Troubling Times

This Baseball Prospectus article ($BP subscription required) takes a look at the recent history of the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system. The author predicts a pretty bullish future for the Redbirds from their minor leagues, perhaps beginning as early as 2009. They apparently have two or three good pitching prospects, with one of them projected to be a closer after Isringhausen’s current contract expires.

Going into the 2005 season, the Cardinals farm system was among the lowest ranked in the majors. But after losing to the Astros in the NLCS that year, they ended up with 6 draft picks in the first 78 picks and out of that crop came their top three prospects, including Colby Rasmus, who is projected to be their Hunter Pence, perhaps even a little better. In 2006 they went for broke at the major league level and managed a fluke World Series win to keep the fan base happy. Along with the Astros suffered a terrible year last year, even though they managed to finish with a slightly better record and were competitive in the pathetic NL Central.

Its interesting that this article seems a lot more positive about the Cardinals’ farm system than some of their fans are, although he does say that it still probably only ranks in the middle of the pack in the majors. The difference may be that in 2009 they should still have a perennial MVP candidate in Albert Pujols and probably an All Star level starter in Chris Carpenter to fit these pieces around.

It’s funny how the fortunes of the Astros and Cardinals have waxed and waned together over the past decade, and especially the past couple of years. In recent years, both made it to the Series for the first time ever for the Astros and for the Cardinals since the 80’s. In the following year after their appearance the Astros took a nosedive and the freefall eventually cost their skipper and the GM their jobs. While Walt Jocketty got unceremoniously dumped at the end of the season, Tony LaRussa avoided the Cardinals’ crash last year, probably on reputation alone.

So now the Astros are in roughly the position of the Cardinals after their 2004 Series appearance, only without an abundance of draft picks in next year’s amateur draft and a GM who seems hell-bent on building a team for 2008. We’re in roughly similar positions on the field, with an ace pitcher and All Star first baseman. Hunter Pence has already made a splash for us. But instead of an owner and GM committed to building something that can last, we have the triumvirate of Drayton McLane, Tal Smith and Ed Wade, who’s plan seems to be to build a team that might squeak into the playoffs in 2008 and hope for the best. It’s true they have claimed a greater commitment to player development and the scouting department has been reshuffled, but we really won’t know the results of that for a year or more. What they have done in the meantime is sign declining veteran players to bloated contracts, pad the roster with journeymen infielders who can no longer hit and trade most of the pitching prospects who have appeared on our top 10 prospects for the last several years.

I’m unsure how to correctly apportion the blame for the current state of affairs. Actually Ed Wade, the current GM probably bears the least amount of culpability, even though his hands are the bloodiest. I’m sure when he was investigating the possibility of taking this job and being interviewed he must have discerned what McLane and Smith’s goals were and he’s giving them what they want.

The real question is whether how much of the bulk of the guilt to assign to Tal Smith. He rejoined the team in 1995, a period in which the Astros have enjoyed their greatest success as a franchise. I would assume that in his role as president of Baseball Operations he advises McLane on the the business aspects of baseball side of things. He seems suited to that role given his experience. Given the fact that he oversaw things back in the late 90’s when we were building the organization through the minor league system that at the time was one of the best in baseball, perhaps he doesn’t bear too much blame for the way things are now.

I think Drayton McLane is the reason we’re in the shape we are now. While he has been the best owner in Astros history, in terms of results, he doesn’t seem temperamentally suited to a game like baseball. He has a relentless drive and is very customer focus, which are not good things, but they seem to lead him to sell the future at the cost of the present. He knows how bad the Astros were last year, and especially since the very recent taste of success with the World Series appearance in 2005, he seems to be afraid the fans will bolt at the first sign of trouble. He also has the annoying propensity, common to men who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to own and operate a professional sports franchise, to want to be involved in running the operations on the field. From the initial splash he tried to make by signing hometown boys Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell, through the multiple GMs, the repeated courtships of Roger Clemens and finally last year the ill-advised contract with Carlos Lee. Drayton seems willing to sacrifice a chance for a prosperous future to make superficial gestures intended to buy the fans’ dollars cheaply. I know we’re fickle, but it seems given the goodwill generated by the Series there might have been an opportunity to take a couple of years to build for sometime beyond the end of this decade. Instead we signed free agents to grab headlines, in the process costing us several rounds of draft picks last year that should be the lifeblood of the organization. Not only that, to add insult to injury we drafted players and then refused to meet their salary demands and ended up with nothing for our efforts.

I’m definitely seeing the glass half full side of things here. There are reasons that could be offered in rebuttal to these points. Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt are both in the prime of their careers right now; their decline will probably happen after the next couple of years. While it’s true we’ve stripped our farm system of the bulk of its highest rated prospects, they were the highest rated prospects in a system that ranked last in the majors, so maybe none of them would ever have contributed anything significant. Maybe while I can only see the doom and gloom now, the brain trust has a master plan for next year’s draft that will carry us beyond 2010. I hope so, but I think there will have to be some big changes before we have any hope for it.

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