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A Brief History of Cardinal Drafts in the 21st Century, Part Four: Luhnow’s Last Ride

Today, Jeff Luhnow tries to follow up an all-time great draft class, and comes pretty close to succeeding.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Last time, we examined the first two drafts of four that Jeff Luhnow conducted as head of drafting and development under John Mozeliak. The 2008 draft produced Lance Lynn, but was most notable for gaining the Cardinals most of the package they would deal in July of 2009 to acquire Matt Holliday. Then came the historic 2009 draft, when the Redbirds nabbed players such as Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal, and Matt Adams in the later rounds, and often from off the beaten path. Rosie and Adams were both small school bets on either scouting or stat-mining, while Carpenter was a late bloomer who got in shape while in college, then missed time with an elbow injury. As a thirteenth-rounder and fifth year senior sign, very little was expected of him. Obviously, he has exceeded those expectations.

But at the point we are in our story, none of that is known yet. We are now at the dawn of 2010, and the Cardinals are negotiating with Matt Holliday and Scott Boras. The organisation wants Holliday as a franchise cornerstone player for the next half decade or more, as well as a hedge against the loss of Albert Pujols as chief offensive engine of the club. Holliday represented the biggest outlay of talent the Cardinals had made in quite some time, as he cost the club a first-round pick, a compensatory pick, and a second-rounder. Say what you will about the players themselves and what they became, but the fact it took a top 20 pick, a top 40 pick, and a top 75 pick should give some idea of the perception of those players at the time they were taken, and what kind of risk the Lego deal really was.

So Mozeliak had, in the course of the 2009 season, made a rather large withdrawal from the talent bank Luhnow had been building. The organisation felt good, I’m sure, about the draft class they had just brought in, but even so, that ‘09 push pulled a substantial chunk of the available assets out of the system. Luckily, the negotiations with Holliday would bear fruit, and the Cards would have a core player to slot into left field for ~150 games a season for the next several years.

The Redbirds were also coming off their first postseason appearance in a couple years as 2010 dawned. Following the 2006 title run, Bill DeWitt’s plan to transition to more of an internal development philosophy began to take shape, and the organisation endured a rather fallow period in 2007-2008. Part of that, of course, was Scott Rolen’s iffy health and iffier relationship with Tony LaRussa, leading to his departure, and the rather sudden downturn of Jim Edmonds, seemingly as a result of post-concussion symptoms he dealt with for far longer than we realised at the time. The great teams of the mid-2000s had been built on the MV3 foundation, and now two of those three players were gone. Walt Jocketty seemed to have lost some of his ability to spin straw into gold, as well, and that photo of Walt introducing Kip Wells and Adam Kennedy as the club’s big upgrades for 2007 has become somewhat infamous over the years.

By ‘09, though, fortunes had begun to change as the Cardinals transitioned into the Mozeliak era. Ryan Ludwick had been a canny scrap heap signing, and contributed almost eight wins worth of value between 2008 and ‘09. Brendan Ryan percolated up from the minors and played outstanding defense at short while hitting just enough. Joel Pineiro had that incredibly strange deadball era season in 2009 and ended up a 4.6 WAR pitcher. Chris Carpenter returned from his wandering in the wilderness, and had one of his best seasons wearing the birds on the bat.

And Colby Rasmus, the jewel of the farm system for much of his time since being drafted with the first pick of the official Luhnow era, had come to the big leagues in 2009. As frustrating and enigmatic a player as Rasmus ultimately ended up being, it’s a little tough now to look back and remember what it was like when he debuted. But it’s worth trying to get that perspective, because Rasmus was perhaps the first major arrival that would signal the new era of the Cardinals’ pipeline. Sure, Brendan Ryan contributed in ‘09 and certainly looked interesting, but he was also a long time in coming, and had toiled in middling prospect territory for several years, partially due to injuries. Skip Schumaker and Brad Thompson were useful players, but nobody’s idea of top prospects. Chris Perez, picked early in the ‘06 draft, made it to the big leagues in 2009, but relievers are, at best, impactful only in context.

Rasmus, though, was different. He was a high pick. He had the pedigree. He had tools galore. He was a center fielder, and showed flashes of the huge raw power that had gotten him drafted. The Cardinals, once they signed Matt Holliday, had left field locked up for the foreseeable future thanks to DeWallet and a downpayment from the farm system, and they had one of the more intriguing, exciting young center fielders in the game ready to solidify his spot in the club’s long term plans. He hadn’t hit exceptionally well in his rookie season, struggling to get on base at times, but the promise was there. He looked good on the bases, looked good in center (the bizarre throwing issues would not crop up until during the 2010 campaign, complete with coaches apparently telling him to bounce the ball no matter what, or whatever the hell weird thing was going on at the time), and looked very much like a long-term asset, and potentially a star.

Colby was the outrider for the waves of talent Cardinal fans envisioned coming in soon. And those waves did, in fact, come, though not always in quite the ways we expected.

On the 7th of June, 2010, the day the amateur draft began, Rasmus’s OPS was .974. (No, for the record, I don’t remember him being one of the best players in baseball for half of 2009 either.) He was sporting a 15.4% walk rate, and rocking an isolated slugging percentage of .276. The first pick of the Luhnow era looked like the harbinger of a new Cardinal era.


Notable picks: Zack Cox, 3B/2B (Rd 1), Seth Blair, RHP (Comp), Tyrell Jenkins, RHP (Comp), Jordan Swagerty, RHP (Rd 2), Sam Tuivailala, SS/RHP (Rd 3), John Gast, LHP (Rd 6), Greg Garcia, SS (Rd 7), Tyler Lyons, LHP (Rd 9), Austin Wilson, OF (Rd 12), Colin Walsh, 2B (Rd 13), Boone Whiting, RHP (Rd 18), Mike O’Neill, OF (Rd 31), Dean Kiekhefer, LHP (Rd 36), Justin Wright, LHP (Rd 47)

The 2010 draft class is an utterly fascinating one, largely because it functions as almost a greatest hits compilation for the Jeff Luhnow era. Or perhaps not a greatest hits compilation, exactly; after all, there are some real stinkers in this group. Perhaps more of a survey course, wherein we get a look at all the things Jeff Luhnow drafts tended to be, presented smorgasboard style.

It’s also a very interesting draft class because, well, the players are just....interesting. At least, a lot of them are. Not all, mind you, but a lot.

We begin, though, with one of the least interesting players taken, at least in terms of his own tools and merits. Zack Cox the player was pretty damned dull; Zack Cox the draft idea was still interesting.

First off, in the drafting of Cox out of the University of Arkansas, we see Luhnow returning to an idea and demographic he plumbed in the first round just a couple years before. Zack Cox was essentially Brett Wallace 2.0, in terms of his draft positioning and the qualities he brought to the table. College bat, lots of polish with emphasis on the bat part, questionable body, big time defensive questions. Cox had played at both third and second in college, and there were plenty of observers who thought he could improve his defense to the level of an offensive-minded second baseman in pro ball. If Dan Uggla can play second base, um, there’s really no good way to finish that thought. But all the same, the idea was that Cox would be able, through positioning and steady hands, to be acceptable enough at second base for his bat to carry him.

Personally, I was not a big fan of the pick. I don’t remember my exact take on Cox when I scouted him earlier in the spring that year, but it was something to the effect of, “I don’t see a guy who’s so good at getting on base he doesn’t need to hit for power, nor a guy with so much power you can forgive him not getting on base, nor a guy who has the defensive chops his bat can be just okay.” In short, I thought he was a player who did most things okay, but nothing really well, and stood a good chance of ending up a ‘tweener-type bat without a real defensive home. Unfortunately, this was one of those cases where I didn’t like the Cards’ draft pick and actually ended up being right; we call this a ‘reverse Luke Weaver’.

Still, it’s easy to see why Luhnow went with Cox; he was projected by many at the time to be a top 10-15 guy, but concerns over an elevated price tag (he was a draft-eligible sophomore, and thus had that extra leverage to hold out if he didn’t like the offer), pushed him down a bit, as well as somewhat inconsistent performances his first two seasons at Arkansas. He looked like a fast mover in the Wallace mold; a guy whose bat was not only of high quality, but relatively advanced, and who should at least have real trade value in the near future.

Which, of course, Cox sort of did; the Cardinals ultimately traded him for Edward Mujica. So, you know, he did have trade value; it just wasn’t very high.

So we have Luhnow going for a similar tack in the first round as he did a couple years earlier, shooting for a quick value play on a bat-first college player. We then move on to Seth Blair, and...sigh.

Seth Blair came out of Arizona State, and proved to be one of the more tantalising, but also frustrating, pitching talents we’ve seen in the Cardinal system in quite some time. He could push his fastball up to 96 at times, and featured not one but two plus breaking balls, and yet a complete lack of any sort of feel for pitching kept him from ever really being successful. So, college pitcher with big stuff but little in the way of results. I’m sure everyone reading this is tired of me harping on Luhnow’s strange fascination with raw college pitchers, but here we go again. Again, this draft is going to hit pretty much all the notes.

Blair never did really develop much in the way of command or even control; he last pitched in 2014, primarily at Double A Springfield. He walked 15% of the batters he faced, and posted a 5.81 FIP. His was one of the more disappointing minor league careers I’ve ever tried to follow.

Beyond going back to the Wallace well and popping a raw college arm in the early rounds, there were also some other very Luhnow-ish things going on in the 2010 draft. Jordan Swagerty, Blair’s Arizona State teammate, joined the ranks of college closers pushed into starting roles post-draft, a la Mitchell Boggs and, most notably, Joe Kelly. There were tons of small-school and junior college guys drafted. And there were multiple players drafted who appeared to be pure moneyball picks, skills over tools players, the majority of whom were noted for high on-base abilities. Greg Garcia has been the most successful of that bunch, but Mike O’Neill and Colin Walsh were also huge walk rate guys without any real standout physical tools. Walsh made it to the big leagues with the Brewers last year, in case anyone was wondering whatever happened to him.

Question: how can “Lyin’ Eyes” be such a great song when the Eagles are so terrible?

Something that was notable about this particular draft class for being different than the norm, rather than following the standard tropes of Luhnow drafts, was the number of risks the Cards took. Perhaps it was learning from past, overly risk-averse drafts, or perhaps it was a matter of feeling more comfortable with the foundation already established and thus being more willing to go outside the comfort zone. Regardless, it’s notable that players like Tyrell Jenkins and Austin Wilson were big leaps of faith for the organisation, taking raw tools monsters over players they had numbers and translations and track records for. Unfortunately, neither of those bets really paid off; Wilson was too committed to Stanford to be bought out, and only finally became a Cardinal farmhand after the Rule V draft this past December, having done three years of college and a couple seasons in the Mariners’ organisation, and Tyrell Jenkins helped land Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden, but failed to put his considerable talent together and has struggled with occasional arm issues since being drafted.

Strangely enough, the only one of the high-risk high schoolers still in the Cardinal organisation from that 2010 group is Sam Tuivailala, who was a Troy Tulowitzki starter kit physically when he was drafted, but has since moved to the mound as a result of having a huge arm and very little bat to speak of.

It is worth noting that the Cardinals have seen a large number of their 2010 draftees make it to the big leagues in some capacity. Jenkins, Tuivailala, John Gast, Tyler Lyons, Garcia, Walsh, and Dean Kiekhefer have all made big league appearances. There are a couple other guys who might still make it to the show for at least a cup of coffee; Justin Wright looked like a very intriguing LOOGY for a moment there, and Josh Lucas (Rd 21), is still kicking around camp right now, I believe. Anytime you can get seven players to the big leagues out of one draft, you’re doing something really, really right. Even if there doesn’t look to be a star in the bunch, ultimately.


Notable picks: Kolten Wong, 2B (Rd 1), Charlie Tilson, OF (Rd 2), C.J. McElroy, OF (Rd 3), Kenneth Peoples-Walls, SS (Rd 4), Adam Ehrlich, C (Rd 6), Nick Martini, OF (Rd 7), Lance Jeffries, OF (Rd 10), Seth Maness, RHP (Rd 11), Dutch Deol, OF (Rd 17), Aramis Garcia, C (Rd 20), Brett Graves, RHP (Rd 26), Ryan Sherriff, LHP (Rd 28), Tyler Rahmatulla, 2B (Rd 36)

If 2010 was something of a paint-by-numbers Jeff Luhnow draft, hitting all the draft demographics he and his scouting department tended to favour throughout their tenure running the draft, then 2011 was a complete departure from the formula. It was like an experimental double disc concept album from a band that had seemingly become a bit set in their ways, even if those ways consisted of solid records every 18 months year after year. And, unfortunately, like most bloated concept albums, you ultimately end up with a big mess and not many hits on your hands.

Actually, I suppose I should point out that the first pick of the 2011 draft was pretty much bog-standard for the Cardinals at that point; Kolten Wong was a college performer whose best tool was a polished bat that was expected to carry him up the ladder relatively quickly. Now, if we view him on a spectrum of similar college polish guys along with Brett Wallace and Zack Cox, Wong is easily the most athletic and multifaceted of the bunch. Even so, though, as a draft product Wong was cut from the same seemingly safe cloth as those other two guys. And, really, in spite of how frustrating Kolten’s career has been at times, he’s proven to be a very safe draft bet. He made it to the big leagues, contributed decent value, and got a reasonable contract extension. Success.

After Wong, though, the 2011 draft just went completely off the rails. Gone were the safe college performers, replaced by undersized speedsters, mostly in the outfield, mostly from the high school ranks. Charlie Tilson, C.J. McElroy, Kenneth Peoples-Walls, Adam Ehrlich, and Lance Jeffries were all high school picks in the first ten rounds, a stunning departure from the normal Redbird plan of attack. Only Ehrlich, the catcher, wasn’t cut from the undersized speedster cloth, but he made up for it by having something else in common with pretty much all the others: he had absolutely zero power. Tilson has so far been the most successful of the bunch, and brought back Zach Duke in a trade. Injuries have plagued him throughout his pro career, unfortunately.

Lance Jeffries was the player out of this group I was most disappointed to see struggle and fail. A bundle of pure athleticism from a North County high school right here in St. Louis, Jeffries just played the game at a different speed when I saw him play in school. In pro ball, though, he just couldn’t make enough contact, and washed out relatively quickly. It was extremely depressing.

There are a couple of interesting misses in the unsigned portion of this draft; Aramis Garcia and Brett Graves were both later-round picks the Cardinals failed to sign, and both went on to bigger and better draft positions. Garcia ended up a second round pick of the Giants in 2014, while Graves was selected by Oakland in the third. Since turning pro, Garcia has struggled with the bat (and was hit in the face by a pitch that broke his cheekbone last year, I believe), and Graves has been unable to develop his offspeed pitches, with a dropping strikeout rate the end result. Neither looks like a star at this point by any means, but it’s always interesting to think about the potential trade value of a late round pick who becomes an early round pick a couple years later, if nothing else.

Dutch Deol had an all-time great name. He also possessed absolutely top-shelf athleticism as a high school outfielder. He also also couldn’t make contact with much of anything in pro ball, and hasn’t played since 2014, when he appeared briefly in the Twins’ system.

There are a couple players here who could still make it to the big leagues — Ryan Sherriff is close, and Nick Martini made it to Triple A last year as a strike zone control guy who can play all three outfield spots — but at this point it’s hard to say that any player taken in 2011 is going to be any better than Kolten Wong. And the second best player in the whole class is Seth Maness.

I really don’t know the story behind the uncharacteristic 2011 draft for Luhnow and the Cards. They did the thing so many observers hoped they would do every year, going after riskier high school talent, but did so in a very strange way. I know drafting personnel always try to paint individual drafts as lacking in overall plan, and claim that any patterns are coincidental, but this draft seems oddly specific for that. After years of prioritising players with great skills and polish, Luhnow and Company went for a bunch of small, speedy athletes who couldn’t hit a lick, and mostly came up empty. Maybe they had what they thought was a new plan for mining numbers, or an algorithm pointing to a player type that is undervalued, or just wanted to get some speed into the system. Or maybe it really was random. It certainly didn’t feel random, though.

And then, just like that, the Jeff Luhnow era in St. Louis was over. After conducting one of the most un-Luhnow drafts imaginable, the man who had been building the Redbirds’ pipeline since 2005 left for the Houston Astros and a full general manager’s job.

So what do we make of Luhnow’s track record heading up the draft?

Well, for starters, it’s kind of surprising to look back and see that Luhnow, by and large, was not all that great with early picks. He hit big on Rasmus, his very first pick running the show, but then swung and missed like Randal Grichuk at the rest of the bounty of extra picks the Cardinals possessed in 2005. The next year, 2006, Luhnow went for the college arm with the big stuff and bad results in Adam Ottavino, and the Cards got basically nothing. To Luhnow’s credit, he did hit on guys like Jon Jay and Chris Perez in the first couple rounds, though.

In 2007, we have the spectre of passing on Rick Porcello to take Pete Kozma, and that’s a tough pill to swallow. Clay Mortensen was one-third of the Matt Holliday deal, and that’s the best you can really say about the first few rounds. Luhnow took a pair of college performers early in 2008, and the Cardinals did benefit mightily from the picks, but both players (Wallace and Shane Peterson), ultimately disappointed. Luckily, they ultimately disappointed in different uniforms, so....

It’s somewhat harder to analyse 2009. Shelby has had such a strange career I could see feeling lots of ways about him, but he had enough value a couple years back to get Jason Heyward, so that’s good. Robert Stock was a miss, but Joe Kelly became a sleeper really good pick. Zack Cox in 2010 was a bust, beyond John Mozeliak cashing his chips in before Cox completely failed. Seth Blair, bust. Jordan Swagerty, hurt then bust. Tyrell Jenkins....useful trade piece, so not a bad result there.

The pick of Kolten Wong early in the ‘11 draft was a solid one,. but things went awry quickly after that. So in the seven years Luhnow ran the draft, Colby Rasmus may have been his best first round pick. Now, it’s possible Kolten Wong could change that, but right now it seems like a stretch to believe Wong is going to be a star.

Rather, Luhnow made the majority of his money in the later rounds, where his department of quants could mine for undervalued commodities and maybe, just maybe, the organisation felt the smaller bets being placed could justify taking bigger risks. The ‘09 windfall stands out, of course, but even beyond that year the most notable Luhnow picks were players no one had expectations of before they were drafted, really.

It was not a perfect record for Luhnow, obviously. He missed on plenty of early-round guys, with many of them being the sorts of players an amateur scout could see failing a mile away. And yet, when he packed up his bags and headed off to rebuild the Astros, Luhnow had built a pipeline for the Cardinals that was basically undeniable. A big part of that, of course (and the missing piece of the puzzle in this draft-centric history I’m writing here), was international signings, particularly Carlos Martinez and Oscar Taveras. There were plenty of other smaller, canny signings made on the market over the years, but pulling Taveras and Carlos Martinez from the same country within about one calendar year qualifies as the very definition of success.

For now, though, we will leave the farm system right there: on the verge of greatness, with so may of the pieces acquired and just waiting to mature. The Cardinals would absorb a heavy blow when Luhnow left, and it wouldn’t be easy to move on to the next man in charge.

Next time, however, they will do exactly that, as the Cardinal Way becomes a household phrase throughout the game of baseball, and an onfield instruction manual becomes a cultural lodestone. There will be success and hatred in equal measure, as the organisation tries to move on from one of the most important individuals in their history.

Until then.