Much of the Cardinals success and consistency in the last two decades has been built on a philosophy of homegrown development. This has sustained the franchise and allowed it to perennially contend in the National League Central. This philosophy is still largely intact, despite the recent splashes that that the team has made in the free agent and trade markets.
In November 2016, the Cardinals inked Brett Cecil to a four-year deal worth $30.5 million. Then, in December, Dexter Fowler signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract. And then, in 2017, St. Louis ventured into the trade market and acquired Marcell Ozuna. The following offseason, the team once again explored the market and emerged with Paul Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks.
These are high-profile acquisitions that the Cardinals do not have a reputation for making. Such moves showed an atypical aggressiveness for a front office that is often criticized for being too passive. This is because the Cardinals typically construct a roster with an emphasis on building from within. This has allowed the team to be good for a long time, but there is always the risk that the team is one piece short of a playoff run due to this patience. These additions may highlight an emerging trend from the John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch-led front office. However, it appears that despite these moves, the focus on homegrown players is still prevalent, and much of the Cardinals success has come from players that they have developed — not added.
Before I go any further, it is important to identify what will qualify as a homegrown player. A homegrown player is someone that the Cardinals have either drafted, acquired at the single-A level of the minor leagues, or in the case of John Brebbia, signed from an independent league team and added to a minor league roster (AA). With this criteria, the Cardinals have 13 homegrown players on the team who have recorded either 100 plate appearances or 30 innings pitched this season.
Listed are the 13 homegrown players followed by their fWAR in parenthesis: Harrison Bader (1.6), Kolten Wong (3.8), Tommy Edman (1.9), Paul DeJong (3.7), Matt Carpenter (1.0), Yadier Molina (0.7), Michael Wacha (-0.4), Jack Flaherty (3.9), Carlos Martinez (1.1), Dakota Hudson (0.9), John Brebbia (1.3), Ryan Helsley (0.3), and Daniel Ponce de Leon (0.5).
These 13 players have combined for 20.3 fWAR.
On the other side, there are 12 non-homegrown players who have recorded 100 plate appearances, or 30 innings pitched. These are Marcell Ozuna (2.2), Dexter Fowler (1.8), Jose Martinez (0.1), Tyler O’Neill (0.1), Yairo Munoz (-0.3), Paul Goldschmidt (2.6), Matt Wieters (-0.3), Adam Wainwright (2.4), Miles Mikolas (2.4), Andrew Miller (-0.5), John Gant (1.0), Giovanny Gallegos (1.6).
This equates to 13.1 fWAR
Clearly the homegrown players have provided the Cardinals with the most production. However, now the question becomes: What is the cost?
The previously listed homegrown players have a combined cost of $64,283,800. However, $34.5 million of this comes from Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter, who only provide 1.7 WAR. The non-homegrown players’ salaries combine to form $70,752,300 of payroll.
Clearly, the Cardinals’ strategy of developing their homegrown players has proven to be more effective, and cost-efficient than signing outside talent. While the front office has shown an increased willingness to sign outside free agents, they have also shown a willingness to re-sign their own players, especially at a young age. Generally, this is a safer decision that signing outside free agents, based on the current strategy of the front office.
The extensions of Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong have proven to be incredibly foresighted as they were re-signed in their age-25 and age-24 seasons respectively. This kept their salaries repressed as opposed to the contracts of Paul Goldschmidt and Dexter Fowler; Goldschmidt was re-signed and Fowler was signed, and both happened when the players were on the wrong side of 30. The Matt Carpenter contract now appears to be a mistake as his production has taken a nosedive this season, but the Cardinals received many years of strong production from the third baseman at a reduced cost. Also, the Yadier Molina extension is more than understandable, considering all that he has done for this franchise, and his status as a future Hall-of-Famer. However, when those two are subtracted out of the equation, it is easy to see the benefits of building the team around soild young players. The team has recieved 18.6 fWAR at a cost of just under $30 million. That is roughly $1.6 million per WAR. For perspective teams usually pay around $8 million per WAR in free agency.
Buying out the arbitration years of Wong and DeJong will save the Cardinals money in the future if they keep producing at this rate. This was an intelligent strategy that has allowed the Cardinals to gain cost-effective production. However, the strategy behind the signings of Fowler, Andrew Miller and, even the extension of Goldschmidt, was a little more suspect. It has been proven that once a player hits 30 years old, he usually starts to decline. Therefore, handing out large, long-term contracts to players who are over 30 is generally not a good idea.
Even though these players are likely to maintain a similar level of production at the beginning of the contract, they can quickly start to lose their value as they age. This is why the Cardinals have gained much more value from their homegrown players, and this is why the Cardinals have been consistently competitive for such a long time. While an aggressive strategy of player acquisition can have massive effects on winning (see Red Sox, 2018), it can also cause a team to compromise its future (see Red Sox, 2020).
That does not mean that young, homegrown players are always better than veterans that can be acquired in free agency or from other teams. It just means that the potential cost efficiency is much higher. However, things do not always go according to plan and once-promising young players do not always pan out. This is why it is important to have players that are more of a sure-thing. Also, sometimes a team needs to pay the extra money in order to get an elite talent that typically cannot be found in its farm system. This could be the extra edge that a team needs in order to make the World Series.
With this in mind, it will be interesting to see what the front office does this offseason, as there are a few key decisions to be made. Will they resign Marcell Ozuna to a big contract or opt to give his spot to one of their young outfielders? Who will fill the fifth spot in the rotation - an external acquisition or an upcoming internal option? Even though young, homegrown talent is uncertain because it does not have much MLB experience, it can also create much greater value if it can produce consistently.
There are plenty of internal options that can be used to replace players such as Ozuna, Wacha, and maybe Wainwright. Players such as Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber, Alex Reyes, Carlos Martinez, Genesis Cabrera, and Jake Woodford are all candidates to slide into the rotation in the event that Wacha or Wainwright are not with the team next season. In order to replace the potential departure of Ozuna, the Cardinals could turn to Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena, Dylan Carlson, Adolis Garcia, or Tyler O’Neill.
The direction that the front office takes will reveal a lot about its philosophy, as well as its opinion about the state of the team. There are options for John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch to improve the team either internally or externally, and their decision will tell us a lot about their confidence in young players, their willingness to take a risk with the potential to save millions of dollars, and their overall philosophy about how to best improve the team.