The Cardinals are going through a bit of a down period - at least by their recent standards. There’s plenty to grouse about, from stingy free agent spending to questionable roster moves to the continued employment of Mike Matheny. But let us not lose sight of one important thing:
The Cardinals absolutely own the amateur draft.
That the team has generally drafted well is not exactly breaking news, but this recent study by Ryan Nelson found the team is absolutely head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league. Nelson’s work, which he discussed on a recent Effectively Wild, sought to quantify how well team’s picks performed over their expected value, as well as what percentage of their draftees reach the majors at some point.
From the years 1998 to 2012, the Cardinals produced 176.5 WAR above what they were projected. The next closest team, the Red Sox, produced just over 100 WAR above expectation.
It’s worth noting a full 101 of the Cardinals WAR were from Albert Pujols alone, but also that 1) every team would be greatly diminished if you removed their most successful pick and 2) even if you just took Pujols away and left every other team the same, the Cards would still rank in the Top 4.
The Cardinals excellence shines through in every part of the draft. Nelson divides the draft into Early, Middle and Late rounds, and looks at how each team fares. Given Pujols, it’s no surprise St. Louis ranks 1st in the late rounds (11 and on). But they also rank 2nd in the middle rounds and 9th in the early rounds. They are the only team to rank in the top half (and easily so) in all areas of the draft.
When it comes to the percentage of draft picks to reach the big leagues, the Cardinals rank 2nd overall, behind only the Padres. The average team sees 10% of their draft picks reach the major leagues. The Cardinals have nearly 14%.
Keep in mind also, the Cardinals draft excellence has come largely just since 2005. The 2004 draft, as documented in Howard Megdal’s excellent The Cardinals Way, was a disaster. It was just after the hiring of Jeff Luhnow, but before his changes to the system had been implemented. Of the team’s 47 picks, just four would ever reach the majors, and none would accumulate even 1.0 WAR.
And even for years before then, the Cardinals had been floundering. Walt Jocketty used titanic signing bonuses to land a few top prospects like J.D. Drew and Rick Ankiel in the late ‘90s, but look through those drafts of the early 2000s and you’ll find a who’s who of... who?
By 2009, Luhnow was running the draft, and produced what Baseball America called the best draft of any team in 10 years. Eight picks made the majors, with notables like Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly near the top, but the real haul coming in the later rounds with the likes of Matt Carpenter (13th), Trevor Rosenthal (21st) and Matt Adams (23rd).
The success continued even after Luhnow left to become Houston’s GM just after the 2011 World Series. The departure of Albert Pujols and competitive balance picks would net the Cardinals five picks before the 2nd round. Among their haul would be Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty and James Ramsey (traded to the Indians for Justin Masterson). Major Leaguers Tim Cooney and Kyle Barraclough would also come from that draft, as would catcher-of-the-future and/or trade-bait Carson Kelly, and hitter-turned-pitching-prospect Rowan Wick.
Of course, while Luhnow left the Cardinals, his passwords remained unchanged. And so a few years later, well... I’m not going to rehash all the unpleasantness, but suffice to say this year, the Cardinals didn’t pick until the 3rd round, 94th overall.
From Nelson’s research, we can see that the average 3rd round pick is worth only 1.6 WAR. But from 2010-2015, the Cardinals 3rd rounders included Big Leaguers Sam Tuivailala, Cooney and Mike Mayers, plus Harrison Bader.
So welcome to the club Scott Hurst, Kramer Robertson and all the rest. If history is any indication, several of you will be making a big league impact soon.