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A Brief History of Cardinal Drafts in the 21st Century, Part Six: Another Crossroads

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The past moves into the present tense, as we move into the Chris Correa era, brief as it was, and then the Randy Flores era, which will hopefully be longer.

St. Louis Cardinals World Series Victory Parade
Yep, that’s a scouting director.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Finally, we come to the end. Or rather, not the end, but merely the present. We aren’t at the end of anything, but only the moment when there is no more ‘then’ left to write about, because ‘then’ is preparing to intersect with ‘now’.

This series has been, for me, very gratifying to work on, and hopefully edifying for all of you to read. It turned out to be a little longer than I expected (as does everything I write, seemingly), and the research took up a sizable amount of time. All the same, I think it’s been worth it.

To recap where we’ve been up until now:

  • Part One 2000-2004; the pre-Luhnow years, lots of major league success and minor league stagnation.
  • Part Two 2005-2007; Jeff Luhnow takes over the draft under Walt Jocketty as GM.
  • Part Three2008-2009; The first two drafts of the Luhnow/Mozeliak regime, including the historic ‘09 draft that set the table for the 2013 farm system ranking.
  • Part Four 2010-2011; the final two drafts of Luhnow’s tenure before moving on to take the Houston GM job.
  • Part Five2012-2014; Dan Kantrovitz, formerly a scout/analyst in the Cards’ organisation, comes over from Oakland to take over after Luhnow left.

And that’s where we stand now. Following the 2014 season, Kantrovitz left the organisation to go back to Oakland, where the assistant GM spot had just opened up after the Dodgers hired Farhan Zaidi away from the A’s. The Kantrovitz era had been mostly successful, as his early-round picks offered immediate value (even if that value was sabotaged by injury issues in the cases of both Michael Wacha and Marco Gonzales), but ultimately a definite step down from the run of great drafts the Cardinals had under Luhnow and Mozeliak. The ‘13 draft class, in particular, looks to contribute basically nothing to the organisation, particularly if Gonzales proves to be permanently busted; for all the plaudits Kantrovitz received while he was here for maintaining the pipeline and having draft success, I think his legacy as scouting director is much less of an unequivocal positive than that.

That’s not to say Kantrovitz did a bad job, by any means; as I said, he executed well in the early parts of his drafts to bring in college performers who immediately jumped to the head of the line as far as prospect rankings go. But there’s a reason the Cards went from having a top five system from 2012-2014 to being in the bottom third of baseball last year, and while graduation of tons of prospects is a big part of that, the shallowness of Kantrovitz’s drafts and the lack of high-end potential coming in plays a definite part in the system’s re-stagnation.

Luckily for us, things are about to get a whole lot worse. In ways no one would have expected. Well, sort of.

Things in terms of the actual draft are about to get pretty good, and very interesting. There are two draft classes left to be covered before we run out of yesterdays about which to speak, and both are really, really intriguing. The problem, as we all know, is that those two drafts were made under two different scouting directors, and there is a very specific reason why the first of those two is no longer running things.

2015

Notable picks: Nick Plummer, OF (Rd 1), Jake Woodford, RHP (Comp), Bryce Denton, 3B/OF (Rd 2), Harrison Bader, OF (Rd 3), Jordan Hicks, RHP (Rd 3), Paul DeJong, INF (Rd 4), Ryan Helsley, RHP (Rd 5), Ian Oxnevad, LHP (Rd 8), Kep Brown, OF (Rd 10), Jacob Schlesener, LHP (Rd 12), Chris Chinea, C/1B (Rd 17), Gio Brusa, OF/1B (Rd 22), Kyle Molnar, RHP (Rd 25), Matt Vierling, OF (Rd 30)

Here we have the draft class put together by Chris Correa, the former analyst who worked his way up through the Cards’ drafting operation, first under Jeff Luhnow and then continuing under Dan Kantrovitz. And this class, ladies and gentlemen, could potentially be a whale.

What’s interesting about this class is, following three years of very conservative Kantrovitz drafts, just how risky Correa’s first — and, as it turns out, only — bite at the apple was. Four of the first five players taken by the Cardinals in this draft were high schoolers. The club went crazy with high-talent tough signs later on in the draft, and failed to land several of them. And really, we don’t have to go any further than the first pick to see how big a shift in philosophy we have here.

Dan Kantrovitz’s first round picks were exceedingly value-focused; as I mentioned in wrapping up his tenure, the first-rounders taken during his time at the helm were remarkably similar, all of the fast-moving, high-floor, collegian variety. Wacha, Weaver, and Marco Gonzales were all college pitchers, all with advanced feel and repertoires, and all were expected to move up quickly and be ready to contribute in short order.

Compare that paradigm to Nick Plummer, the first first-round pick of the Chris Correa era. It would honestly be hard to imagine a riskier player to take than Plummer.

Nick Plummer was a high school outfielder from a cold weather state (Michigan), who played in a league where the count always started 1-1. So you have the natural risk of a high school player, compounded by the fact he’s coming from an area of the country where the playing season is much more limited, and then add on the fact there’s a bizarre rule where he plays that makes it orders of magnitude more difficult to gauge what kind of approach and feel he has for the craft of hitting. Oh, and just in case that wasn’t enough risk for you, Plummer was slowed by a bout of mono during his senior year, so you have even less of a chance to really feel him out.

If the Dan Kantrovitz first-rounders were plays at getting relatively sure value in the near term, Nick Plummer was an attempt to hit a long term home run with absolutely no concern for the immediate future. He was a pure scouting pick, based on the fact that during the showcase season before his senior year he might have had the best pure hitting ability of any player on the board. Not any high schooler; any player.

The unfortunate reality for Plummer is that he missed all of last season with a wrist injury, which both knocked him out for a full season and cost him an extremely important year of development. Maybe it won’t matter in the long run; Plummer really does have the kind of carrying tool in his bat that can override basically anything else. But losing out on development time as an already old for his class cold weather kid is most definitely not a good thing. And that’s part of why a pick like this is so risky. It doesn’t take a whole lot going wrong to derail the development process when you’re banking on a player whose margin for error appears to be so thin to begin with.

The picks didn’t get much safer after Plummer, either; Woodford was a high school pitcher, which basically just screams risk. Bryce Denton was a tooled-up physical marvel with questions about his position and feel for hitting. So far in pro ball, Denton has shown real improvement with the bat in terms of contact and approach, not a whole lot of power just yet, and has unfortunately had to move to the outfield, which hurts his value a fair bit. Still, the payoff on Denton could be as high as the payoff on Plummer if things go well.

The first college player taken in the draft in 2015 for the Cardinals was Harrison Bader, an underrated outfield prospect from Florida. Why underrated? Mostly because he was playing a corner position due to the presence of Buddy Reed on the Florida roster, but in a more general sense the workmanlike success of Bader was lost a bit in the shuffle of a ridiculously loaded Florida team. And after that, it was right back to risky picks, with Jordan Hicks’s name coming out of the drum next.

At the time of the drafts, Hicks was a player I had virtually no knowledge of. I knew the name, but that was about it. Turns out he had been getting a little buzz about being a helium player the spring of his senior year in high school, but was only just beginning to creep onto the radar as a top 5-10 round pick when the draft rolled around. The third round felt like a reach at the time to me, and I panned the pick. Shows what I know, as Hicks has become one of the more intriguing arms in the system since being drafted. He’s still raw, but the stuff is huge. The delivery worries me, but I’ve seen worse. Hicks was a scouting bet based on arm speed in the same way Plummer was a scouting bet based on pure hitting ability. The payoff for both players could be huge.

And really, that’s much the theme for many of Correa’s picks: upside. Even a player like DeJong, who was a college senior when the Cards took him, was an upside bet on a converted catcher who had shown big time power potential off and on. Ryan Helsley was a pure arm speed bet.

Then there were the players who didn’t sign. Kep Brown was a huge power potential bet coming out of high school, but tore his Achilles’ tendon his senior year and slipped because he barely played. He went to junior college in order to reenter the draft in 2016, but suffered a shoulder injury and so is still in school, potentially in the draft pool again this year. Kyle Molnar was a surefire first round talent, but slipped due to a very strong UCLA commitment and ended up heading off to college. Matt Vierling was a toolsy local two-way star who honoured a Notre Dame commitment. He struggled a bit his freshman season, but so far this year is putting up a .930 OPS as a sophomore.

It is extremely interesting to look at the draft Chris Correa put together, considering where he came from. This was not an outside hire, a new player brought in to reshape the draft directives after an unsuccessful run. In other words, Correa was not Jeff Luhnow circa 2005. Rather, Correa came of age and learned under the previous two scouting directors, both of whom tended toward very conservative drafting patterns. Luhnow had his moments of gambling, certainly, but overall he wasn’t a huge risk taker. Kantrovitz took that risk aversion to another level, producing very college-heavy drafts almost completely lacking in potential star-level talent.

Correa, on the other hand, appeared to be almost entirely concerned with upside, with potential stars. Every player he drafted in the early going possessed a carrying tool with a plus grade, with the potential exception of Bader, who has some 55s on the card but might not have a true 60 anywhere. (Then again, the raw power could be a 60, so....) Perhaps it was a function of where the system was when Correa took over, but if we look at the various draft classes as reflections of the scouting directors running those drafts, then Correa looks positively swashbuckling compared to his immediate predecessor.

Of course, there’s also the small matter of Correa’s hacking the Astros, which I suppose I really can’t get away with not mentioning.

I am loathe to do so, honestly, because I’m not sure how much it really impacts what Correa did in the draft. His crimes seem related to the draft, yes, but as to how much the info he gleaned from the Houston database informed the picks he made, I really have no idea. And talking about the hacking is just....messy.

Here’s the thing: we know that Correa was accessing the Astros’ database long before he became scouting director. We also know he checked Houston’s scouting report on Marco Gonzales at some point before the Cardinals drafted the lefty. Whether that was to look for medical red flags in someone else’s scouting reports, to see if his own opinion jibed with what the Houston scouts were saying, or just to fuck with the ‘Stros is really impossible to say. And really, if Correa used Houston’s scouting report to help confirm that, yes, Gonzales really was the guy he should be pushing Kantrovitz to take, then it sort of backfired, didn’t it? Considering how Gonzales’s career has gone so far, anyway.

What is most puzzling about Correa’s crimes is how little he would seem to stand to gain from them. I suppose there are some things one could learn poking around another team’s private database, but really, what could you possibly learn that is of real value? This isn’t like me hacking into a team’s database and being delighted by the untinctured scouting data I’m seeing everywhere; Correa was already part of a major league scouting department — one that produced some of the best results in baseball, by the way — and had all that info already. It just doesn’t make sense, in terms of what you could gain.

Rather, what Correa did really does appear to have been motivated by pure petty jealously, or vengeance, or whatever else it was he felt toward Jeff Luhnow. And he paid for it. And the Cardinals did, too. Losing a pair of picks in the upcoming draft pretty much guarantees Correa will go down as the worst possible choice for scouting director the organisation could have made. That being said, I don’t know how to relate the idiocy of his personal campaign against Luhnow to the picks he actually made in the draft, and so trying to draw the two subjects together continues to frustrate me.

2016

Notable picks: Delvin Perez, SS (Rd 1), Dylan Carlson, OF/1B (Rd 1), Dakota Hudson, RHP (Rd 1), Connor Jones, RHP (Rd 2), Zac Gallen, RHP (Rd 3), Jeremy Martinez, C (Rd 4), Walker Robbins, 1B/OF/LHP (Rd 5), Tommy Edman, INF (Rd 6), Andrew Knizner, C/3B (Rd 7), John Kilichowski, LHP (Rd 11), Vincent Jackson, OF (Rd 14), Mick Fennel, OF (Rd 22)

Following the disaster that was the Chris Correa hacking scandal, the Cardinals looked outside the organisation for their next scouting director pick, and chose Randy Flores, the former LOOGY and current entrepreneur, who had founded a video analysis company following his playing career. It was, to say the least, a surprising pick, with at least one prominent analyst (i.e. me), hoping Ben Cherington, the farm director and general manager of the Red Sox, would be the hire. But the Cards did what they pretty much always do, and went with an individual who had organisational ties, even if in this case those ties were more tenuous than most, considering the magnitude of the position being filled.

It’s a little funny, isn’t it, how history repeats itself? Jeff Luhnow’s first year running the draft saw a bounty of extra early picks, with which he gambled more seriously than he ever would again in the draft. Dan Kantrovitz took over in 2012 to four picks in the top 52 and six in the top 100. He used his bevy of early picks to go college heavy and produce near-immediate value with Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty, and the fairly quickly traded James Ramsey.

And now here we are, with Randy Flores taking over. And what does Flores find? Why, three picks before #35. If you’re going to make a splash your first year on the job, three first round picks is a hell of a head start.

Drilling down on Flores’s picks, we see someone who is more of a gambler than Kantrovitz, but probably not quite as aggressive as Correa. Flores took a huge gamble on Delvin Perez, sort of. You could argue selecting a high school middle infielder with a positive PED test on his record is about as risky as one can possibly get in the first round; one could also argue that taking a top five overall talent who slid to 23 for reasons that likely don’t affect his long term outlook all that much is the least risky thing a person could do.

Dylan Carlson was a bit of a reach where the Cardinals took him, at least in terms of what he had done before the draft, but he has serious talent and represented a bit of a cost savings. Then we move into college pitching territory, where Flores dug into the same value-centric demographic Kantrovitz so determinedly mined, with the next three picks going to college righthanders who all possess relatively high floors. Connor Jones could be a one-pitch reliever in the big leagues this year if necessary, most likely, and Zac Gallen has that command of an average arsenal thing that should carry him at least to Double A, at which point his average stuff will be tested. Dakota Hudson, interestingly enough, actually falls somewhat into that old Luhnow standby grouping of the raw college pitcher, but even so has such good stuff he should at least make it as a decent reliever.

I’ve said before, several times, how much I love what the Cardinals did in the draft in 2016, so I won’t go overboard repeating myself here. And really, considering how little we know about what the class will ultimately become, it will be some time still before we can try to judge how well Flores did in his first year at the helm. In fact, we can only barely begin to understand who he is philosophically based on one year of returns; until we have multiple drafts to judge, Randy Flores remains a bit of a blank slate still.

So it is that the 2016 draft is potentially the most interesting class we have to look at, but the one about which we can say the least. There simply isn’t enough distance yet to take good stock of what went down.

And sadly, that is largely where we must leave the organisation. The years since Jeff Luhnow left for Houston have been eventful, even turbulent, ones to be sure. The Cardinals have had three scouting directors for just five drafts in the post-Luhnow era, and we don’t have to look very far around baseball to see how much the club’s fortunes have changed since the 2011-2012 offseason, when a post-championship model organisation hired a former player away from Oakland to replace the man who had defined the new era of Cardinal drafts.

So how do we view the 21st century of Cardinal drafts, the subject which I’ve spent so much time attempting to gain a handle upon? Well, we can safely write off the early years, the pre-Luhnow years, as wasted, for the most part. The Redbirds would occasionally grab a complementary piece here or there, but by and large the system was allowed to stagnate, and things appeared dark for the future even as the club basked in a golden age in the majors. The Luhnow era of drafts was, for the most part, extremely successful. He took over the scouting department at one of the darkest moments in recent Cardinal history, and left the organisation with the best farm system in the game. It may have taken seven drafts, but Jeff Luhnow build a player development powerhouse.

By comparison, Dan Kantrovitz has the feel of a caretaker, perhaps a transitional figure, though I’m sure the Redbirds didn’t view him as such at the time. There were emperors in Rome who served really only as bridges between more important figures, particularly if the situation involved a child emperor who needed time to come into his own. Or perhaps a transitional champion would be more the proper speed to compare Kantrovitz to; I could certainly see him as the Ivan Koloff or Tommy Rich of the Cardinals’ draft department. I don’t know why, but Kantrovitz always felt like a short-timer to me. He drafted for as close to the immediate future as possible, pulled some solid value with those early picks, but ultimately did not live up to the standard set by his predecessor.

And then came Correa, who did not feel like a short-timer, if only because he had been bred and groomed in the Cards’ own system, raised up through the scouting department over a period of years, until he was the perfect candidate to carry forward the Redbird drafting philosophy. That was, of course, until we figured out that Correa was a criminal, a rather stupid one at that, and that he was pursuing a bizarre personal vendetta since basically the moment Jeff Luhnow left, and ended up costing both himself and the organisation hugely.

So here we stand, one draft into the Randy Flores era, and it feels like we’re still very much at a crossroads. The initial class for Flores was incredibly exciting, but he also had the benefit of having the draft set up almost perfectly for him to come in his first go-round. It’s easy (or easier, I suppose), to look smart when you’ve got three first round picks; this year will tell us far more about the job Randy Flores is going to do. Three first round picks? You ought to be able to have a pretty good draft. Not picking until the third round? Now we’ll see if you’ve got some magic up your sleeves.

The Cardinals feel like they’re still at a crossroads because we haven’t yet seen the damage wrought by Correa come home to roost; we haven’t seen this newest iteration of the scouting department trying to do the job with both hands tied behind their collective back. Once we do, then I think we’ll be out of the crossroads and back on the path, no longer waiting to see which road the Cardinals are going to take.

Until then, we’ll just have to wait to see if it’s the road back to glory or the road to ruin the organisation will travel. It was a long, hard slog to get the farm system to the top of the mountain, and a much easier slide down. It looks like the Cards are climbing up again, but we also have the biggest roadblock the scouting department has faced since at least 2004 to contend with. How Randy Flores and his department deal with that roadblock will tell us a lot.

Until then, as unsatisfying as it may be, we’ll all just have to wait and see.