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System Sundays: Do the Cardinals Need to Adjust Their Philosophy?

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The Cardinals have, for a long time, made pitching the cornerstone of their player development efforts. But is that the best way?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, my colleague Ben Markham presented a column entitled, “The Cardinals are Stacked with Pitching Prospects”, which attempted to quantify just how much pitching depth the Redbirds are currently sitting on. The answer turned out to be, somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot.

Ben researched and compiled the material mostly in an attempt to argue against the resigning of Lance Lynn to anything resembling a long-term, market value deal. Personally, I happen to agree with him; handing an over 30, post-Tommy John starter who has been very solid but never dominant a five year big money contract to cover his decline seasons seems to me to be a bad idea when you’ve cultivated the level of pitching depth the Cardinals have.

However, there is one really good argument for bringing Lynn back, and that is the fickle, finicky, utterly unpredictable nature of pitching. Pitchers, simply put, break. They break in ways position prospects do not, with lost seasons not at all uncommon for pitchers, whereas there are very few injuries a hitter can suffer (mostly catastrophic knee injuries), which have timetables counted in full seasons missed, rather than weeks or, at the most, months. Pitching prospects, being pitchers, also tend to break. Hitters flame out when they can’t cut the level of competition they’re facing, and they eventually wash out of baseball. Pitching prospects, even occasionally very good ones, are subject to the whims of injurious fate.

Jordan Swagerty, former Cardinal relief prospect extraordinaire, zoomed out to a brilliant start in 2011, dominating both Low and High A ball before finally coming up against tougher competition in Double A, but even then the first-year pro kept his head above water despite having been pushed so far so fast. Four years and three elbow operations later, Swagerty returned to Double A, bombed to the tune of a 10.00+ FIP, and then walked away from the game. Before he got hurt, Swagerty was as safe a bet as there was to end up pitching near the back end of a bullpen. And then he was basically never seen again.

And yes, I realise what I’m saying right now is kind of arguing for a Lance Lynn extension, in spite of my earlier statement I was against it, but my point is that if you’re going to orient your entire organisation toward the development of young pitching depth — and have done such a magnificent job of bringing that aim into focus — then you ought to be able to replace a mid-rotation starter or two from the vast bulk of what you’ve cultivated.

However, Ben’s column, in addition to providing some interesting discussion fodder re: Lynn, also provided me personally with a jumping-off point for a question I’ve been turning over in my mind for a decent while now.

Namely, the Cardinals have pretty clearly made it an organisational priority to develop a pipeline of pitching above all else. But is that philosophy the right philosophy?

Young pitching has often been called the currency of the game, as for ages clubs have coveted those young arms capable of stepping in and providing inexpensive rotation performance. Once upon a time, there was basically no asset in the game more valuable than a starting pitcher with less than three seasons of service time under his belt.

However, the steep offensive decline of recent years (which is being somewhat counteracted by this interesting fly ball revolution thing and accompanying home run spike, but not entirely), has seemingly somewhat devalued pitching, even young pitching, as well as teams appearing to embrace the old TINSTAAPP axiom as gospel.

So I wonder: are the Cardinals doing the right thing by focusing so heavily on pitching as their developmental bread and butter? Do they need to try and shift their focus away from such an arms-heavy approach and lean toward position players as their foundation of the future?

And a second question: have they already made that shift?

Looking back at the Cardinals’ top ten prospects heading into 2013, the year they had the consensus best system in baseball, we find this list (this is the Baseball America list, by the by):

  1. Oscar Taveras, OF
  2. Shelby Miller, RHP
  3. Carlos Martinez, RHP
  4. Trevor Rosenthal, RHP
  5. Kolten Wong, 2B
  6. Michael Wacha, RHP
  7. Matt Adams, 1B
  8. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP
  9. Carson Kelly 3B (at the time)
  10. Stephen Piscotty, 3B/OF

That is, even today, a mighty impressive list, wouldn’t you say? That is a system with an ungodly amount of talent in it.

However, it’s also notable how many of those players have had serious issues in their careers so far. Shelby Miller was good, then bad, then traded, then good, and then really bad, and now on the shelf with a busted elbow. Carlos has developed into an ace-level pitcher, albeit still a slightly erratic one, and is probably the biggest success story from this list. Rosenthal has been good as a closer, but the value offered by a reliever is somewhat muted, though I would argue a lack of organisation imagination is most responsible for keeping him in the bullpen, rather than any true failure on Trevor’s part. Wong has been frustrating, but still fairly valuable, and there are signs he is really coming into his own this season.

Michael Wacha has been one of the most frustrating, tantalising talents in all of baseball, but recurring shoulder issues have kept him from fulfilling the promise he showed in the minors. At times, he’s been great. At times, he’s been hurt. Adams has been a serious disappointment, no matter how much he excels at pinch hitting. Tyrell Jenkins has had myriad arm injuries and, while he did make it to the majors briefly with the Atlanta Braves, has been, to this point, a bust. Carson Kelly is a catcher now, and looks like an outstanding prospect, but the jury is still out on his value. Piscotty has established himself as a very solid big leaguer, one with a nice long-term deal and a really, really interesting offensive overhaul going on at present.

Of course, there is also the elephant in the room that is Oscar Taveras, who lost his life in an auto accident in October of 2014. The success of the players on this list is forever impacted by what happened to Taveras, and he represents a data point there’s really no accounting for, other than to say again how serious and long-lasting the repercussions his loss had on the direction of the organisation.

That top ten had a nice balance of five position players and five pitchers. And of the five position players, we have only Matt Adams as a real disappointment (aside from Taveras, of course), and even he has been a relatively productive big leaguer. Obviously, we still have to wait on Carson Kelly, but at this point he has to be one of the better trade chips in all of baseball, so I think there’s quite a bit of value to be had in him.

Of the pitchers, though, we have one easy success in Martinez, one qualified success in Rosenthal, and three who have all seen their careers seriously impacted by injuries or inconsistency. Miller has elbow problems which will now cause him to miss a full year of baseball. Wacha’s shoulder is, unfortunately, always going to be a question mark anytime he’s going good, forcing us to hold our collective breath. Jenkins had unbelievable talent, but has never been the same pitcher since he started having shoulder problems around 2013.

If we go a little further down the list, we find names like John Gast (remember him? lefty with a pickoff move like a magic trick?), Tim Cooney, the aforementioned Jordan Swagerty, and Seth Blair staring out at us. Cooney is broken, Gast is so broken he retired. Seth Blair just self-destructed.

Alex Reyes is obviously the pitcher who jumps to mind first right now as the perfect embodiment of the risks that come with pitching prospects and not with position players nearly so much. Kris Bryant came up, was really good, and then got awesome. Alex Reyes came up, was really good, and then got hurt. Sunrise, sunset.

During the Dan Kantrovitz era, the Cardinals used every one of their first picks on a pitcher. Michael Wacha, Marco Gonzales, and Luke Weaver were all first round picks by Kantrovitz, along with Rob Kaminsky as a secondary first-rounder in 2013. The Cards cashed in on Kaminsky in the Brandon Moss deal, and he’s had his issues with injury and inconsistency since then. Wacha I’ve already mentioned, and Gonzales has had multiple seasons impacted by arm injuries, still retaining rookie eligibility this season despite making it to the big leagues all the way back in 2014. Luke Weaver is an excellent prospect, but has been slowed by injuries to his non-pitching hand, back, and the always-worrisome ‘forearm discomfort’ a couple seasons ago.

My point is this: the Cardinals have expended an enormous amount of draft capital on pitching prospects, and have received decidedly mixed results in return. If the attrition rate of a given player demographic really is this high, is this the best way to invest the draft capital you do possess?

On the other hand, it’s interesting to ask whether the Cardinals have already begun to move away from relying so heavily on pitching in their pipeline. In each of the last two drafts, the Cards have invested early on in position prospects, rather than going so heavy on pitchers. Of course, in that wonderfully ironic way the game has of pissing on one’s plans, Nick Plummer managed to actually lose an entire season to one of the few season-long injuries a position player can suffer, so he has, to date, been every bit as risky as a pitching prospect. But Plummer, Bryce Denton, Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader, and Delvin Perez were all selected within the top three rounds in 2015 and ‘16, representing a sizable outlay of draft capital.

It’s also interesting to note that the Redbirds, in breaking their international spending limit all to hell and back this year, focused heavily on positional talent. Johan Oviedo, the huge Cuban righthander, was the only really big investment of the pitching variety the Cards made internationally this year, while Adolis Garcia, Victor Garcia (no relation), Jonatan Machado, and Randy Arozarena were all big-ticket investments on the position side of things. (I feel I must also point out there is one high profile hitting prospect still lurking out there, who we just might have some news about by this time next week....) So perhaps there has already been an organisational pivot toward trying to build a foundation of hitting talent, and we’re simply not far enough in to really see the change to the shape of the franchise just yet.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that plenty of this depends upon the luck of the draw. Many of the high draft picks the Cardinals have spent on pitchers over the last handful of years have been well into the 20s, which obviously means you’re picking from a more limited pool than clubs at the very top. Those can’t-miss hitting prospects, the Bryants and Bregmans of the world, are usually well gone by the time the Redbirds have a chance to pick, to say nothing of where their first selection falls this year. Picking Marco Gonzales or Luke Weaver can easily be seen as simple best player available strategy, which is tough to argue with. Then again, I would argue there’s really no such thing as ‘best player available’ in the MLB draft beyond maybe the top ten or so, at least not in the way there is a clear BPA hierarchy in, say, the NFL’s draft. It is perfectly acceptable, I believe, to have a group of players all ranked roughly the same, value-wise, when you’re picking 25th overall, and to use positional preference as a tie-breaker.

As it stands now, the Cards’ top ten prospects for 2017 is very pitching-heavy. My own list had seven pitchers in the top ten; depending on how you want to rank the players you could probably have as few as five, but it’s hard to see going any lower than that. Six to seven would be, I think, the most common amounts. Eleven of the top twenty are pitchers, but it’s interesting to note that the bottom part of the list, which is heavily populated by more recent draftees who still have a lot to prove, is much more position-heavy. Connor Jones is the only pitcher in the 21-26 range, for instance.

We’ve seen the Cubs and Astros lead largely successful rebuilds (well, one extremely successful rebuild, much as it hurts me to say, and one that’s looking really good), based on a core of young positional talent. The Cubs in particular went all-in on hitters, believing them to be less risky, more predictable, and ultimately more valuable in a game that has come to be so dominated by pitchers, and it’s paid off for them. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have, until recently, lived and died by their pitching pipeline, and while it’s mostly worked well, we can also see where the reliance on such a breakable, fickle quantity as pitching has cost them at times.

So I ask the question posed in the title: given what we know about the direction of the game, and the risks associated with pitchers in general, are the Cardinals focusing on the wrong thing in investing so heavily in that pipeline of pitching? Do they need to adjust their philosophy to put more emphasis on building a position-based foundation, rather than having all their eggs in a basket subject to elbow problems? Or, perhaps, have they already done so, and what we’ve seen the last two years in terms of their player acquisition is a refocusing that’s only just in its nascent stage?

I don’t have the answers myself, unfortunately. I think, given my druthers, I would focus on positional talent first, but I’ve always found myself far more attracted to pitching, so I’m a little conflicted. What I’m really hoping for is just to hear what you all think. The draft is coming up soon, and even if the Cardinals will barely be participants this year, it still represents the start of the short season leagues, and a time to take stock of what the club’s internal structures look like below the big league level.

So this, ultimately, is my base-level question for you, oh so educated and knowledgeable readers of VEB: philosophically, are the Cardinals doing the right things in terms of drafting and development? Or is this philosophy broken?

And finally, Happy Mother’s Day to any and all mothers who may read this.