When teams achieve success, looking at how those teams succeeded should be a beneficial exercise. Certainly successful organizations figured something out and their success was not completely random. The Kansas City Royals have now won two consecutive pennants, including the last World Series. Their roster was built over a long period of time and decision after decision all helped contribute to their current success, but is there any lesson the Cardinals can take from the Royals in helping continue the run of success the Cardinals have achieved?
Initially dismissing the Royals the success as either random or inferior to the Cardinals might seem appropriate. After all, the Cardinals have five consecutive playoff appearances to the Royals two and the Cardinals also have two World Series appearances and one victory just like the Royals. The Cardinals also did not experience the trough of despair in the previous two decades the Royals have experienced. The Cardinals have not finished in last place in any of the past 25 seasons, while the Royals finished last eight times, second-to-last another seven times, and from 1990 to 2012, only finished within ten games of first place twice in 23 seasons.
It is the Cardinals that are viewed as the model organization to be copied. Books have been written about Billy Beane and the A's and Wall Street mindset of the Rays succeeding despite a small payroll, and there is a book coming out touting the success of the Cardinals and their ability to sustain success across generations by mixing old-fashioned scouting with the advances in sabermetric thinking (available for pre-order now). The Cardinals have had an incredible run of success and while the Royals did win the World Series this season, I doubt anybody would trade for the Royals success over the past five, ten--basically any number bigger than two--years when compared to the Cardinals. Similarly, I wouldn't trade the Cardinals current future for that of the Royals. The Cardinals have been incredibly well-run, but that does not mean the organization can ignore the rest of the league. So what did the Royals do?
In building their team, the Royals developed a bunch of top prospects in Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, and Yordano Ventura. They traded away their best pitcher in Zack Greinke when they were out of the playoff race and netted Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. Then, when they got these young players, as Eno Sarris recently wrote at FanGraphs, they let them struggle as the team struggled. They traded away top prospects of their own in Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to get them James Shields and Wade Davis. They signed cheap, aging, middle-tier free agents to fill in the gaps like Jeremy Guthrie, Edinson Volquez, Alex Rios, and Kendrys Morales. Then the team went all in with Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto at the trading deadline.
Some of the above moves the Cardinals have not had the option to contemplate. They have not been afforded the same high picks as the Royals, but they have still managed to bring in younger players like Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Matt Adams. On both sides of the ball, the Cardinals have not needed to fill in with cheap, veteran lottery picks as the organization has provided that depth. They have never been forced with the decision to trade their ace as they have not been out of contention for more than a decade, and they have had the ability to re-sign players they have considered important to their future.
The Cardinals did trade away top prospects and major league ready pitching in sending Shelby Miller and Tyler Jenkins to the Atlanta Braves for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden. Walden unfortunately did not morph into Wade Davis, but Heyward was critically important to the club's success this past season. The Cardinals won 100 games without going all in at the trading deadline. While Cueto and Zobrist played an important role in winning the World Series, the Blue Jays gave up a ton of talent, too, and they went home without a championship.
If there is a lesson from the Royals regarding building the roster, it is to be patient with young players. Let them play and struggle and continued to provide them support so they can reach their full potential. Don't bail on Kolten Wong or Matt Adams as they struggle. Let young pitchers work through their struggles. The manner in which the Royals have obtained their players is not the only way to look at how the Royals built their team. Much has been written about potentially copying the Royals style of play marked by contact hitters, great defense and a great bullpen, including finding teams that are similar to the Royals already.
If we start with the bullpen, there is not a whole lot of difference between that of the Cardinals and the Royals this past season. The difference between Trevor Rosenthal and Wade Davis in 2015 was .137 in BABIP. There strikeouts, walks and home runs were nearly identical and their career BABIPs are only .034 apart. The Royals bullpen ERA (2.72) and FIP (3.56) were nearly identical to the Cardinals (2.82, 3.50, respectively. Unfortunately, Walden did not work out this season and Siegrist had a few bad games as he might have been a bit worn down. Should the Cardinals have copied the Royals bullpen and should they do it in the future? It looks like they already have. Perhaps they could have utilized the pen better in the playoffs and better management in the regular season might have helped, but in terms of making the roster, the Cardinals have built a good bullpen.
Looking at the Royals for their high-contact percentage as something to be emulated is interesting for the Cardinals considering the main complaint of many this season has been the lack of power, especially after the Cubs, a team light on contact, pounded the Cardinals on the strength of their home runs. The Royals used their contact skills to get on base at a .322 clip while the Cardinals used a combination of contact (top half in K%) and patience (7th in BB%) to get on at .330, and while putting pressure on the defense is nice, getting on base is the important thing, and the Cardinals did that well. Adding or targeting contact hitters is not going to help matters, although removing Mark Reynolds from the starting equation at first base could help some.
As for copying the Royals on defense, the Cardinals have attempted to field a great defense of their own. Yadier Molina is one of the greatest defensive players of all time at the most important defensive position, and the team as a whole has performed well behind their pitchers. Over the last two years, the Cardinals have been 44 runs above average, including positional difference, fourth in baseball. Their UZR is 39.1, seventh in MLB over the past two seasons and their 78 Defensive Runs Saved is third in MLB since the beginning of last season. The only team ahead of the Cardinals in both categories is the Royals. The Cardinals have built their team on very good defense. The Royals are a team difficult to copy, and some of the success in this year's playoffs cannot be repeated, as Dave Cameron noted. As the Cardinals know, sometimes Madison Bumgaber happens.
There are many ways to build a team and in recent years, no organization has done it better than the Cardinals. They have built playoff-caliber teams, and they are still in great position for the future. The best way to succeed is always going to be to get the best players possible, and the Cardinals have been doing that. There is no magic formula. Having hitters that do not strike out, a good bullpen, and a great defense are something to strive for, and for the most part the Cardinals have done that. Power hitting teams can fare well in the playoffs, too. I was the Cubs and Mets that used power hitting, and the Mets used a strong rotation without great bullpen depth to make it to the World Series. While there might be a few lessons packed into the paragraphs above, the most important one is this: Keep making the playoffs because anyone can win.