In part one of this eventual five-part series, we looked at the Cardinals’ first drafts of the 21st century. After drafting brilliantly in the late 1990s, setting up much of the decade-plus of dominance that would follow, the Redbirds seemed to lose their way in the amateur talent acquisition and development departments. Along the way, Bill DeWitt launched a plan to overhaul the scouting department, but seemed to do so only in steps, bringing in an unknown business degree by the name of Jeff Luhnow on the baseball ops side, but not really empowering him initially to do anything but advise, it would seem. Front office politics undoubtedly played a role in the gradual nature of integrating Luhnow and his quants; as early as 2004 we heard rumblings that the old-school types populating the front office were pushing back against the organisation’s seeming insistence on moving in a more analytical direction.
The Cards’ failures to restock the farm system while Walt Jocketty continued his modus operandi, dealing away future value for present, hopefully undervalued assets culminated in a crisis of sorts — though it was not apparent at the time — following the 2004 season. The Cardinals’ 2004 draft class was an utter disaster, as the draft itself was carried out by a scouting department gutted by internal divisions and an incomplete transition process. DeWitt was clearly moving toward Luhnow’s camp in the drafting process, but rather than make a clean break with the old way and revamp the scouting department all in one go, the process seemed overly gradual and lacking in urgency, leading to the organisation’s unpreparedness for the draft in ‘04.
Compounding the issue was what happened in the 2004-2005 offseason, when Walt Jocketty made perhaps the biggest mistake of his career. The ‘04 Cardinals, a 105 win juggernaut, had steamrolled the National League during the regular season, piling up victory after victory en route to a runaway division title, followed by a postseason run that included one of the all-time great league championship series when the Cards just edged out the Houston Astros. Sadly, that series is a bit of an historical afterthought, as the Boston Red Sox were busily exorcising demons on the other side of the bracket, beating out the Yankees in an LCS classic in its own right, then simply smacking the Redbirds around for four games.
The issue for the Cardinals was that, in spite of their 105 win season and a club that even apart from win totals was quite obviously an historically great squad, by the time they made it to the finish line in the World Series they were simply out of gas. The offense didn’t show up in the Series the way it had for much of the year, but the real issue was the pitching. Chris Carpenter, the club’s best overall starter during the season, had gone down in September with a nerve issue in his arm. Matt Morris was in the process of slowly collapsing, the victim of a degrading arm. Woody Williams, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Suppan were all healthy, but were afflicted with being Woody Williams, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Suppan. Not that that’s a terrible malady, mind you; all three of those pitchers were fine contributors at various points in their respective careers. However, those three do not represent the arsenal you want to bring into battle when there’s a World Series title on the line.
In that context, Walt Jocketty and the front office made a fateful decision following that ‘04 not with a bang but a whimper finish. The Cards decided they needed a stopper. A big time name to sit at the top of the rotation and lead the organisation to the promised land. It would be of further benefit, the thinking is believed to have gone, if said stopper also happened to be of the left-handed variety. There weren’t many teams selling aces in 2004; in retrospect, it would have been far less damaging to simply sign Pedro Martinez, who remained a dominant force in 2005 but then began sliding into injury the following year. The Cardinals went to the one team who had high-quality pitching they seemed eager to move, and after inquiring about Tim Hudson, settled on the acquisition of Mark Mulder as their magic bullet. In doing so, they sent Dan Haren, ironically the only pitcher who really acquitted himself well in the ‘04 Series debacle, and Daric Barton, the club’s first round pick in 2003 and overall top prospect, to Oakland.
The trade, of course, proved disastrous, as Haren established himself as one of the most consistent performers in baseball over the next half dozen years or so. From 2005 to 2011, Haren made 237 starts in the big leagues, threw close to 1600 innings, and recorded a 3.49 ERA, 3.52 FIP, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 4.3:1. He eventually made 30 starts or more in eleven straight seasons before hanging his spikes up for good.
As for Daric Barton, he ultimately fizzled, unable to develop a batting stroke that allowed him to consistently tap into the raw power he occasionally flashed to complement his extreme plate discipline and defensive excellence. (Admittedly, defensive excellence at first base, but still.) Even at the time of the trade, there were definite reasons to be skeptical of Barton’s future value; he was a catcher at the time, but seen as unlikely to stick there, the power hadn’t yet shown up, and he was always tagged with the label of having a bad body. The body would end up not being an issue at all, as Barton would, in fact, get into much better condition as he moved up the minor league ladder, but in 2004 that wasn’t a sure thing.
Even with the concerns surrounding Barton, though, he was still, in fact, the Cardinals’ number one prospect at the time, not to mention their most valuable piece. Jocketty, in one fell swoop, traded away both the Cards’ one big bullet in the farm system and a pitcher who was major league ready — probably had been for awhile, in fact, and would have gotten a shot earlier in many other organisations — and would, from the moment the Redbirds traded him to the day he retired, put up over 39 wins above replacement using the FanGraphs model. Mulder’s Cardinal career, meanwhile, would amount to exactly 1.0 fWAR, spread out over four years and just slightly over 300 innings.
It’s rare that an organisation coming off a dominant 100+ win season could be seen as being in a crisis, and indeed, no one likely would have thought the Redbirds were on dangerous ground in December of 2004. But they were. There was nothing to speak of in the minor leagues, and the major league team had been built on Jocketty’s ability to fleece opposing GMs in an economic reality that was quickly becoming a thing of the past as revenue sharing began to take hold and ensure clubs could at least hold on to their homegrown stars. Those early 2000s clubs were also, it should be said, old. Jim Edmonds turned 30 in 2000, his first year with the Cardinals. Scott Rolen turned 30 in 2005. Albert Pujols was still young, of course, but so much of the talent surrounding him was not. Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker were big contributors in 2004, and both were on the back nine of their careers. The pitching had long been a hodgepodge of Dave Duncan reclamation projects and veteran fill-ins. It may not have looked it at the time, but the 2004-2005 twin juggernauts were, in point of fact, houses of cards.
It was in this atmosphere that Jeff Luhnow stepped out of the shadows and became the man who would define so much of the Cardinals’ minor league approach and overall success over the next decade. He was hired in 2003 initially, but 2005 was the coming out year for Luhnow and the Cards’ new-age scouting department. If the Redbirds were to hold together their house of cards past the MV3 years, it was going to be Luhnow and his drafting machine that was going to build the foundation.
Today we will cover the first three drafts Luhnow oversaw, from 2005 to 2007. In those years, Walt Jocketty remained the man at the top of the pyramid for the Cardinals, in the role of General Manager he had held since the mid 90s. Luhnow’s influence and importance gradually grew over those years, as the plan for a minor league pipeline Bill DeWitt had taken such pains to put together began to move front and center, replacing Jocketty’s oeuvre of horsetrading and veteran fill-ins. Jocketty in those years both seemed to receive less support and fewer resources from ownership, as they tried to turn the rudder toward an internal development scheme, and also seemed to do less with the resources he was given, trying to make the same sorts of deals with which he had lapped the field a half-decade earlier but pulling more Kip Wellses out of the hat and far fewer Daryl Kiles. It would all culminate in the disastrous 2007, when all the short-term fixes fell apart at once, Peter came around Paul’s house looking for all his shit, and birds of various stripes all came home to roost. After that season, Jocketty was given his walking papers, Luhnow’s power was consolidated, and the organisation would move on to an internal candidate we would all come to know and (mostly), love over the decade between where this story picks up and where we find ourselves today.
Notable picks: Colby Rasmus, OF (Rd 1), Tyler Greene, SS (Rd 1), Mark McCormick, RHP (Comp A), Tyler Herron (Comp A), Josh Wilson, RHP (Rd 2), Nick Webber, RHP (Rd 2), Daryl Jones, OF (Rd 3), Bryan Anderson, C (Rd 4), Mitchell Boggs, RHP (Rd 5), Wilfrido Pujols, OF (Rd 6), Nick Stavinoha, OF (Rd 7), Jaime Garcia, LHP (Rd 22)
To begin the Jeff Luhnow era, Luhnow was gifted with perhaps the most impressive haul of extra picks the Cardinals have had going back as far as I can recall. If you look at the list of notable picks above, you may notice that there are a whole lot of players with round one, comp A, or round two listed next to their names. That’s an important point when looking at the 2005 draft, and what Luhnow’s new drafting department accomplished.
When the Cardinals picked Nicholas Webber, a college closer out of Central Missouri State, with the 78th overall pick, it was the sixth pick the organisation had made. By comparison, the Redbirds’ 2016 bumper crop of picks, which felt at the time like an enormous windfall, saw El Birdos make four picks in the first 70, and not make their sixth selection until #136 overall. In other words, Jeff Luhnow had the deck stacked in his favour in a huge way to kick off his reign with a bang.
So what did Luhnow do with this opportunity to explode out of the gate and put his stamp on the organisation? Well....he didn’t.
In fairness to Luhnow, he and his quants did, in fact, make a big impact right out of the gate. Look no further than the Cardinals’ first round picks, taken at 28 and 30, repsectively: Colby Rasmus and Tyler Greene. The Cards had a pair of first round picks, the result of having an extra by way of Boston having signed Edgar Renteria to a four year deal after the 2004 season.
Rasmus, for all the disappointment his career has ultimately turned out to be, was a very successful draft pick for the Cardinals. He put up a little over 7.0 wins above replacement in the two and a half years he played here, and while I think it’s entirely fair to question both the circumstances internally that led to Rasmus’s departure and the effect trading him away had on the 2011 squad, there’s also the fact John Mozeliak managed to spin straw into gold in terms of the long-term ramifications of the deal, by skillfully navigating the draft-pick compensation rules of the time.
Tyler Greene, by contrast, was an unequivocal bust. There’s still a world, I think, where Greene could have been a very useful player for someone; he was one of the most efficient basestealers in the minor leagues I’ve ever seen, an occasional highlight reel defensively at short, and would flash plus power on contact every so often, surprising the viewer with his raw physicality. Unfortunately, the line between Ian Desmond or Drew Stubbs and Tyler Greene is a thin one, and Tyler fell on the wrong side. Too little contact, an inconsistent approach at the plate, inconsistent quality of contact, and a personality that seemed too touchy for a Tony LaRussa clubhouse all conspired to shuffle Greene out of the door without ever making a real positive contribution.
The Cards made four of the next 48 picks after Greene was selected, and for their troubles added literally zero value to the organisation. Not one of the four players would ever make a major league appearance, nor would any of the four be used to acquire other pieces that did add value to the Cardinals.
Mark McCormick was a righthanded fireballer out of Baylor who, I will say, possessed one of the least hittable fastballs I’ve ever seen. He worked in the mid- to high-90s and the ball sailed at the top of the zone in a way Billy Wagner would have admired. Add in a hammer curve he could occasionally command and McCormick looked every inch a Kerry Wood starter kit. The couple times I got to see him pitch he was electric. Unfortunately, no one saw McCormick pitch more than a couple times, electric or otherwise, because almost immediately his arm began collapsing in on itself like a dying star. He struck out eleven hitters per nine in Low A in 2006, while also walking over six per nine. Sadly, the 52 innings he threw for Quad Cities that year represent about 40% of the total innings he ever threw in his professional career. He pitched as high as Double A in 2008, but the stuff was gone by that point. An inverted K:BB ratio led to an FIP over 7.00, and McCormick never threw another minor league inning after that season.
Tyler Herron was a Florida high schooler, another righty with three solid pitches and better command than you would expect from an eighteen year old. He was the Jack Flaherty of 2005, basically. Unfortunately, his career derailed in 2009 amidst unconfirmed rumours of drug issues and general off-field badness. He returned to the minors in 2013 in the Nationals’ system, and has kicked around the high minors the last few years as a high strikeout reliever.
Josh Wilson was another high schooler, a power sinker guy who could reach 95 and looked a little Jason Marquis-ish if you saw him on a good day. He struggled with injuries, though, and was done after 2009 as well.
And Nick Webber, who I remember writing up excitedly as a potential future relief ace back in 2006, when I was creating slightly breathless fanposts about how much pitching the Cardinals could have coming in the next few seasons, was a one-pitch wonder college reliever the Cards tried to convert to starting his first full year in the system. To be fair, his one pitch was a good one; a whiffle ball sinker at 93 that hitters simply couldn’t square up. But still, it was one pitch, and he would never really develop any complement. His control was never very good, either, and the best walk rate of his career was 9.5% in 50 bad Double A innings. He was done after 2008.
So four picks, all between 30 and 78, and absolutely nothing to show for it. A draft surplus that could have turned the farm system around basically overnight, and four out of six picks contributed nothing at all. Not a great start for the new era, is what I’m trying to say.
There were, of course, some better picks made later on, with Jaime Garcia standing out as one of the best 22nd rounders in baseball history. Mitch Boggs had his moments in relief, and Nick Stavinoha once hit a home run from one knee. So that’s neat.
Overall, though, the Cardinals’ 2005 draft was not very good. They hit on Rasmus, hit big on Jaime, and found a couple momentary contributors.
Something interesting to look at in this draft is Luhnow’s willingness, even eagerness, perhaps, to shoot for the moon. Throughout most of his tenure at the head of the Cards’ scouting department, Luhnow was known as a very conservative drafter, occasionally to the point of criticism. In this initial draft, however, we see a man taking risks left and right. Rasmus was a raw bundle of power and speed with big contact questions even coming out of high school. Greene was an extremely raw player for a collegian, in spite of playing a premium position and occasionally flashing huge tools. Daryl Jones, aka D.J. Tools, was a pure athlete with limited baseball experience. Bryan Anderson was a high school catcher with outstanding contact ability and very iffy defensive chops. Also, he was a high school catcher.
In his first draft running the show, Luhnow more or less swung for the fences. And unfortunately, he came up largely empty.
There’s also an interesting leitmotif running through the 2005 draft, which we’ll see Luhnow’s draft return to again and again. His drafts tended to pull in one particularly peculiar draft demographic that you don’t often see teams interested in too heavily, that of the raw college pitcher. In general, we all understand that when a team is looking for a high-ceiling arm they’ll probably go for a raw high school kid who could be special, and if they’re more interested in getting a higher-percentage contributor they’ll draft a more polished collegian. Jeff Luhnow’s department, though, had a thing for college pitchers whose numbers were not great, whose level of polish was very much lacking, but who had stuff that could make one think there was more than what the pitcher had shown so far. McCormick was the Platonic ideal of that sort of pitcher demographic. Boggs fell into that bucket too, as did Webber. There were plenty of later-round pitchers of a similar stripe, as well. It feels a little like Luhnow and company’s attempt at a market inefficiency, the way they would successfully exploit the junior college market several years later when they momentarily got ahead of the curve in stat translation for DII and lower schools.
For now, though, keep in mind the college pitcher who lacks polish as we move ahead to year number two, because it will come up pretty early.
Notable picks: Adam Ottavino, RHP (Rd 1), Chris Perez, RHP (Rd 1), Brad Furnish, LHP (Rd 2), Jon Jay, OF (Rd 2), Mark Hamilton, 1B (Comp B), Gary Daley, RHP (Rd 3), Eddie Degerman, RHP (Rd 4), Shane Robinson, OF (Rd 5), Allen Craig, OF/INF (Rd 8), David Carpenter, C/3B/RHP (Rd 12), Tommy Pham, SS/OF (Rd 16), Luke Gregerson, RHP (Rd 28)
And right off the bat, as promised, we have a huge focus on that strange, in-between draft demographic of the raw college pitcher. Adam Ottavino was a righty out of Northeastern who would flash 96 with the fastball and possessed a wipeout slider, but was never really dominant for long stretches even playing in a non-baseball-hotbed conference. He did eventually make it as a late-inning reliever with the Rockies, so he’s had a decent career. Probably not what the organisation was picturing when they selected him, however.
Chris Perez was a college closer, and lo and behold, the Cardinals just used him as a reliever! He made it to the big leagues relatively quickly, was up and down for the Cardinals, then was traded to Cleveland in the ill-fated Mark DeRosa deal and was up and down (slightly more up than down, but still), for the Indians. Injuries took their toll on his career, unfortunately, but he made it to the big leagues and provided value in a trade that should have turned out very well for the Redbirds, had DeRosa not gotten hurt after coming over. Drafting Perez was an example of seeing a thing, understanding exactly what it was, and purchasing that thing to do what it was made to do.
On the other hand, we see many other pitchers in this group who do not exemplify that simple approach to value acquisition. The Cards passed on Brett Anderson, the lefty curveball specialist who was in high school at the time, to take virtually the same pitcher in Brad Furnish, only a college version who had struggled at TCU. Gary Daley is a legendary figure among Cardinal prospect wonks, sort of a Steve Dalkowski figure who had absolutely amazing stuff but literally could not hit the broad side of a barn or anything else much of the time. In 2008, Daley made 17 appearances in rookie-level ball, threw 10.1 total innings, and walked 32 hitters. And again, he was a college pitcher when the Cardinals drafted him.
Eddie Degerman out of Rice was another of the same sort of pitchers. He threw straight overhand in a bizarrely unnatural way, struck out the world in the low minors with an untouchable curveball, and then collapsed completely as he moved up the ladder. He was done after 2009, with injuries playing a part, if I remember correctly.
On the other hand, this draft in many ways is where Luhnow really began to build his reputation as a builder. When he stayed away from the one weird pet player type he had, he and his department did quite well for themselves in 2006. They didn’t necessarily draft many position players with incredibly loud tools (Tommy Pham excepted), but they did draft some very useful major leaguers.
These are names we know, mostly; Jon Jay and Allen Craig were both big contributors during the 2011 championship run, and both were solid big league players for several years. Allen Craig we know the story, sadly; he never did get back to his previous level after multiple lower body injuries (the foot seemed to be the worst), and the player who posted a 137 wRC+ over better than 500 plate appearances back in 2012 is honestly a little hard to picture in one’s mind now, but plucking a shortstop with a good bat and no real position out of Cal in the eighth round counts as one of the real coups of Luhnow’s early career running the draft show. And Shane Robinson just overachieved his way to the big leagues in a very Eckstein-y way, which makes me wonder if Luhnow shouldn’t have used Shane-O-mac as his password instead of Eckstein1234.
Two of the players here were also used in trades, neither of which worked out particularly well. David Carpenter was drafted as a catcher, moved to third base, then converted to pitching, and was dealt in 2010 for the privilege of watching the last hundred or so at-bats of Pedro Feliz’s career. So....yeah. And Luke Gregerson was part of the Khalil Greene trade, so....also yeah. Still, in spite of the fact neither trade worked out the way we would have liked, those players contributed value. They facilitated those deals, even if the deals themselves ultimately worked out poorly.
In other words, 2006 was where Jeff Luhnow really started to hit his stride. Now, if someone could just talk him out of that college righty over there with the 5.8 BB/9 rate in the WAC....
Notable picks: Pete Kozma, SS (Rd 1), Clayton Mortensen, RHP (Comp), David Kopp, RHP (Rd 2), Jess Todd, RHP (Rd 2), Daniel Descalso, 2B (Rd 3), Oliver Marmol, SS (Rd 6), Tyler Henley, OF (Rd 8), Sam Freeman, LHP (Rd 24, did not sign), Arnoldi ‘Tony’ Cruz, 3B/C (Rd 26), Mike Blazek, RHP (Rd 35), Adron Chambers, OF (Rd 38)
And just when we thought Jeff Luhnow might really be hitting that stride, ready to take off as a great builder of great farm systems, along comes the 2007 draft to dash our hopes against the rocks of mediocrity. There’s not a whole lot good to say about the Cards’ 2007 draft, honestly.
To be fair, though, there isn’t a whole lot good to say about very many teams’ 2007 drafts. Every once in awhile, you get a draft class that’s simply a real dog, and 2007 happened to be one of those years. David Price sat at the top, and the Giants nabbed Madison Bumgarner in the top ten, but overall, there were a whole lot of clubs looking at what they came away with in 2007 and wondering what the hell just happened that they don’t have any players.
There is also, however, adding to the fact ‘07 was just a bad draft in general, a specter hanging over what the Cardinals did in the draft that year. I speak, of course, of Pete Kozma, who they picked, and Rick Porcello, whom they did not.
Back in 2007, there were a couple of high school arms that stood out above all the rest. Price was the collegiate prize, far and away, with Clemson’s Daniel Moskos a distant number two. On the high school side, though, there was a bit of a scrum. Jarrod Parker and Madison Bumgarner were both extraordinarily well thought of. Phillippe Aumont was a French Canadian wunderkind with questions about competition level and the fact he was a giant, giant young man. Michael Main (who I admit to loving at the time), was a two-way athlete who could touch 98 with his fastball. And then there was a pair of high school arms, both represented by Scott Boras, and both committed to the University of North Carolina.
One, who went in the third round and attended UNC instead of signing, is a guy you may have heard of. Matt Harvey was the name, and he’s popped up here and there in the years since. The other, of course, was Rick Porcello.
For my money, Porcello was the most polished high school pitcher I think I’ve ever seen at the time of the 2007 draft. That’s not to say, of course, that he was a finished product. Just that, for a high school pitcher, he was so far advanced beyond his contemporaries it was hard to consider them the same species.
And when the Cardinals’ draft position came around, Porcello was sitting there. They picked eighteenth overall that year, and here was one of the three best high school pitching prospects in the draft (maybe top two, actually), sitting there, ripe for the taking. So of course, the Cards selected Pete Kozma, an instinctive-but-not-overly-toolsy shortstop out of an Oklahoma high school.
Admittedly, there were legitimate reasons to pass on Porcello in favour of someone else. The furor at the time over not taking Porcello focused largely on the Cardinals being cheap, but it’s worth noting there was also the poison pill contained in the contract of Porcello that he was immediately upon signing placed on the 40 man roster. That 40 man roster ultimately belonged to the Detroit Tigers, who took Porcello nine spots after the Cards popped Kozma.
Now, here’s the thing: Porcello being immediately put on the 40 man had real repercussions in the way he was handled. Option years began ticking off much earlier than they probably should have, and as a result there was an immediate sense of urgency to get him to the big leagues. He was likely rushed up the ladder faster than he should have been, and along the way failed to really develop. He survived, even in the majors, but didn’t thrive. He didn’t have the time to develop his overall repertoire. It was only within the last couple years that he’s really found himself as a pitcher, culminating in his brilliant 2016 campaign. Another year or two in the minors could very well have allowed him to reach that level at 24 or 25 instead of 27, but that time wasn’t really available due to the unique contract stipulations Porcello and Boras insisted upon.
With that in mind, we can probably justify the Cardinals passing on Porcello. I still, after all these years, don’t like it, and wish they had ponied up for Porcello so we could have watched him in a Cardinal uniform for the past decade, but I can see reasons why they didn’t. And those reasons don’t all have to boil down to DeWitt and company being too cheap.
Unfortunately, though, that narrative was tougher to dismiss when they went strictly slot with Kozma, passing on the superior talent, and then took a college senior in the compensation round out of Gonzaga. There were things to like about Clayton Mortensen, including an absurd groundball rate that would have tickled Dave Duncan to no end, but he had been a mediocre college starter up until his senior season, when he began to get his walk rate under control. So a college pitcher with good stuff but not much in the way of results. Sound familiar yet?
Side note: I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Clay Mortensen. In my living room, hanging on the wall next to the front door, is a framed Riverfront Times article from April 2008. The picture heading up the piece is of Mortensen, mid-delivery, and it was my minor league-centric season preview for ‘08 called Growing Pains. It was the first piece of writing for which I was ever paid, and my mother framed the article for my birthday that year. So Clayton Mortensen is alright by me.
On the good side of the ledger, Mortensen was part of the Matt Holliday trade, along with a couple position players who will show up in the next edition of this series. He made it to the big leagues with the Athletics and kicked around for a couple years with the Rockies and Red Sox. Considering how dire much of the ‘07 draft was, Mortensen was actually a reasonably good outcome.
As for the rest of the draft notables, there isn’t a ton of value on display here. We all know about Descalso and how he killed fiddy men before taking over spot starting duties at third base for the Cardinals, and he was a good soldier for the organisation while he was here. It’s easy to look down on players who end up marginal contributors, but we should always remember how long the odds are against even that level of success, and also remember that teams need guys like that. Sure, you might wish your club had a roster of nothing but 4+ win players, but that’s just not realistic.
I thought both Jess Todd and David Kopp had good shots at making it, but Todd seemingly topped out around AAAA in terms of quality, failing to get the call even when his numbers would suggest he should have, and Kopp never lived up to what the stuff and delivery made me believe was possible. There was a whiff of off-field stuff with Kopp, and I had at least a couple talent evaluators tell me he just wasn’t built for success internally, but I’ve always been surprised he fell so short of what looked possible.
The Cardinals would draft Sam Freeman again in 2008, and get him to sign that time, and he would serve as an enticing but never quite successful arm with the Redbirds. Oliver Marmol is included here because he’s now on the coaching staff, which is sort of cool. Tony Cruz was an okay backup catcher; Michael Blazek was trade for Jon Axford. Adron Chambers had that one hit that one time.
And then there’s Tyler Henley, who I thought was going to be a star. He had great contact skills, easy plus speed, covered tons of ground in the outfield, and looked for all the world to my eye like a long-term fit in center field and leading off for the St. Louis Cardinals. The 128 wRC+ he posted in 2009 at Double A Springfield (at age 23/24), while playing a more natural center than Colby Rasmus appeared capable of, had me convinced the Cards had found themselves a solution. But then he got hurt. And then he hurt his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery. And things just never quite got back on track for Henley after that. It’s one of those sudden falls from a prospect that seems almost inexplicable, and yet they happen all the time. Sometimes things just....happen.
Henley’s wife wrote about her husband’s struggle to adjust to the end of his baseball career. You should read it. It’s hard for me to understand how he never got another serious shot with a different organisation. Again, sometimes things happen, and players fall through the cracks. It’s a tough business.
Overall, the Cards’ 2007 draft was not a very good one. They did pick up a useful piece who would be part of a blockbuster trade in 2009, and Pete Kozma would have two really good months in 2012, but the most successful player they drafted in ‘07 was probably Corporal Descalso, and the decision to pass on Porcello hung over the whole draft class like a dark cloud.
It is tough to say, of course, whether the Cardinals’ organisation was, in fact, being cheap at the time. DeWitt had put his full backing behind his scouting director, attempting to create that pipeline he so desperately wanted, and in that context it’s hard to believe he would balk over a few million dollars. At the time, it was easier to believe, as the organisation was scrimping at the major league level left and right, allowing the ‘04-’05 juggernaut to fall to the sad state of affairs we found in 2007, when Kip Wells and a going-on 30 Adam Kennedy were the big offseason signings made by Walt Jocketty, but taking the long view it’s clear the Cards were transitioning to a different model. It’s just that transitioning and not trying to win can look kind of similar in the moment.
There is also, of course, the fact that 2007 was Walt Jocketty’s final year with the organisation, and while Luhnow was completely in charge of the scouting department, Jocketty was still the man in the top job at the time of the draft. We don’t know, and probably will never know, what the power dynamics of the front office at the time really looked like, but enough has come out over the years since that we know Jocketty and his diminishing circle of old-school Baseball Men were very much opposed to Luhnow’s new school approach and his taking over of more and more responsibilities as time went on. Discord is very rarely a good thing in a front office, and it’s tough to say how united a front the Cardinals were able to present when decision time came on draft day 2007.
Still, we have three drafts in the books that featured Jeff Luhnow as the primary decision maker, and looking back, not a whole lot of hits. The 2006 class would ultimately bring a good amount of value to the table, while the flashy ‘05 class would fizzle almost completely. It’s interesting to consider whether Luhnow would have been given as much rope as he was in trying to turn things around had his initial draft class not looked so exciting and shiny in the early going before the players nearly all crapped out as they moved up the ladder.
Next time, though, we move into another new era, as John Mozeliak takes over from Walt Jocketty, and the organisation tries to get all their hands pulling in the same direction. Whether that’s the reason we see better drafts, or if it’s simply a matter of Luhnow and his group learning from their experiences and honing their craft is tough to say. But, when 2008 comes around, the fortunes for the Redbirds will start to change on the amateur front.
And that means the fortunes will start to pick up at the major league level before long, too.