Editor's note: We are back another Fanpost Friday! This week ORSTLcardsfan put together a thorough look into the Cardinals drafts that I think you all will enjoy! Check out the Fanposts for more community posts or to write your own!
Back in March, as we rejoiced the new dawn of Cardinal talent (remember back then?), I was reading various Spring Training articles extolling the virtues of multiple members of the 2020 Draft Class (Walker, Hence, Winn, Burleson, et.al.). It got me to wondering about how to tell a good draft versus a bad draft, or a great one. How do the Cardinals, as a draft and develop organization, fare in the acquisition and development of amateur talent?
Plus, I needed a break from commiserating on the miserable start to the 2023 season we’ve seen. And the 2023 draft is coming up in a few weeks. Will it be good for our favorite team?
I started to consider how would I analyze drafting and what would such analysis tell me. I will start with a premise to think about. I think a large part of the Cardinal’s success over the last 20+ years can be traced to 3 draft picks: 1998 – JD Drew, 1999 – Albert Pujols and 2000 – Yadier Molina. With Drew, they got 18 WAR in on-field performance (very notable), then used him to acquire Adam Wainwright (another very notable 40+ WAR). With Albert, they got 89 WAR of value, plus with the draft pick from him leaving in free agency, they acquired Michael Wacha and 12 WAR, also very notable. Total accumulated WAR is north of 200 WAR out of three players drafted in 3 consecutive years, which as you will see is the typical WAR accumulated in 20 drafts, not 3. These 3 are the unicorns. My curiosity is, outside of getting lucky on unicorns, how are the Cardinal’s faring in draft and develop?
First, I chose to analyze 20 drafts. Why 20? Well, 20 is a nice round number. Plus it neatly fits my analysis right between two drafts that appear to have extreme outlier potential (1999, Pujols) and 2020 (as mentioned above). Plus, 2020 is WAY too soon to try and analyze, although it looks very promising. So, 20 is the largest sample size I can muster without those two drafts included.
Because I was looking at draft and develop philosophies, I also included international free agent signings by year in the analysis. I incorporated results of players drafted, even if they did not sign with the Cardinals.
Any player that appeared in the major leagues is in the analysis. I separated their WAR with the Cardinals and their WAR with other teams. I did this because I am curious how much WAR they’ve traded away to collect other talent (one of the means-to-an-end strategy of being a draft-and-develop organization).
I segregated players into notable and non-notable careers. For position players and starting pitchers, anyone with 10 career WAR or more was considered as having a notable career. 10 WAR accumulates to a player who produces 5 or more roughly average MLB seasons as a starter. To me, if you’ve exceeded that, it is notable. I did squeeze a few below 10 WAR players who are both young and still active on the suspicion that they will pass that threshold this year. Otherwise, below 10 WAR was…not considered notable. I graded relief pitchers on a curve and used a threshold of 5 WAR instead of 10. Very few relievers seem to get above 10, even some of significant noteworthy accomplishment.
The Analysis - ends up in kind of a "Did you know …. ? format.
For instance, without looking, would you know which year between 2000 and 2019 was the best draft in terms of accumulated WAR? If you said 2003, with Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy and others, you would win the prize for identifying the absolute best Cardinal’s draft out of the 20 analyzed.
Did you know that between 2000 and 2014, almost all Cardinal prospects that had (or are having) notable careers were pitchers? And that since 2014, only one is a pitcher (Zac Gallen)? Interesting dichotomy. Preliminary conclusion: The Cardinal’s used to be good at drafting and developing pitchers. Used to be. Not in last 10 years, though.
Most people probably know (or sense this), but the results of drafts since 2007 are very different than between 2000-2007. Before 2008, it appears that philosophy was to go for the brass ring in drafting, and either hit big or not at all. You see a number of years where the accumulated WAR for drafted players is zero (or less). For 2008 and later, it appears that the philosophy leaned toward finding more middle of the road talent (higher floor, lower ceiling) and accumulate WAR through more mid-range players, shown as 20 notable players averaging 12 accumulated WAR in the later years, versus 14 players averaging 20 WAR in the first 8 years.
Editors Note: Don’t worry too much that accumulation of talent appears to fall off in more recent years. Analysis of later drafts is trickier because many of the notable players drafted post-2012 are still accumulating WAR, and this same analysis 5-10 years from now will look even more kindly on the draft approach of these years.
The graph below depicts how much value each draft produced. Note the highs and lows of the early years, displaced by more moderate, but consistent numbers in the later years.
The graph below shows that earlier years most frequently resulted in 0 or 1 player who produced notable results. Post 2007 shows almost every draft produced at least 1 and usually produced two or more notable players. Even the notorious 2017 year produced a notable player.
Sometimes we hear a narrative that Cardinal’s let talent get away. I looked to see if this is true. Start here with the list of players that "got away".
1. By a longshot, trading Alcantara and Gallen (and others) for Marcell Ozuna is one they’d like to have back. A total of 29 WAR (and still counting) left for two years of 4.6 accumulated WAR coming back. Kinda lopsided, even without considering the off-the-field issues.
2. Dan Haren for Mark Mulder did not turn out great – 34.9 WAR out, -.1 In (below replacement level). Ugh. I have read that Dave Duncan hated this deal. He was right.
3. Letting Lance Lynn go via FA let 15.6 WAR walk away. Letting 15.6 WAR walk away is questionable, but when you look at what other teams have paid to have that WAR, then it’s really more a wash.
4. David Peralta, Colby Rasmus, and Adam Ottavino appear on this list as notable careers. Who knew? Rasmus brought back pieces that won the 2011 World Series. Good move, there.
5. Marco Gonzalez and Randy Arozarena MAY come to have notable careers (ie. make 10 accumulated WAR) before they are done. Arozarena is the more likely of the two. Tyler O’Neill has accumulated slightly more WAR than Gonzalez, so tough to say this was a bad trade or one they’d like to have back. Arozarena for Liberatore is too soon to evaluate, since Libby hasn’t really established what he is yet. Arozarena is already past his peak, believe it or not.
6. A small handful of players were drafted by the Cardinals but not signed and went on to notable careers elsewhere. Ian Kenney and Max Scherzer.
7. Adolis Garcia for cash exists. Some mew about letting Adolis Garcia get away for cash (I include him in the likely to achieve notable status). What the mewers ignore is 1) he didn’t blossom until 2021, beyond when the Cards could afford him a 40 man roster slot and 2) Texas had to give him 600+ mostly DH PAs in 2021 to start realizing the production he brings. Can anyone tell me exactly which 2021 Cardinal outfielder should have been removed to give Garcia that opportunity? All 3 of them had better seasons than Garcia, all 3 of them are significantly better defensively and all 3 are materially younger.
Overall, the Cardinal’s appear to be pretty good at keeping the players who turn out to be most successful and letting go the ones who won’t. 9 players drafted by the Cardinals went on to accumulate > 10 WAR with other teams, with two others that MAY achieve this status. Of the 9, there are only a couple that fall into the mistake category. That’s pretty good, in my book.
Although a small sample size, the top 2 worst trades (Mulder, Ozuna) probably reflect an organization coming off script (draft-and-develop) and trying to "win-now". Again, small sample size, but suggests the Cardinal’s aren’t very good at making go-for-it-now trades. For those of you who wanted the Cardinal’s to go "all in" this winter, this might be instructive about what happens when a draft-first teams changes spots for an off-season.
A fascinating (to me) sidebar – readers may note that during the 2018 season, the Cardinal’s had the following outfielders at or at the cusp of major leagues. R. Arozarena, T. O’Neill, A. Garcia, H. Bader, M. Ozuna, and T. Pham. They weren’t going to keep all of them. Now, all of them are gone, except TON. Did they get rid of the right ones and keep the right ones? I’d say pretty much yes.
How about recent drafts? Is it too soon to tell? The data shows a couple of tidbits about some of the more recent drafts. As we all would suspect, 2017 was a lost year. However, 2018 is beginning to look like a really good draft, in that it will likely produce 3 notable MLB careers (Donovan, Nootbar, Gorman). 2020 is beginning to appear to be a strong draft, too. Combined with a strong draft in 2016, it would seem the pipeline is well stocked, which is the hallmark of successful draft-and-develop organizations.
Does draft position matter all that much? We often hear how the Cardinal’s are more challenged because they are always good and thus always have a worse draft position than tank-and-rebuild teams. I’m not sure the data supports this. I’d have to dive deeper, but it appears the quality and depth of the draft class has more correlation to draft success than actual draft position. For example, the two highest drafts in this analysis were #13 overall in both 2008 and 2013. Neither draft produced a single WAR from that #13 overall pick. Those more "favorable" drafts both produced the typical 1 notable player. On the other hand, the two least favorable drafts, picking #30 overall in 2005 and 2006, produced a crop of 6 notable players. Not great news if you are trying to find a bright side to this season. A higher draft pick next year probably won’t be a boon.
Are the Cardinal’s better at drafting or better at developing and keeping? It appears that in the earlier years, the Cardinal’s actually drafted more talent, but in later years got more internal production. You can see this more clearly below if you remove one single outlier – Max Scherzer, 2003. Notice in the out years the Cardinal’s retain a greater % of total accumulated WAR than the early years, even with Scherzer removed.
Editors note: I’m not trying to pretend Scherzer didn’t happen. It just so happens that the graph is a lot less distorted without his number skewing the range. When you keep his WAR in there, the result is more exaggerated to the extreme, but the conclusion is unchanged.
In 20 years of drafting, the Cardinal drafted 145 players who made a major league roster, or about 7 per year. 31 players have gone on to have notable careers, or about 1.5 per year. Likely 2 players went on to HOF careers (Scherzer, Molina).
From all this, I come up with a couple of rules of thumb.
1. A decent draft produces 1 player who accumulates 10 or more career WAR. A very good draft is a draft that produces 2 players who go on to have notable careers and a great draft is one that produces 3 or more notable players or one Hall of Fame (or near HOF) player of 40+ WAR or more.
2. I’ve generally heard that one can’t truly evaluate a draft until 5 years after it happened. As I look at the data, I think you can’t really evaluate a draft until more like 10 years after. To wit, look at the 2014 draft. The story on that class is most definitely not finished, as most of the players are still playing. No one has achieved "notable" status, signifying a lean draft. But one that is close is Jack Flaherty. One, Montero, is really just starting his MLB career. If he turned into a 10 WAR player, this draft would look pretty good. But you can’t tell, even 9 years later, if it is bad or good.
3. The data is uncertain as to whether it works to try to draft and develop to use that depth to acquire talent via trades. It’s great in theory, but the historical evidence is mixed at best. I’d be tempted to say a rule of thumb is … if you have a talent deficit somewhere, free agency is probably a better route than trading future value. Of course, that means you have to be good at selecting the right FAs, which is a whole ‘nuther discussion.
4. It really helps over a long period of time when you draft a player who produces 40+ WAR. They should do that more.
5. For a club so dependent on draft and develop, the 2017 penalty for scandal was astronomical. Think of it as 1 to 2 notables players taken away. At $8m per WAR, even one 10 WAR player lost as penalty would be the equivalent of $80 million dollars in fines. If we take the recent experience of 1.5 players at 12 WAR, the penalty looks like a $150 million fine. Wow! In ways, I’m amazed they have navigated through this without severely impacting the MLB product. Or are the paying the piper this year?
If the data and methods hold up to the scrutiny of peer review, next winter I will try to research and apply this method to determine how these results compare to other organizations and see how the Cardinal’s stack up. My guess is we will find that the Dodgers, Braves, Astros, and Rays have surpassed the Cardinal’s in this area but not the other 25 teams. And I am guessing that it is the international arena that these 4 clubs are superior to our home team, more than the amateur draft. So I am going to hypothesize a competitive advantage. Will take a fair bit of research to prove or disprove.