The St. Louis Cardinals are more connected to their history than maybe any team in baseball. They have a legacy of consistent excellence, and have used that to create a pipeline of talent: Great players go on to become coaches, or front office personnel, or broadcasters.
But when the organization has made a big leap forward, it has almost always come as the result of an influx of talent from the outside.
- Whitey Herzog was hired from outside the organization first as a field manager and soon after also given GM duties. He completely transformed a Cardinals organization that had become stagnant.
- When Bill DeWitt & Friends bought the club in the mid 90s, one of the first orders of business was hiring Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. Their style would have a major impact on the club’s on-field look and player acquisitions for the next 15 years.
- In the mid 2000s, DeWitt recognized a seismic shift was underway in how front offices used analytics. He hired a management consultant with no baseball experience - Jeff Luhnow - who would modernize many aspects of the club’s scouting and player development departments, and then go off to build a burgeoning dynasty in Houston.
It’s time once again to bring more outside voices into the mix.
I would pin those as the three biggest developments in the last 40 years of Cardinals baseball. Each one came about from the organization recognizing that their internal leadership had run the ship aground.
Doesn’t that feel like where the Cardinals are now?
The organization passed up one big opportunity to bring in an outside voice when they promoted Mike Shildt to manager. I’m still a big fan of Shildt. His experience and temperament seem perfectly suited for the role. An outside candidate could have perhaps transformed the culture of the clubhouse, but I think the days of a manager changing the course of the organization the way a La Russa or a Herzog did are a thing of the past.
The more ripe place for innovation would seem to be somewhere in the front office, as it was when DeWitt hired Luhnow.
We joke about “Mo’s Algorithm” as a personification of the conservative, analytic model John Mozeliak has used to guide the team. But the damn thing works. The team has not had a losing season since Mo took the reins as GM, and for a very long stretch of that run, it was nearly impossible to find a trade the team “lost” or a disaster free agent contract.
In the last few years, Mo’s Algorithm has sprung a leak. It hasn’t sunk. I’m not saying we all need to abandon ship. But we are taking on water.
The system is still producing win totals in the mid-to-upper 80s. But in the Tanking Era, those totals are not enough to get into the playoffs. And from Dexter Fowler to Brett Cecil to Greg Holland, if you were going to make a list of the worst free agent signings of the Mozeliak era, quite a few of them would be clustered in the last two years.
Player evaluation and development are evolving at a faster pace than ever, and the Cardinals models don’t appear to be keeping pace. It feels like the team is chasing innovation rather than leading it.
On Twitter, this has led many fans to conclude: tHe CaRdInAlS sHoUlD fIrE mOzElIaK!
That feels a little overheated to me, but it might not be far off. Rick Hummel, who I assume has pretty solid sources within the organization, wrote in no uncertain terms just the other day that Mo and Michael Girsch “have to produce a playoff team next year — or there will be a front-office restructure.”
Maybe that restructure will happen and bring with it an influx of outside talent to kickstart a floundering club. But I also think Mo and Girsch could patch the leaks in the current system, and the best way to do it is probably to bring in outside voices.