on the player that matters most, rather than the player being sold on the team the way we often think, but I have a hard time believing Matt Holliday would have ended up the Cards’ greatest free agent contract to date had he not been part of that 2009 squad.

And so, how much value the Cardinals truly realised from their picks of Wallace and Peterson in ‘08 is still very much open to debate, but the fact is they facilitated a trade the Redbirds wanted to make, and so the mere fact the ammunition was there speaks to the success of the picks. Admittedly, none of the three players involved in the Holliday deal ever really amounted to anything at the big league level, and so it basically doesn’t matter if the trade should be judged solely on the two months of production in ‘09 the Cards received. Those two months of Matt Holliday, even divorced from any potential long-term benefits that initial feeling out period may have carried, were more valuable ultimately than the players El Birdos dealt away.

However, at the time that was all unknown, and Luhnow and Company were simply drafting players they thought would have value. There are a couple of interesting dynamics at play in this draft, which would reoccur in the following years as well.

One is the focus on skills and polish over tools, particularly early on. It’s true that we often talk about hitting ability as a tool; after all, one of the tools referred to in ‘five tool player’ is the hit tool. But as much as bat speed and hand-eye coordination fall under the category of a natural tool, approach is an enormous part of hitting, and it is at least as much skill to be learned and developed as it is a tool that exists naturally. And specifically in the cases of both Wallace and Peterson, what they most brought to the table at the time of the draft was the skill of hitting. The craft of hitting. These were not immense natural talents waiting to be polished; these were two college hitters who had honed their craft.

Peterson was an extraordinarily patient hitter in college, and for the most part has been that in pro ball as well. He’s run double-digit walk rates for the vast majority of his pro career, and as a result has typically been a plus on-base player. The problem for Peterson has been contact ability that hasn’t necessarily followed him up the ladder, and middling power that was apparent even at the time he was drafted. If he could have played center field, he would likely have made it. If he could have shaved five percentage points off his strikeout rate, he likely would have made it. If he could have added .050 points of ISO he likely would have made it. The problem is, he could never really do any of those things, and so Shane Peterson has had a long minor league career and just over 200 MLB plate appearances. He’s been a moderately above-average hitter in the minors, but rarely better than that, and with a defensive profile that brings little value he’s basically the definition of a AAAA player.

As for Wallace, he came out of Arizona State one of the more accomplished hitters in program history, and looked like a surefire quick-rising offensive star. He was an on-base monster in college, hit for above-average power, and even added in a solid number of stolen bases, in spite of looking like he was running on a pair of tree trunks. For instance, his junior season at ASU Wallace stole 16 bases in 62 games, being caught only four times. That’s better than a 30-steal pace for a 150+ game schedule, and an 80% success rate that would make him a hugely productive baserunner.

In the seven years Wallace has spent in the minor leagues, he has stolen five bases total. And been thrown out four times.

Sadly, that stolen base number is emblematic of what happened to Wallace in pro ball. He began his minor league career extremely hot at the lowest levels, but once he moved beyond the mid-minors his skills simply stopped translating. Part of what happened is that the Walrus was exposed as partially a product of college ball, with a swing geared toward the crazy hot aluminum bats being used at the time. The power didn’t translate as well to wood, and his contact rate suffered as well. When he tried to remodel his swing to tap into the power more, the contact got worse. The walk rate never matched up to his college patience. In general, pro ball Brett Wallace was like his pro ball stolen base numbers: somehow, it just didn’t translate from college. Honestly, even today I’m surprised Brett Wallace had as little success as he did. I really thought he was going to be good.

Lance Lynn was, in many ways, the pitching equivalent of Peterson and Wallace. He was more polish than stuff when drafted, a three-pitch sink-and-command guy out of a major college program. Interestingly, one could see the changes Lynn made in the minors as analagous to the swing overhaul Wallace attempted; where Wallace was trying to generate more power from his batting stroke, Lynn moved from a two-seam fastball to a four-seamer and also altered his mechanics a bit, breaking his hands later and delaying his arm in a way that likely helped goose his velocity some. The changes to the delivery may have made him more susceptible to injury, but the gains he made in terms of stuff made him a better big league pitcher than I expected, so perhaps the tradeoff was worth it.

There was another notable trend going on in this draft, which will show up in an even bigger way in 2009. The Redbirds in 2008 went heavy on small-school guys. Now, admittedly, seeing college names you’re barely familiar with in the MLB draft is infinitely more common than in the NBA or NFL; there are plenty of community college draftees and Division II guys and pitchers who ended up in aeronautical school. (Daniel Poncedeleon and Embry-Riddle, specifically.) But even so, running down the list of draftees in 2008, the Cards clearly were targeting some of these off the beaten path schools to pull from.

Blake Murphy, the late-round college catcher, came from Western Carolina University. Kevin Siegrist was out of Palm Beach community college. Alex Castellanos was a middle infielder out of Belmont-Abbey college, which is both a college and a literal Benedictine abbey in North Carolina. Mitch Harris came out of the Naval Academy.

Rowan University. College of Southern Nevada. (Junior college.) UC Berkley. (Well known, yes, but not for baseball.) Freed Hardeman. Pace University. (Two players, actually.) Grayson County College. Moorpark. The University of Maine at Orono. (Seriously.) All of those schools were represented in the Cards’ 2008 draft. As I said, you see schools you don’t necessarily recognise quite often in the draft. But in 2008 the Cardinals went hard after players whose alma maters were far, far off the beaten path. And unfortunately, they didn’t ultimately get a whole lot of value out of that strategy. They did pull Kevin Siegrist, but he’s probably the most successful small-school guy from this draft. Which, hey, 41st round pick who becomes a quality setup reliever? That’s an unmitigated win.

There was also the very interesting pick in the third round of Niko Vasquez, who will probably ring the mental bells of all old-school Future Redbirds readers as the kid who came out of a Las Vegas high school and just thumped the competition he found immediately upon entering the minors. Vasquez, as a high schooler, was automatically more tools than skills, but even so, the fact his one true plus tool was a bat that had bit-time potential is interesting. The 2008 draft could be seen as the ‘not selling jeans’ draft of the Luhnow era, when the pure athletes got very little play and the guys who looked like they would produce were prioritised, and Niko Vasquez is exactly the kind of high school shortstop you would draft in that situation. Unfortunately for Vasquez and the Cardinals, he didn’t really develop as a hitter; there were times he showed good contact ability, times he showed some patience, and times he showed some power. They were just never the same times, if you know what I mean. There were also some whispers of personal issues for Vasquez, but never anything confirmable. He did seem to disappear abruptly after struggling in 2012, but perhaps that’s fitting a narrative to the numbers later.

2009

Notable picks: Shelby Miller, RHP (Rd 1), Robert Stock, C/RHP (Rd 2), Joe Kelly, RHP (Rd 3), Joe Bittle, RHP (Rd 4), Ryan Jackson, SS (Rd 5), Alan Ahmady, 1B (Rd 10), Matt Carpenter, 3B (Rd 13), Anthony Garcia, OF (Rd 18), Trevor Rosenthal, RHP (Rd 21), Matt Adams, C/1B (Rd 23), Keith Butler, RHP (Rd 24)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what a home run looks like in the drafting world. Had a few things broken better for the Cardinals, in fact, that’s what a legendary draft class looks like.

In 2009, the Cards took a risk in the first round. That had not really been a feature of the Luhnow drafting protocol in recent years; since the 2005 draft, when the Cards shot for the moon with a massive surplus of early picks, they had largely gone conservative early on. Adam Ottavino was a college righthander (admittedly, an oddly risky one as I spoke about in a previous post, but still), seen as a safe riser to the big leagues. Pete Kozma was a high-schooler, yes, but he was also a fallback position from the bigger risks the Cards could have taken, and Clay Mortensen was a college senior pitcher they popped in the compensation round. Not exactly a huge risk. And as mentioned earlier, Brett Wallace was a bet on immediate value (which paid off), Lance Lynn was a polished college arm, and Shane Peterson was a skills-over-tools college bat. Overall, that group is extremely safe, as far as drafting goes. (Also pretty limited in upside, but it was all part of a calculated plan.)

Shelby Miller, though, was about as risky as you can get. A high school pitcher, of all things. To the organisation’s credit, though, Miller had no business still being on the board at 19, and so represented an extremely intriguing value play. And, as strange and enigmatic a major league career as Shelby has had, he pretty much paid off as well as the organisation really could have hoped. He got to the big leagues, contributed to the Cardinals his rookie season, then served as the primary piece to acquire Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. The Redbirds in 2014 were about two wins below replacement level in right field overall; in 2015, Jason Heyward posted a 6.5 win season there. When you can improve your club at one position by something like eight wins (admittedly, simply putting Randal Grichuk there would have netted you some percentage of that gain, but still), you have to be thrilled with that. The fact Miller was then part of the bizarrely lopsided Atlanta-Arizona J. Dansby Swanson/Ender Inciarte trade is an interesting footnote to all of this.

The Cards took a flyer on Joe Kelly, who was closing for UC Riverside at the time he was drafted, and recast him as a power sinker guy, capable of starting and with a delivery that was far, far more sound in pro ball than it ever was in college. They pulled Ryan Jackson, an outstanding defensive shortstop in college, out of Miami and tried to develop his bat. The Kelly bet worked out brilliantly; the Jackson bet not so much. Still, both were canny, potentially even brilliant chances to take.

Alan Ahmady was, quite honestly, one of the most talented hitting prospects I think I’ve ever seen in the minors. Unfortunately, he had multiple off-field issues in college, was popped and suspended for amphetamine use in 2010, and was suspended following the 2012 season for a second positive drug of abuse test. He never returned to the minor leagues after that. He put up a 141 wRC+ in almost 300 High A plate appearances in 2012, and then was gone. I hope he got his life in order; the man was a joy to watch hit.

The real coup of this draft class came later, though. Once the draft moved past round ten, the Cardinals built a huge chunk of that 2013 farm system that ranked best in baseball. Matt Carpenter was a fifth-year senior out of TCU who had put up excellent offensive numbers but had also had Tommy John surgery and struggled with his conditioning in college. We know, of course, how that turned out, and the fact the Cardinals struck paydirt in the thirteenth rounds of both the ‘99 and 2009 drafts has me very excited for 2019.

After the Carpenter pick, the Cardinal drafting machine went heavy on the small school kids, and they knocked it out of the park. Matt Adams is the only reason any of us know that Slippery Rock is a real college. Keith Butler may be just a footnote now, but he made it to the big leagues and got some outs. That’s a hell of a thing for a 24th rounder.

And then there’s Trevor Rosenthal, who was mostly a shortstop in junior college out by Kansas City. A Cardinal scout just happened to see him throw an inning of relief, clocked him on the gun at 97 mph, and lobbied the Redbirds to take a flyer on the arm strength. The rest, as they say, is history.

The vast majority of small school kids the Cards drafted in 2009, of course, did not amount to anything. But they hit on a few guys, and apparently had, in fact, come up with a better way of tracking and normalising the statlines from those small school players than anyone else had at that point. TCU is obviously not a small school, but the performance metrics told Luhnow and Co. to pay attention to the chubby third baseman with the bad arm, the coach’s son, because he just might have something special.

All in all, the Cardinals pulled an intriguing young power arm who became a league-average starter his rookie season, a perennial all-star infielder, an average-ish major league first baseman, a top-10 in baseball reliever, and another power arm that turned into a trade piece for John Lackey out of the 2009 draft. It doesn’t take many of those sorts of draft classes to build an all-world farm system. And as I said, there were a couple near-misses in there, too, that could have made 2009 a truly legendary crop.

It’s also possible Anthony Garcia still contributes something at the big league level, though unfortunately that’s looking like a long shot at this point. He’s a bat-only prospect who has never quite managed to develop consistency with the bat in spite of occasional brilliance, which makes it difficult to believe in him. Still worth noting, though.

The 2009 class was as heavy as we would ever see the Cardinals go on small school guys. They invested heavily in juco players and Division II stars and guys who didn’t necessarily scout all that well, and the approach paid off huge for them. If you ever wanted to see what a latter-day Moneyball draft would look like, the Cards’ 2009 isn’t a bad place to start looking.

It’s difficult, ultimately, to say how much — if any — role John Mozeliak played in facilitating the two drafts that did so much to help build the Cardinals’ talent pipeline that would come to fruition in the near future. It’s possible he played a big role; after all, he had run drafts before, and shown some notable chops when it came to scouting. He was also more of a numbers guy, a business guy, in terms of his background, so perhaps he and Luhnow meshed in a way that was far more harmonious than Luhnow and Jocketty had managed.

Then again, it’s also possible that the one great contribution Mozeliak made to the 2008 and 2009 drafts was to stay out of the process. We know Luhnow was the scouting director, farm director, and basically the tsar of player development at the time, so perhaps Mozeliak simply stayed in his lane and let Luhnow operate without interference. We heard of discord and arguing in the Jocketty/Luhnow relationship; the mere fact none of that seemed present between Luhnow and the man we would come to know as Mr. Mo was all that was really needed. After all, sometimes not being a roadblock is just as good as being an asset, if all that is needed is a clear path.

It’s also possible, of course, that the successes of 2008-09 were simply the culmination of what Luhnow and his scouting department had been trying to do all along. There was not necessarily a clear roadmap at the time for how to build a new age development machine, with the Cardinals and Luhnow serving as one of the real test cases for how many front offices today are constructed. Perhaps it just took some time for the scouting guys and the quants to figure out their mutual benefit society, and the change from Jocketty to Mozeliak had very little to do with the improvement in the scouting department’s performance.

Unfortunately, we’ll probably never be able to tease all that out. Baseball front offices are a tight-lipped bunch as a whole, and the Cardinals almost legendarily so at this point. There will be no Rolling Stone-style oral history of the Redbirds’ pipeline development to read in all likelihood, leaving us to speculate as to what went wrong, and what then went right, to get the organisation to where they were going.

And speaking of where the organisation is going, they will continue to get there next time, when the final two drafts of the Mozeliak/Luhnow partnership will be on the docket. They will not, in general, be quite as fun to talk about as the magnificent ‘09 class, but there is still plenty of production and value to be found.

‘Til then, everybody.