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Thriving Without High Draft Picks

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The Cardinals of the 21st century have been consistently competitive despite draft position; how does it compare to other teams’ runs of success?

2011 World Series Game 7 - Texas Rangers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Note: I wrote this before yesterday’s miserable day, and I don’t think the timing could be more perfect. Better days are ahead; for now, let’s take a look at the big picture and try to forget Lewis Brinson launching a dinger off of Jedd Gyorko.

You don’t need me to tell you we’ve seen a dominant stretch of Cardinal baseball in the 21st century. The St. Louis squads since 2000 have had just one losing season, 12 playoff berths, nine division titles, four world series appearances (with two wins), and, until recently, were featured in the NLCS ad nauseam. It wasn’t until Derrick Goold’s recent article highlighting the post-2000 Cardinals’ average draft position (22) that it really hit me just how impressive the current run has been. Given the organization’s run of churning out above-.500 teams, it makes sense that the Cardinals wouldn’t be drafting in the lower half of the league, but it took a certain phrasing to highlight just how impressive this run has been. It’s further emphasized when looking at the piece Goold references from the Hardball Times on the average value of draft picks.

The piece, written by Matthew Murphy, finds that first-rounders taken with picks 1-5 have a 35% chance of becoming a league-average player. Picks 6-10 have a 25% chance, 11-15 have a 23% shot and so on. Goold’s point is that picks 21-30, where the Cardinals typically draft, have an 11% chance of becoming an average player in the major leagues. A team consistently drafting outside the top 10 picks of the first round would be at a considerable disadvantage in terms of producing major league talent, especially projected over a span of years. Yet the Cardinals have kept producing winning teams for nearly two decades. I wanted to see how this stretch of baseball stacks up to the stretches put on by other clubs. Are we really seeing history? If you’re a trivia-minded person, you’ll probably like this one.

The intent is to look just at success despite draft position, which only allows us to look back as far as 1965. With open negotiations for amateur players preceding that point, team wealth played a much bigger part in the success or failure of ongoing success. (A not-so-fun fact is that, according to a 1964 article in the New York Times, four teams attempted to stop the proposed amateur draft — the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, and Cardinals — with only the Cardinals voting against the proposal.)

Since the birth of the amateur draft, there have been just nine instances of teams going 15 consecutive seasons without a pick in the top 10. Only two of those are active, and I bet you could guess which:

Longest Runs Without a Top-10 Pick

TEAM YEARS WIN% PLAYOFF BERTHS DIVISION TITLES LCS BERTHS WS BERTHS WS WINS LOSING SEASONS
TEAM YEARS WIN% PLAYOFF BERTHS DIVISION TITLES LCS BERTHS WS BERTHS WS WINS LOSING SEASONS
Yankees (1993-Present) 26 0.583 19 13 11 7 5 0
Red Sox (1968-1992) 25 0.536 4 4 4 2 0 3
Yankees (1969-1989) 21 0.548 5 5 5 4 2 4
Cardinals (1999-Present) 20 0.555 12 9 9 4 2 2
Red Sox (1994-2012) 19 0.55 9 2 5 2 2 2
Orioles (1969-1986) 18 0.58 7 7 7 5 2 1
Braves (1992-2008) 17 0.585 13 13 8 4 1 2
White Sox (1991-2007) 17 0.526 3 3 2 1 1 4
Angels (2001-2016) 16 0.543 7 6 3 1 1 5

The canceled postseason of the strike-shortened 1994 season might have changed some of these numbers, and the two Red Sox stretches coinciding with the Yankees’ golden ages definitely hurt their postseason performance, but these are the only teams to evade a top-10 pick since the start of the amateur draft. The two active streaks on the list are two of the best when factoring in accolades alongside length. The first thing to get out of the way is that the present Yankees run dating back to the early ‘90s is far and away the most impressive. Not a single losing season. 19 playoff appearances in 26 years. Five world series wins — as many as the next highest number of world series appearances. One can’t deny that the ability to buy just about any free agent they want has come into play in the Yanks’ success, but that stretch of baseball is true dominance.

Beyond that, though, this present stretch of Cardinal baseball takes the cake. Aside from the aforementioned Yankees, we’ve seen how every other run of success has ended on this list, but this St. Louis run is still going while ranking within the top four in every category listed. Only the present Yankees and the commanding Atlanta Braves teams of the ‘90s and ‘00s lead these Cards in playoff berths and division titles — one more playoff appearance would tie Bobby Cox’s teams. St. Louis’ nine LCS appearances are second only to New York’s 11.

We’ve seen a mix of results from this 2018 team. The offense has been feast or famine. Slumps give way to hot streaks. The bullpen has blown leads late, but the bats have launched an MLB-leading seven walk-off wins. The starting pitching has been excellent but has also been riddled with injuries. Overwhelmingly, the reassuring trend has been that the youth has performed very well. And there are more waiting in the wings — especially pitching. That’s what has made these teams so great, and it will continue to do so.

Most importantly, it’s early June. There’s still more than half of a season of baseball to play. On the day after what seems like one of the worst days the organization has seen in a while, let the close of the draft, the promise of young talent, and the longevity of the past two decades soften the blow of yesterday’s misfortunes.