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A Brief History of Cardinal Drafts in the 21st Century, Part One: The Early Years

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The long story starts here, with the Cardinals of the early 2000s having great major league success and absolutely zero minor league success.

St Louis Cardinals Victory Parade Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

I write a lot about prospects in these pages. Most of my Sunday morning posts carry with them the alliterative title ‘System Sundays’, in which I try to focus on some aspect of the Cardinal system, or highlight a player of interest, or some other thing of the sort.

I also write quite a lot about the draft; amateur prospects have become my chief hobby horse around these parts since I first started trying to offer some kind of draft coverage way back in 2008. That was my first full year writing for the site, and after having attempted some fanpost-based draft stuff in 2007, I got Larry’s blessing to focus in on the draft in a more substantive way in ‘08. I did so both because draft coverage was, at the time, extraordinarily scarce around the interwebs, and because I thought writing extensively on a subject I cared about deeply, but struggled to find good info on much of the time, could help me carve out a niche for myself as I tried to find my footing as a front page writer for the best baseball blog I had ever encountered.

So what that means, doing some relatively high-level math (at least for me), is that I have now been writing about the amateur draft for a decade. This is my tenth year. As depressing as that is, I’m trying not to focus on that fact too much, and rather consider what, if anything, I have learned in my years of writing up high school kids and collegians alike, not to mention following what the Redbirds themselves have specifically done in the draft over those years.

And to that end, I thought that what I would do is write about the Cardinals’ drafts this century. That covers a whole lot of territory, and much of it transformative territory. In the late 90s, the Cardinals were still trying to recover from the disastrous final years of Anheuser-Busch ownership of the club. Gussie Busch — the guy in the cowboy hat on the outfield wall — was, by and large, a fantastic owner in his time. Sure, he had a strange habit of being a cheapskate in certain situations (witness, for instance, the nightmare that is trading away Steve Carlton), but overall he owned the club through some remarkably bright years, and embodied the kind of fandom we all want from an owner. He didn’t own the club because it was profitable; he owned the Cardinals because he was a fan who just happened to be rich enough to buy a baseball team.

By the early 90s, though, Gussie was no longer running the show. His son had taken over the Busch family business, and had very little interest in owning a baseball team. Or anything else not strictly related to beer, for that matter. It was in those years that A-B got rid of the Eagle Snacks brand (anyone remember the Anheuser-Busch logo pretzels Eagle used to put out?), closed down St. Louis Refrigerator Car, their railroad branch (which put my father out of work in 1992 for a while), and just generally consolidated the business down into just brewing operations. Those final years of the A-B reign over the Cardinals were not pretty; those were the Joe Torre years, when what amounted to absentee ownership prevented the team from ever really fielding the kind of team they had in the 80s. Sure, there were bright spots — I still remember when the Ray Lankford/Brian Jordan/Bernard Gilkey outfield trio was a new dynasty in the making — but overall, the team didn’t have the full support or attention of ownership (I’m also not certain how good a GM Dal Maxvill was, in retrospect), and the roster was left half-formed most years.

Walt Jocketty took over in 1995, Tony LaRussa came in the following year, and the renaissance began. The 1996 playoff appearance was the only the Cardinals made the whole decade, but the Mark McGwire acquisition and resulting home run chase filled the stands and bought the club time, while the front office and scouting department built a pipeline of talent. The club drafted incredibly well in the late 90s (John Mozeliak was assistant scouting director for a couple of those drafts, and full scouting director for the legendary ‘99 draft), as they snagged Braden Looper in 1996, Adam Kennedy and Bud Smith in 1997, J.D. Drew and Rick Ankiel in 1998, and Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina in 1999. Given that Looper was used as a trade chip to acquire Edgar Renteria, Kennedy was flipped as part of the Jim Edmonds deal, Smith was a big part of the Scott Rolen trade, Drew was a near-star level performer for the Cards for a few seasons and then brought in Adam Wainwright, and the Pujols/Molina tandem did, well, all the stuff Pujols and Yadi did and continue to do, it’s not hard to see how the foundation for the success of the past decade and a half was largely laid down by canny drafting in the late 90s and Jocketty’s strategic brilliance in exploiting the realities of player valuation at the dawn of the 21st century.

A funny thing happened as the calendars turned from 1999 to 2000, though; the Cardinals apparently forgot how to draft. Mozeliak was still in charge for at least some of those early-2000s drafts, but it’s surprisingly tough to find detailed histories on MLB’s draft and team executives that far back. So it’s really kind of hard to ascertain exactly what went wrong.

RB edit: I had Yadier Molina going in the 1999 draft; he was actually drafted in 2000. My mistake. However, rather than mess about with the post and try to make it look like I didn’t make an error, I’m just going to cop to it and leave this here. So at the very least, the Cardinals did pick up one core piece in the 2000s. -A.

However, that’s what I’m going to cover today.

This history of the Cardinals’ drafts in the 21st century is going to go five parts long, I believe; the years work out pretty much perfectly for that. Today’s piece will cover the early 2000s drafts prior to Jeff Luhnow taking over the scouting department, i.e. 2000-2004. This will also, by leaps and bounds, probably be the shortest and least detailed of the pieces. Partially because information is harder to come by, partially because I didn’t start paying attention to the draft until a few years later (right around 2004, actually), and partially because there aren’t a whole lot of success stories to highlight, and little in the way of an overarching philosophy we can point to as well. So consider this background information, setting the stage for Bill DeWitt bringing in Luhnow and handing over authority to a man with a decidedly non-baseball background to restructure and redirect the Redbirds’ player development operations and philosophy.

Additional RB edit: I said this will be the shortest piece, but I underestimated just how much I would have to write about covering five full years. It is probably the least detailed, but admittedly, this turned into a much longer piece than I initially envisioned, simply because of the volume of material to cover. -A

Part two will cover the early years of Luhnow’s tenure, when he worked under Walt Jocketty, from 2005-2007. Part three will be the latter half of the Luhnow years, when John Mozeliak took over the GM job, from 2008-2011.

Part four will cover the tenure of Dan Kantrovitz, who took over after Luhnow left for Houston with his deep knowledge of password security, and served from 2012-2014. And part five will cover the most recent two scouting directors’ drafts, with Chris Correa’s sole effort at the helm in 2015 joining Randy Flores’s first draft of a (hopefully), much longer tenure last year.

Please note, I am not trying to write a history of the Cardinals’ front office, nor the scouting director job itself. I’m only interested in breaking up the drafts by eras, and that’s how the years happen to portion out best.

So let’s begin way back in the year 2000, shall we?

2000

Notable Picks: Shaun Boyd, 2B/SS (Rd 1), Blake Williams, RHP (Rd 1), Chris Narveson, LHP, (Rd 2), Yadier Molina, C (Rd 4), Carmen Cali, LHP (Rd 10), John Gall, 1B/OF (Rd 11), Tyler Johnson, LHP (Rd 34)

In the year 2000, the Cardinals had an extra pick early on, giving them two bites at the first-round apple. The fact you probably don’t recognise either of the players the Cards took with those two first round picks should tell you just about everything you need to know about how things went for them.

The big miss in this draft was the Redbirds’ first first round pick. There was a pair of middle infielders the club was considering taking, both out of California; they had settled on trying to snag up the middle help, and had two players in mind for the job. One, Shaun Boyd, was a high school shortstop who showed great athletic promise but had some makeup questions and hadn’t really solidified his standing with the bat just yet. The other was a college player, from UCLA, who had shown real offensive promise but wasn’t as highly thought of in terms of being able to play shortstop. The Cards had Edgar Renteria manning short at the time, but wanted to get a premium position talent into the system, and so apparently decided on the high schooler who appeared to have the better chance to stay at short, rather than the college kid most scouts agreed would probably end up moving over to second base, which at the time was regarded much less highly than the position is in the current climate.

And that’s why the Cardinals selected Shaun Boyd, who never made it to the big leagues and last played minor league baseball in 2007. The guy they passed on, who wasn’t projected to stick at short and thus was less valued? Chase Utley.

Any kind of performance-based analysis at the time would have screamed for the team to take Utley, but alas, that sort of thinking was still years off.

As for the rest of the draft, the Cards actually did decently well for themselves. Obviously, nabbing Yadier Molina, potential (though not probable), Hall of Fame catcher, goes a long way toward making a successful draft. However, Tyler Johnson was a meaningful part of the 2006 championship run (remember how much fun Johnson’s slider was?), Chris Narveson pitched for several years in the big leagues, and both Carmen Cali and John Gall made it to the show for a cup of coffee at least. Still, without Yadi, this draft looks very, very different.

2001

Notable picks: Justin Pope, RHP (Rd 1), Dan Haren, RHP (Rd 2), Joe Mather, SS (Rd 3), Skip Schumaker, OF/2B (Rd 5), Dan Kantrovitz, 2B (Rd 25), Blake Hawksworth, RHP (Rd 28)

Justin Pope continued the Cardinals’ run of very poor first round picks in 2001; he followed Boyd/Williams in 2000 and Chance Caple in 1999 as notable busts. He did net the Cardinals Sterling Hitchcock from the Yankees in one of the many desperation moves Walt Jocketty made in 2003 in an attempt to shore up what was a truly disastrous bullpen. (2003 was the year of Esteban Yan and Pedro Borbon, and readers of a certain age just had an involuntary shudder run through them.) So that’s something, I suppose.

From there, though, things got better. Dan Haren was a phenomenal draft pick in the second round, even if he fell a little short of the Hall of Fame plaque I predicted for him in 2006. Trading him for Mark Mulder, though, still stings. Joe Mather made the team really handsome for awhile, and we all know how useful Skip Schumaker ended up being. Blake Hawksworth was a top prospect for a time, before arm issues derailed his career, and while he ended up fizzling out, injuries for pitchers are not a thing you can look at and say, “We definitely should have seen that coming.”

Drafting Dan Kantrovitz in the 25th round did not bring the Cardinals any value on the field, sadly. However, it did begin a relationship that would lead to some very solid draft returns from 2012-’14, so it’s notable here.

2002

Notable picks: Travis Hanson, SS/3B (Rd 9), Reid Gorecki, OF (Rd 13), Kyle McClellan, RHP (Rd 25)

There’s really no other way to say it: the 2002 draft for the Cardinals was an utter disaster. A steaming pile of shit, in fact. When we look at where the Cards’ farm system was around the time Luhnow took over the draft officially (it was ranked at or near the bottom of the rankings pretty much every year for awhile there), the 2002 draft is a huge part of the reason.

When the biggest success of you entire draft class is a 25th round flyer on a local kid who was anything but a top prospect, you know something has gone wrong. And in spite of the fact Hanson hung around as an intriguing infield option for a few years and Gorecki was, honestly, one of the more impressive athletes I’ve ever seen on a baseball field, though not nearly as good an actual baseball player, there was virtually no real value created in this draft. K-Mac was a fairly useful middle reliever for a couple years, then a very bad starter for part of one, and ultimately accumulated a career fWAR of -0.3. I don’t want it to sound like I’m mocking or insulting McClellan; he was what he was, and what he was was fine for his role. But that -0.3 WAR is the best the Cards did in 2002.

The Cards’ first pick in 2002 was a shortstop out of a North Carolina high school named Calvin Hayes. Hayes was another big time athlete, similar to Shaun Boyd from a couple years earlier, but Hayes couldn’t hit even as well as Boyd, and retired in 2006. To be fair, the Cards didn’t have a pick until the third round in ‘02, as a result of signing Jason Isringhausen and...ugh. Tino Martinez. I had blocked that out of my mind. Anyway, not having a pick until round three certainly hurt the Cards’ drafting efforts, but still. This was shitshow.

Before we move on to 2003, we should probably take stock a bit of where the Cards were after the 2002 draft. They failed to add any real value that year, and at that point the only prospects in the system that would ultimately end up amounting to anything were guys like Molina, Dan Haren, and Skip Schumaker. Tyler Johnson was a thing during one title run, as I said, but he was still a lefty reliever.

It’s also notable, to me at least, that as I look at the draft lists from the first few years of the time frame we’re talking about here and research the players whose names I don’t know (and just try to remember what I can about the players I do know), that there doesn’t appear to have been any kind of consistent philosophy. The Cards in those years were mostly known for having a college-heavy approach that focused on performers, yet passed on a great college performer in Utley to take the raw athlete in Boyd out of high school. They didn’t seem to have a specific type of pitcher they favoured, nor did they appear to weight premium positions more heavily in general, except for perhaps a first round bias that betrayed them multiple times. I don’t want to say there was no philosophy at all, because I’m sure there was. But it doesn’t appear to have been nearly as strong a direction in those days as we see now.

So heading into 2003, the Cardinals’ farm system was very much in the toilet. Haren looked like a future contributor after having been a bit undercooked in his 2002 emergency debut (remember, 2002 was the Daryl Kile year), and Yadi was moving steadily up the ladder, though without ever really looking like a future star due to mediocre offensive numbers.

2003

Notable picks: Daric Barton, C/1B (Rd 1), Dennis Dove, RHP (Rd 3), Brendan Ryan, SS (Rd 7), Matt Pagnozzi, C (Rd 8), Ian Kennedy, RHP (Rd 14), Anthony Reyes, RHP (Rd 15), Jason Motte, C/RHP (Rd 19), Brett Sinkbeil, RHP (Rd 38), Max Scherzer, RHP (Rd 43)

This....was nearly a legendary draft.

In 2003, the Cardinals hired Jeff Luhnow. He initially served as more of a consultant, before taking over the scouting operations fully in 2005. But he first showed up in ‘03. That’s not really all that important to talking about these players, I don’t think, but in order to place us in the story, this is when the man who would really build the Cards’ development machine a little bit after this period is walking through the door as we consider this draft class.

Daric Barton may not have ultimately turned out to be the hitter he was expected to be, as he never really developed the power that was forecast, but he built enough value initially to be the co-headliner in the Mark Mulder trade. Again, the trade ended up terribly for El Birdos, but Muldoo was still one of the Big Three at the time of the deal, and Barton was a big-time Moneyball type prospect.

Of the players the Cardinals actually signed out of the 2003 draft, Brendan Ryan turned out to be the biggest success story. I admit, I didn’t see that coming. Then again, a defensively elite shortstop can rack up plenty of value in his career, even if he never develops into even close to an average hitter. (For the record, Brendan Ryan as an average hitter might be a Marty Marion MVP candidate some years.) As it stands, Boog has had himself a very solid career, made plenty of money, and gave us all some great memories, mostly mustache and Mather-related.

Anthony Reyes was a very intriguing talent. If you’ve been around this blog long enough, you may also remember he was somewhat of a divisive figure, he deadpanned while trying not to smile too widely. In retrospect, it’s a shame Reyes didn’t end up in the bullpen earlier in his career, where maybe he could have had a longer run and probably been very good. As it was, a bad fit with the pitching philosophy of the organisation and eventual arm injuries tanked Reyes’s career.

The real juice of this draft, though, lies in the trio of pitchers the Cardinals drafted but did not sign. Ian Kennedy, Brett Sinkbeil, and Max Scherzer all went on following this draft to become first round picks in 2006, all taken before the Cardinals had a chance to pick at #30 overall. Sinkbeil was the least successful of the group, ultimately stalling out in Double A after arm injuries, but in 2006 he was seen as a monster talent, and had he signed in ‘03 would have been a hugely valuable trade piece if nothing else. Kennedy was selected 21st overall by the Yankees in ‘06, traded to the Diamondbacks as part of the giant three-team trade that included Curtis Granderson, Austin Jackson, Edwin Jackson, and...Max Scherzer. Kennedy has been a solid major leaguer, has had a couple star-level seasons (most notably his 2011 season in Arizona, which saw him rack up 4.8 WAR), and has generally been exactly the sort of player you would like to have drafted.

And Max Scherzer was an okay pitcher for a couple years. And then he was one of the best pitchers in baseball for a couple years. And then the Cardinals could have signed him, and didn’t. And now he’s still one of the best pitchers in baseball.

So what we have here is an epic miss. I don’t know who was scouting pitchers for the Cards in 2003, but whoever it was had an amazing eye. (Yes, I know that’s not how it really works.) Obviously, plenty of players drafted out of high school in the 30th round or later end up not signing, so it isn’t as if we can say the Cards cheaped out and really screwed up by not landing Kennedy, Scherzer, and Sinkbeil. But when you think of where those three pitchers ranked after three years of college, it’s incredibly hard not to consider where the Cards’ farm system would have been in ‘06 had they busted open the piggy bank and just bought all the guys they drafted out of their college commitments.

2004

Notable picks: Chris Lambert, RHP (Rd 1), Jarrett Hoffpauir, 2B (Rd 6), Mark Worrell, RHP (Rd 12)

And so we come to the last year of this early-period writeup, where we find the Cardinals essentially recreating their disaster of 2002 by getting absolutely nothing in return for 50 draft picks spent and a decent amount of bonus money being handed out.

It’s really a shame that modern baseball front offices seem to be so generally tight-lipped about pretty much everything, because I would love to someday read an oral history of the Cards’ ‘04 draft. I’m sure many of you have heard the story before, but for those who haven’t, it appears the Redbirds at the time of the draft in 2004 were in transition. The organisation had apparently decided to revamp the scouting department, but hadn’t actually completed the process. The club didn’t have enough scouts on the payroll, didn’t have proper crosschecking in place, didn’t have their analytics department up and running yet. In short, the Cardinals didn’t really have their shit together on draft day 2004, and the results looks like what you get in that situation.

The best thing Chris Lambert accomplished in his career was a running gag here on VEB where his ghost would occasionally pop up to haunt former editor in chief Dan Moore; beyond that he essentially put together as good a baseball career as the Highlander Chris Lambert. There are stories, quite possibly apocrpyphal, of Luhnow and his fledgling analytics/drafting department having put together a list of players they were recommending, and both Dustin Pedroia and Huston Street were ranked very highly. Josh Fields, a college third baseman, was the org’s top target, but when the White Sox popped him right ahead of the Cards, someone at the very top of the organisation decided to go with a college pitcher, and Lambert was the name that came out of the hat. It’s tough to say how true that story might be; if the Cardinals’ quant guys really liked Pedroia, it seems strange the organisation passed on him not once, but twice, selecting Mike Ferris (yep, there’s a reason you don’t know that name), in the second round ahead of the Red Sox picking Pedroia. Then again, this was also the first time we ever heard rumblings of certain members of the front office resisting any participation by the numbers types, so perhaps Pedroia really was one of the recommendations, and was actually passed over out of spite. It’s possible. Seems stupid, but it is possible.

Regardless, the organisation in 2004 — at least in terms of the scouting/drafting and player development side — was a disaster. There were multiple players of interest the Cardinals had never gotten to crosscheck because they lacked the manpower. Again, some of the stories might be slightly exaggerated to make things seem even more chaotic and busted than they really were, but I don’t think it’s any exaggeration at all to say the Redbirds of 2004 had very little chance to put together a good draft, because the organisation below the major league front office had essentially crumbled to nearly nothing, and had not yet been properly rebuilt. It was a very, very dark time for the minor league system.

And that’s where we will leave things for this week. Entering 2003, the top prospect in the organisation was, if I remember correctly, Jimmy Journell, the fireballing relief prospect who ended up with a cup of coffee and nothing more. In 2004, I think it was Blake Hawksworth, pre-injury. Going into 2005, we have Daric Barton and Dan Haren being dealt to Oakland for Mark Mulder, emptying the system of what little impact talent it had. Yadier Molina was graduating to major leaguer. Hawksworth had gotten hurt. Anthony Reyes was probably the only premium prospect in the organisation at that point, honestly.

Think of that. The Cardinals heading into 2005 were coming off a 105 win season and a World Series appearance. They were heading into a second straight 100 win campaign. And yet, the organisation’s foundation was dangerously unstable. Jocketty’s awful trade for Mulder had stripped the system of what little value it had left after a run of terrible drafts, and the ‘04 nightmare would bear bitter fruit in the next couple years as the team looked around for reinforcements and discovered the cupboard was utterly bare.

Next time, though, we’ll start turning that around, when Jeff Luhnow takes over the draft, and while he doesn’t hit a home run his first time out as the capital g Guy, he does immediately make an impact all the same. The Cards’ system at the outset of 2005 was as bad as it would ever get, and if you had tried to create a long-term forecast for the organisation at that point, it would have essentially been, “Invest heavily in anti-aging technology, because the MV3 is going to have to last for the next decade.”

Luckily, that’s about to change.


Interesting side note: did you realise that Daric Barton had a near-5.0 win season in 2010? I remembered he had one good year, when it looked like the Mulder deal could end up an even bigger disaster than it already was, but I didn’t recall Barton’s 2010 season being that good. He walked 16% of the time, struck out in just 14.9% of his trips to the plate, posted a .393 OBP, a 126 wRC+, and played stellar defense at first base. All of it added up to a 4.9 WAR campaign that will never, ever be remembered by nearly anyone.

Additional side note: Daric Barton appears to be one of the best defensive first basemen we’ve seen in a couple decades, if his UZR/150 numbers are even close to right. He very rarely got anything closer to a full season of playing time, and yet year after year he posted UZR/150s that often were double-digit runs above average. I find myself really wishing Barton would have made it; the player he was in 2010 would have been both entertaining and flat-out fascinating to watch play. Unfortunately, he just never developed anything in the way of consistent power, and in spite of a 14% career walk rate, he only managed a 102 wRC+ over the course of his time in the major leagues.