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A Brief History of Cardinal Drafts in the 21st Century, Part Five: The Kantrovitz Kronicles

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Jeff Luhnow has left, and the Cardinals have moved on to a new man at the head of the draft.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

We are now, chronologically speaking, at a crossroads in our narrative. The time is the 2011-2012 offseason, and the reasons for the crossroads are myriad. In fact, I’m not sure there’s any organisation one can look at in recent memory and point to a single moment in time when so many things were in transition, all up in the air at once.

The Redbirds, at the end of the 2011 season, stood victorious in the World Series. They had just defeated the Texas Rangers in one of the most memorable series ever played, including what may very well be the greatest game ever, full stop. The hero was a local kid, later better known for his pizza salesmanship, who was acquired in exchange for the ghost of Jimmy Ballgame, continuing the Adam Kennedy-Jim Edmonds trade chain on into a new generation. The most brilliant trade of Walt Jocketty’s tenure spawned one of the best trades of John Mozeliak’s tenure. (And in the future would spawn another trade on which the level of brilliance is still to be determined, but is already a solid win.)

The 2011 title was a special one for the organisation. The ‘06 title had undoubtedly been special as well; the first of Bill DeWitt’s ownership, the first for the Cardinals since 1982, and what could easily be seen as a story of redemption following two year of regular season dominance, and then falling short in the playoffs. The ‘06 club was not a great team, but they were great when it counted, and in that way were very, very different from the 2004-2005 juggernauts. But the 2011 championship had an extra hook in it, one related to all the changes the organisation had undergone since DeWitt took the first steps to reestablishing the minor league pipeline of the club.

Tough decisions had been made along the way, from failing to rebuild the roster immediately following the 2006 season to firing Walt Jocketty after ‘07 because he wasn’t on board with the new direction of things. The Cards had taken a chance on a different way of doing things, and 2011 was proof they had made the right call. It was vindication for the step back the club took, and validation for the faith DeWitt had shown in Jeff Luhnow and his player development department.

Well....sort of.

There’s no denying that the 2011 Cardinals got plenty of production from homegrown players. Jon Jay was very solid for the club. Allen Craig was an occasional revelation with his offensive contributions. Fernando Salas and Jason Motte provided between them right around 140 innings of ~2.25 ERA relief work. And Colby Rasmus, for all the wailing and teeth-gnashing over pretty much everything about him, was still a better than league average hitter in 2011 while playing center field everyday for the biggest part of the season.

On the other hand, when we look at the 2011 roster, the fact immediately jumps out that the vast majority of the value on that club did not, in fact, come from new system products. Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina were both huge contributors, and both were products of the farm system, but from the pre-Luhnow days. Lance Berkman was the club’s best overall hitter that year, and he was a brilliant bounceback signing by John Mozeliak. Chris Carpenter essentially went out on a high note as the club’s best starter in his final real season. Kyle Lohse had been a canny one-year signing that turned into a less canny but still quite useful four-year signing. In fact, of the club’s top contributors in 2011, one could make the case the only player who was a recent product of the farm system was Matt Holliday. And he wasn’t really a farm system product; the farm system simply allowed the Cards to acquire him.

What 2011 represented, more than a pure triumph of the Jeff Luhnow scouting and drafting machine, was a triumph of John Mozeliak. For all the doubts that may have swirled around him accepting the job of GM after Chris Antonetti turned the organisation down, it’s hard to argue that 2011 was not Johnny Mo’s creation. His stamp was on the smart moves the organisation made in signing Berkman, shoring up the infield depth with Nick Punto, and acquiring Matt Holliday as a building block. The organisational harmony Mozeliak helped to foster after Jocketty’s acrimonious final season and departure showed in the pipeline which was beginning to deliver the lifeblood of young talent to the organisation. The 2011 Cardinals were not yet the homegrown powerhouse DeWitt had envisioned; we would have to wait for 2013-’15 for that to become a reality. But the talent was beginning to show, both on the major league roster and the moves Mozeliak was able to make, and much of the credit for fostering that pipeline mentality at all levels of the organisation has to go to Mo himself.

And so, as the 2011 season drew to a close, the organisation appeared to be in very good hands. Mozeliak had proven himself an outstanding general manager, one who had both built a great major league club as well as overseen the integration of Luhnow’s department more fully into the framework of a healthy, robust franchise philosophy. The minor league system wasn’t yet the elite paragon it would be in a year or two, but it was very much on the rise. The major league club had just won the World Series. The organisation appeared to be firing on all cylinders, top to bottom, and things looked good pretty much everywhere you looked.

And then Tony LaRussa retired, Albert Pujols signed with the Angels, and Jeff Luhnow left for Houston. The man writing out the lineups for fifteen years was gone. The player who had been a franchise-defining beast for eleven of those years was gone. And the man entrusted with building a better, more sustainable mousetrap was gone. Things suddenly seemed to be falling apart everywhere you looked.

Give that this story is about the draft and the minor leagues, we’ll restrict the purview here to only the Jeff Luhnow portion of the equation. LaRussa and Pujols both leaving created a hard break for the organisation; there was suddenly a strong line of demarcation between one Cardinal era and another. But that only slightly affects out story.

What we care about is the fact the Cardinals needed to find someone new to head up the scouting department. That someone would have remarkably large shoes to fill, too, considering where the farm system was in 2003-2005, and where it was in 2011.

The man the Cardinals tapped to try and fill those shoes was Dan Kantrovitz, a former minor leaguer in the Redbirds’ own system who, after washing out of pro ball, had gone back to school, gotten into the analytics and scouting side of the game, and served as a college scout for the Cards in 2004-2008. He then left to run the International scouting department for Oakland, and came back to the Cards when they needed a new scouting director.

Kantrovitz would ultimately run the Cardinals’ drafting operations for three years (he did not serve as head of the player development department as well, as Luhnow had for part of his tenure), from 2012-2014, before heading back to Oakland again to take the job of Assistant General Manager when the Dodgers hired Farhan Zaidi.

And that 2012 draft is where we begin today.

2012

Notable picks: Michael Wacha, RHP (Rd 1), James Ramsey, OF (Rd 1), Stephen Piscotty, 3B/OF (Comp), Patrick Wisdom, 3B (Comp), Steve Bean, C (Comp), Carson Kelly, 3B/C (Rd 2), Tim Cooney, LHP (Rd 3), Kyle Barraclough, RHP (Rd 7), Rowan Wick, C/1B/RHP (Rd 9), Jacob Wilson, 2B (Rd 10)

Remember when, way back at the beginning, Jeff Luhnow’s first draft (2005, that is), featured a huge number of extra early picks? Well, strangely enough, his successor was treated to the exact same head start, as the 2012 draft saw the Cardinals reaping the benefits of John Mozeliak having done a remarkable job gaming the system and pulling extra draft picks as part of the Colby Rasmus trade return. However one may feel about the Rasmus trade (I still have plenty of problem with how it went down, and the reasons why it went down), it is worth noting that Mozeliak, in choosing his return for the frustrating outfielder, did so with an eye to the future, and thus built the bounty of extra picks in the first and compensatory rounds you see above.

And what did Dan Kantrovitz do with that haul of extra opportunities? Well, he did very much what one might expect a former director of college scouting and stathead to do: he drafted a ton of college talent. He also hit a home run with his first pick, in much the same fashion as Luhnow did with his.

The first four picks of Kantrovitz’s first draft were all collegians, and it’s interesting to note an immediate difference between his and Luhnow’s drafts. The schools represented by the first four picks here are Texas A&M, Florida State, Stanford, and St. Mary’s. Now, admittedly, St. Mary’s is not exactly in the same class as those others in terms of name recognition, but it is well-known as a very solid baseball school on the west coast. It’s not exactly ‘Bama, but St. Mary’s is also not Southeastern Sequoia State Community College, either.

And therein lies my point: where Luhnow’s drafts often focused on out of the way players from small schools (Slippery Rock, anyone?), Kantrovitz appears to have been much more in favour of drafting from power programs. Admittedly, we’re only looking at the early portion of the draft here, and under Luhnow the run of Brett Wallace (Arizona State), Zack Cox (Arkansas), and Kolten Wong (Hawaii), all drew from major college programs (Hawaii being the smallest of the three, and still a pretty big deal), so I don’t want to overstate the tendency of Luhnow to go after juco guys when big dollars were on the line. But even so, we have four players in a row at the top of the draft out of big-time college programs, and going down the list of schools from which the Kantrovitz drafts were drawn we see lots of Floridas and UCLAs and Arizonas, and far fewer Centenary Colleges. (In case you’re wondering, that’s in Louisiana, and the alma mater of Boone Whiting.)

In fact, Kantrovitz’s first four picks feel very much like the Wallace/Cox/Wong (I wonder if anyone calls their penis ‘Wallace’, because if so that slash line is even funnier), picks condensed into two rounds. Michael Wacha, the home run of the bunch (well, at least until the shoulder injury from which Pac-Man has now suffered for three-plus years started to eat into his health), was one of the top college performers on the mound for a Big 12 program that had produced some very solid big league talent over the past decade. Ramsey was an interesting value bet as a college senior (and thus hopefully a cheaper sign), who had done nothing but hit for Florida State. Stephen Piscotty suffered from the stigma of the Stanford Swing, but was still one of the best pure hitters in the whole class.

Of the four, Patrick Wisdom was the biggest risk, with a profile that was more strikeouts and power and less polish, but who also possessed a glove at third that could have made him a star had things worked out for him. Make no mistake: the Dan Kantrovitz approach in the early rounds appeared to be focused on value, and hopefully value soon, and this small sample doesn’t change all that much when we zoom further out.

After that suite of early picks, the new scouting director spread his wings a bit and took a few chances. Carson Kelly was, at the time, a two-way star from an Oregon high school who showed intriguing power potential and plus athleticism at third base despite a marked lack of foot speed. Steve Bean, on the other hand, was seen as an incredibly advanced high school catcher, with plus defensive tools but a questionable bat. In the years since, Kelly has converted to a plus defensive catcher with a questionable bat, and Steve Bean is considering how much capital it would take to start up a company making canned chili. (He’s pretty sure ‘Steve’s Beans’ are going to be huge.)

There’s an interesting side note about this draft class: the Cardinals pulled a ton of potential relief arms here. Sure, Kyle Barraclough turned out to be pretty good after being traded away, but there are names I didn’t mention, like Kurt Heyer and Corey Jones and Lee Stoppelman and Chris Perry and Dixon Llorens and Ronnie Shaban who all fit a profile of a relief arm with one carrying pitch or tool they could rely on. Now, most of those guys didn’t make it, with a few still potentially kicking around, but there’s an interesting subthread in this draft about how many one-trick pitchers Kantrovitz and Co. seemed to pull.

Really, though, the story of this draft is told at the top, with Wacha and Piscotty both potentially long-term franchise pieces and Ramsey having facilitated a trade. Yes, the trade was for Justin Masterson, so the results were as bad as one could expect, but the Cardinals were trying to fill a hole, and Ramsey gave them the bullet to try and get it done.

2013

Notable picks: Marco Gonzales, LHP (Rd 1), Rob Kaminsky, LHP (Rd 1), Oscar Mercado, SS (Rd 2), Mike Mayers, RHP (Rd 3), Mason Katz, 2B (Rd 4), Ian McKinney, LHP (Rd 5), Malik Collymore, SS (Rd 10), Steven Farinaro, RHP (Rd 11), Luke Voit, 1B (Rd 22), Trey Nielsen, RHP (Rd 30), Vaughn Bryan, OF (Rd 35)

If 2012 was an exercise in hammering on the safest bets available with a plethora of early picks, 2013 was a more varied affair, with Kantrovitz and his team spreading out a bit into other territory.

The first pick, however, was not such a case, and represented a virtual carbon copy of the Michael Wacha pick from a year earlier. Sure, Gonzales was a lefty, and a bit more of a soft-tossing version, but the polished starter from the strong baseball school with the advanced changeup thing certainly fits the bill, does it not?

Unfortunately, the similarities to Wacha don’t stop there for Gonzales; he, too, has had his career interrupted by injuries, only without first establishing himself as one of the most tantalising pitching talents in baseball first. Still, the rapidity with which Gonzales moved through the minors was nearly the equal of Wacha, and the thrust of the Kantrovitz idea of instant value was very much on display.

After that, things got interesting. Rob Kaminsky and Oscar Mercado were both risky bets on high-schoolers with tremendous tools, with Kaminsky boasting one of the best fastball/curve combinations in the draft and Mercado flashing 65-70 grade defense at shortstop occasionally. Unfortunately, Kaminsky seems to be breaking down, as he’s lost substantial velocity, as well as the feel for that hammer curveball he possessed in high school, and now lives as more of sinker/changeup guy in the Cleveland system. Mercado, meanwhile, just never has hit, proved error-prone in the pro game, and doesn’t have a name that lends itself to canned chili production. Kaminsky did net Brandon Moss in a trade, and while I still think that trade should have been for Carlos Santana, with a little pot-sweetening done if necessary, Moss was fun to watch for most of his Cardinal career.

Mike Mayers and Mason Katz were both big-college bets; Katz made it to Springfield last year as part of a brutal injury-plagued campaign, and we saw Mike Mayers make his mark on major league history. One or both could contribute at the big league level, but these are pretty marginal players all told.

Ian McKinney could still be interesting as a soft-tossing lefty with a good curve. Malik Collymore brought us Jonathan Broxton, so hooray for that. Farinaro was very talented, but that talent hasn’t turned into results. Luke Voit is kicking around the high minors and hitting very well, so maybe there’s a Matt Adams-quality hitter in there. And Vaughn Bryan had his fifteen minutes of prospect fame a couple years ago, when Jason Parks put him on a top ten prospects list in the system (and for the record, I liked Bryan as well for the tremendous athleticism, even if I thought that #10 rating was literally insane), but since that time has seen his contact rate go in the toilet and his overall stock fade significantly.

Overall, it looks fairly likely the Cardinals won’t really get much of anything of value from this draft. Pulling Moss for Kaminsky isn’t a terrible value, considering how much Kaminsky’s stuff has backed up since he was drafted, but if Marco Gonzales is permanently borked the Moss trade is probably going to be the only value the Cards pulled from the 2013 draft. Maybe McKinney still turns into something; he’s still young. But on the whole, there isn’t a lot coming from this class.

You want to know why there is or was a ‘doughnut hole’ in the Cards’ system that so many have talked about the last couple years? (The idea being there are some very good talents up top, and some intriguing names at the very bottom, but a significant gap between.) The reason for that hole is largely found here, in 2013, where the Cards just didn’t get much real value.

2014

Notable picks: Luke Weaver, RHP (Rd 1), Jack Flaherty, RHP (Rd 1), Ronnie Williams, RHP (Rd 2), Andrew Morales, RHP (Comp B), Trevor Megill, RHP (Rd 3), Austin Gomber, LHP (Rd 4), Darren Seferina, 2B (Rd 5), Daniel Poncedeleon, RHP (Rd 9), Justin Bellinger, 1B (Rd 11), Bryan Dobzanski, RHP (Rd 29), Anthony Herron Jr., RHP (Rd 32)

And for his final act as the scouting director for the St. Louis Cardinals, Dan Kantrovitz pulled a rather large rabbit out of his hat. Potentially a slew of major leaguers, as well.

There is a chance that the 2014 draft will go down as Kantrovitz’s version of that ‘09 class, where things just break right and you end up with a slightly ridiculous haul. Now, admittedly, it’s very hard (bordering on impossible), to imagine the 2014 bunch matching up to the actual quality of the ‘09 group, particularly seeing as how there’s no Matt Carpenter in the class to contend for MVP awards down the road somewhere, not to mention the fact that 2009 class was simply a unique situation, with so many late round draftees turning into meaningful contributors. But, this crop has the potential to produce multiple big leaguers, with a couple chances at above-average players.

To begin the draft, Kantrovitz basically did the exact same thing in the first round he had done in each of the previous two years: the Cardinals identified the strongest performing college pitcher on the board and drafted him. (It’s also interesting to note that all three were, and are, changeup-heavy pitchers, but that could be a coincidence.) In 2012, it was Michael Wacha. Then came Marco Gonzales. And in 2014 it was Luke Weaver, a skinny changeup specialist from Florida State. Weaver had a slightly up and down career for the Seminoles, putting together a monster sophomore season before backing up a bit his junior year, but there were times in his college career you could look at the repertoire and see two legit plus pitches and above-average command of both. That kind of pitcher doesn’t just grow on trees.

My own feelings on Weaver at the time of the draft were somewhat ambivalent, tending toward negative; I saw a decline in the stuff from ‘13 to ‘14, saw a pitcher who never really did show much aptitude for spinning a breaking ball, and had a delivery that absolutely made me cringe. Going on three years later, the breaking ball still hasn’t really come and the delivery still makes me worry for Weaver’s long term health, but the package of fastball and changeup has been so good he’s dominated at every level he’s pitched at. Well, up until he hit the majors last year, that is. It remains to be seen what Weaver will ultimately be — he missed time with forearm discomfort in 2015, and still lacks a legit third pitch, though his cutter is pretty good — but in terms of fast-rising value on the pitching side, which seems to have been Kantrovitz’s favourite sort of first round plan of attack, Weaver has risen through the ranks rapidly and stands as probably the club’s best current trade piece, if nothing else. So again, following in the tradition of not only Kantrovitz’s own Wacha/Gonzales model, but the pitching-side version of the Brett Wallace/Zack Cox/Kolten Wong model as well.

Beyond the first pick, this draft got interesting fast. Flaherty was a two-way high school star who was more of a third base prospect until his senior season, but showed precocious talent and feel for such a fresh arm. Ronnie Williams remains one of my favourite prospects in the system, and represented a bet on an extremely raw (even for a high schooler), power arm at time, and one with outstanding overall athleticism.

The pick of Andrew Morales in the compensatory round is an interesting one, because it was very clearly a money-saving pick. Morales was a senior sign out of UC Irvine, a late-blooming righthanded starter who took well below slot money and freed up the front office to maneuver elsewhere. Morales is still a talented pitcher, though, and could make his way to the big leagues in a relief role, I think. At the very least, he has an excellent slider/slurve that should make him effective against righties. He was hit around hard at the Double A level, though (albeit as a starter), so perhaps he’s going to stall out just short of the prize.

Trevor Megill is sort of the flipside of Morales; he was a risky draft pick who the front office thought they could get for a little less than slot (he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery at the time of the draft and so had some real risk), but Megill balked at the lowball offer and ultimately refused to sign at all. Not the end of the world, but the miscalculation and loss of the full slot bonus unfortunately probably cost the Cards the chance to sign their eleventh round pick.

Speaking of that eleventh round pick, Justin Bellinger was a hulking first base prospect out of a North Carolina high school who showed 70 raw power and surprisingly light footwork for his size. If the Cards had been able to get Megill for the underslot bonus they believed he would agree to, they likely could have met Bellinger’s number. As it turned out, though, Bellinger headed off to Duke, where he struggled his freshman season but then put up an OPS close to 1.000 in 2016. He’s been bad so far this spring, but has plenty of time to turn that around before he reenters the draft in June.

Before the Bellinger pick, though, Kantrovitz had some more work to do, drafting yet another college performer in the form of Austin Gomber, the big lefty with the funky delivery and the curiously underwhelming stuff. Gomber was maybe a little underrated coming out of Florida Atlantic, but has performed well at pretty much every stop in the minors. Darren Seferina was a junior college bet on a big-time athlete who played the middle infield, and he showed well in the low minors. He struggled last year in Palm Beach, though, and will bear watching this season to see if that was just the Florida State League and Roger Dean playing havoc with yet another hitting prospect, or a guy hitting a wall.

Daniel Poncedeleon might have been the most Jeff Luhnow-ish pick of this whole draft, as a senior signing out of Embry-Riddle aeronautical school. He had been drafted multiple times before without ever signing, but inked a deal with the Cardinals and has been mostly good. He looks more like a future reliever to me than a starter, but there’s potential here for very good stuff.

Dobzanski and Anthony Herron both represented late-round bets on high school arms, and the Cards came up with enough bonus money to get Dobzanski signed, but not Herron. It’s been a rough go of things for Dobzanski, a former high school wrestling star, trying to learn the craft of pitching, but the arm strength and natural movement he showed before the draft are still there, and he could still turn into something interesting. Herron, who is from St. Louis, attended Jefferson College for a year, dominated, then transferred to Missouri State. The Mets drafted him again in 2016, but he didn’t sign then, either. He’ll be eligible for the draft again this June, putting him on the Poncedeleon track to multiple draftings before one takes.

What the 2014 draft represented for Dan Kantrovitz and the Cardinals was a more balanced, but also more aggressive, approach to the draft. The 2013 class had a couple risky bets on strong talents in guys like Kaminsky and Oscar Mercado, but overall the approach felt too safe. Too many college performers with mediocre tools, college pitchers without any pitcher you could see a 55 grade or better on. (Mike Mayers, I’m looking at you.) There were more risks taken in ‘14, more interesting players selected, and more of a focus on athletic players, regardless of what position they played. And the payoff could be significant.

Obviously, we don’t know yet how the 2014 class will pay off, and we don’t fully know what the legacy of the Kantrovitz era for the Cardinals will be. It is interesting to note, however, some key differences between Kantrovitz and his predecessor.

Where Luhnow tended to struggle with early picks, but often nailed out of the blue value plays that turned into solid contributors later in the draft, Kantrovitz seems to have had much less touch with the late round gambles. However, his first round track record is much more solid, as all three of his first picks have made it to the big leagues, with only health issues slowing them down. And that, unfortunately, is just the price of doing business when you’re drafting pitchers.

Overall, Kantrovitz was a little less of a gambler than Luhnow just in general. The Luhnow era was often criticised as overly conservative, but taking the long view that wasn’t really true. There were times when Luhnow went for the solid value instead of the potential star, of course, avoiding the bust potential in exchange for less ceiling, but under Kantrovitz we see what a really conservative strategy looks like. He made three first round picks, and all three were the performingest, polishedest college pitchers you could find. Admittedly, he took more risks in ‘14, and it would have been interesting to see how his philosophy and approach might have evolved going forward had he been with the club longer, but we’ll never really know.

It’s still too early, as I said, to fully appreciate what Kantrovitz’s legacy will be, but from where we are now, it looks like he hit a home run out of the gate with that run of extra early picks in 2012, with both Stephen Piscotty and Michael Wacha turning into at least average major leaguers. The ‘13 draft, unfortunately, has turned into a bit of a disaster, though Gonzales could still contribute, and the organisation did get some trade value out of a couple guys. Still, looking at that list, there are very few players at this point even left to look forward to, and that’s a tough pill to swallow for a draft that isn’t even four years in the past.

For better or for worse, what we think of Kantrovitz’s legacy as scouting director will probably hinge largely on what happens with that 2014 class. If Weaver and Flaherty both develop into solid long term contributors, and one of Ronnie Williams or Gomber end up turning into something good, then we will probably be singing the praises of Dan Kantrovitz for a long time to come. If Weaver gets hurt, Flaherty ends up a marginal big leaguer, and Williams/Gomber/Seferina/Poncedeleon all wash up, then it’s a much more difficult legacy to pin down. We have one very good draft, one pretty bad draft, and one incomplete grade at this point for Kantrovitz’s time at the helm. For now, it’s still a wait and see thing.

Speaking of complicated legacies, in the next — and final — installment of this draft history, we will cover the brief reign of Chris Correa. I suppose one could say his legacy isn’t at all complicated, just terrible, due to the fallout from his hacking the Astros. But, there’s also one draft class Correa put together, and it is a very interesting one. We’ll also cover Randy Flores’s one and only draft so far, though we’re still so close to that it’s hard to make any real conclusions about it.

On a side note, I want to apologise for the lateness of this post. I had good intentions on this one, and had everything up until roughly the 2014 draft already written up yesterday evening. Two paragraphs into the home stretch this morning, though, things blew up at work, and I wasn’t able to actually sit down and try to get this done until just about an hour ago. I know perpetual lateness is sort of my schtick, but not to this degree if I can at all help it. So, apologies.

And I’ll see you all again next time, when we bring this sumbitch home and wrap it all up. Hopefully it’s worth the word count.