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2011, 2006, and building the next Cardinals World Series champion

The Cardinals have won two World Series titles this century. How will they win their third?

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Five years ago tonight, the day after one of the most dramatic games in baseball history (much less postseason history, much less Cardinals history), the St. Louis Cardinals capped off a dramatic playoff run by defeating the Texas Rangers 6-2 in the seventh game of the 2011 World Series.

Ten years ago last night, following an even more improbable October run (the oft-cited 83 wins in the regular season doesn't quite do justice to what free fall the Cardinals were in late in the regular season), the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series, four games to one, following a 4-2 Jeff Weaver victory over Detroit Tigers rookie Justin Verlander.

The 2006 edition of the St. Louis Cardinals undeniably had star power: the vaunted ‘MVP3’ remained intact, but only Albert Pujols remained a true MVP candidate—Scott Rolen was still very good but not quite elite, and Jim Edmonds had dipped to being merely an above-average hitter rather than a great one, while his defensive statistics in his age-36 season suggested a merely passable center fielder.

Otherwise, there was a collection of incomplete players (the all-bat no-glove Chris Duncan; his polar opposite, until the NLCS at least, Yadier Molina) and castoffs (the team’s World Series MVP, David Eckstein, had only become available to the Cardinals after the Anaheim Angels decided to replace him with Orlando Cabrera) that somehow managed to win the World Series. It wasn't quite the archetype of how to build a champion but, at least once, it worked.

If in 2006, you had told me that the Cardinals would win their next World Series title in five seasons, I probably would have guessed a rebuild was involved. By the time of the 2011 World Series, Jim Edmonds would be 41, Scott Rolen would be 36, scrolls through Baseball Reference to remember who else was on the 2006 Cardinals, anyway Juan Encarnacion would be 35.

This did happen, but unlike the five-year rebuild undergone by the Chicago Cubs under Theo Epstein which is the current toast of baseball, the post-2006 rebuild was less a meticulous, from-the-ground-up type of rebuild and more of an annual cycle of signing moderately priced reinforcements. Although this method did not create a single team as overwhelmingly dominant as this year’s Cubs, it did allow the Cardinals to avoid the harrowing lows of the 2012-2014 Cubs.

In a way that may seem counter-intuitive at first, the Cardinals’ path to the 2011 World Series title was hindered by their 2006 World Series title. The Cardinals probably needed to rebuild in the 2006-2007 off-season, but it’s hard to justify dismantling a World Series winner in the immediate afterglow of a championship (then again, the 1997 Florida Marlins did this and six years later were adding a second Commissioner’s Trophy to the cases at Hard Rock Stadium Sun Life Stadium Dolphin Stadium Dolphins Stadium Pro Player Stadium).

And therefore, the Cardinals soldiered on with a remarkably similar roster to the one which closed out the 2006 regular season with a 25-36 record (only this time with Kip Wells!). And things went poorly—they went 78-84, they should have fared worse (their Pythagorean win-loss was 71-91), and Jim Edmonds’s season Wins Above Replacement was one-sixth of the accumulation of a pitcher-turned-outfielder who was called up to the Majors on August 9 for the first time in three seasons.

The Cardinals, under new general manager John Mozeliak, did begin to make moves in the direction of rebuilding, including trading Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen in the off-season, but they never committed to a fully-fledged tear-down. The presence of Albert Pujols in his prime assured that otherwise mediocre rosters could contend for playoff berths, and therefore the Cardinals could field lineups that, say, utilized Felipe Lopez as the team’s cleanup hitter (as they did five times in 2008) and still win 86 games.

The 2011 Cardinals had a hodgepodge of a roster. It included just three players from the 2006 championship team—Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols, and Chris Carpenter. Several key contributors to the 2011 team, such as Lance Berkman, Kyle Lohse, and Nick Punto were acquired as free agents at relatively little cost. Additionally, the club was guided by new faces who were relatively unheralded prospects within the Cardinals organization, such as Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Fernando Salas, and David Freese.

A few players, notably Matt Holliday and Edwin Jackson, were acquired via trade. But they were not so much swindles as they were results of circumstances—the Cardinals were able to convince the Oakland Athletics to trade Matt Holliday because they were a last place team, 17 games back of the division lead, and the prospects he could garner were worth more to Oakland than the value Holliday could provide to a going-nowhere team in two months of a lame duck season. The 2011 Toronto Blue Jays were similarly well out of playoff contention and thus were more than willing to trade from its reserves of pitchers in order to acquire cost-controlled outfielder Colby Rasmus.

Swindles are rare. At the risk of sounding like I am making a general appeal to authority, MLB front offices are very smart and mostly know what they are doing. As innovative as Moneyball-era Billy Beane was, every single GM in baseball is lightyears ahead of that in 2016 (to be fair, Billy Beane himself is among these wiser GMs). But swindles do happen. And they happened disproportionately with the Theo Epstein-era Chicago Cubs.

Inevitably, when teams win the World Series, rival front offices try to mimic what had just worked, even if what just worked was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. After the Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series on the strength of a dominant bullpen (not to mention all-universe defense and a solid if not spectacular offense), teams tried to catch lightning in a bottle. Even if the Cubs do not win this year’s World Series, attempts to duplicate what they did seem like a foregone conclusion.

The problem is that it would be impossible to bank on what the Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer regime has done in Chicago. To a degree, Epstein and Hoyer got lucky that Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Addison Russell fell into their hands. Which isn’t to say that Epstein and Hoyer are not exceptionally smart and talented baseball men—they are. But for an organization’s plan to be “find guys that will be all-world baseball players soon enough and convince organizations to part with them for Andrew Cashner or a 35 year-old Ryan Dempster”, they are usually going to be waiting a while.

Models closer to what the Cardinals did in 2006 and 2011, combining some top homegrown talent with lower-cost veterans, still work in 2016, as evidenced by the Cubs’ World Series opponent, the Cleveland Indians, who have received contributions on this postseason run from such players as Brandon Guyer, Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, and Dan Otero.

There is no “right” way to build a team. Whether the next Cardinals champion is a collection of purely homegrown players or the equivalent to the store-bought 2009 World Series champion New York Yankees is irrelevant. Going forward, the Cardinals’ philosophy should not be rigid adherence to their old ways of marginal improvement around a core of top players, nor should it be trying to be an exact clone of the Cubs’ generational roster construction.

The Cardinals should, as obvious as it sounds, just keep making moves that make them better. Even if those moves never make them great, it is easier than ever to catch lightning in a bottle and pull off an incredulous 2006 run once again.