For the third year in a row, the St. Louis Cardinals are one win away from the World Series. As I’m searching for words to use to continue this opening paragraph, all I can do is shake my head. As a Cincinnati Reds fan…it’s hard not to be irritated by the success of the Cardinals. It’s not that I hate the Cardinals or that I wish they would lose these next three games; it’s more a feeling of envy–I wish the Reds would someday turn into what the Cardinals are now…and what the Cardinals have been for the past fourteen years.
There are so many impressive aspects of this three-year run for the Cardinals that I have no choice but to give that organization props. In 2011, St. Louis trailed Atlanta by eight games very late in the regular season for the Wildcard spot and overtook the Braves on the final day of the regular season…then knocked out the defending National League champs, the Phillies…took down the Milwaukee Brewers to advance to the World Series…then twice rallied late in Game 6 against the Texas Rangers when down to their last out…forced a Game Seven…and then won the damn thing.
In 2012, the Cards qualified for the Wildcard play-in game and knocked out the Braves in Atlanta…then, down 6-0 in the 3rd inning of Game 5 of the NLDS on the road in Washington, rallied all the way back to win that game…then took a 3-1 lead over San Francisco before inexplicably losing three straight. Most notably in that 2012 year, the Cardinal front office decided to let all-world superstar first baseman Albert Pujols walk in free agency, rather than pay him upward of $250 million. Of course, there was a reason they could do that…and we’ll get to that in a minute.
This season, in a hotly-contested NL Central, St. Louis rose above rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to win its first division title of the 2010s…then came back from a 2-1 deficit in Pittsburgh in the NLDS to win Game 4…then easily won the deciding Game 5 at home…and, after winning the first two games of the NLCS in St. Louis over the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis has split the next two in L.A. to once again need just one more victory to get to the World Series–and it would be the franchise’s fourth trip to the Fall Classic in the past ten seasons.
Do the Cardinals go out and spend a ton of money on free agents and buy their way into contention every year? Absolutely not. This franchise is a perfectly-oiled machine, plain and simple, churning out major leaguer after major leaguer through its scouting, drafting and player development operation.
Take a look at the Cardinals’ playoff roster for 2013. On that roster, you’ll find just one major free agent signing–a brilliant one at that: Carlos Beltran, who just so happens to be one of the 10 greatest postseason players of all-time, mind you (1.154 career OPS in 43 playoff games). You’ll find just one big name acquired in a trade: Matt Holliday, an all-star outfielder who St. Louis wrested away from Colorado in his prime, then convinced to sign a long term deal.
The rest of that roster, save for a couple of journeyman relievers (John Axford and Randy Choate) is completely home grown. Guys that were either drafted by the Cardinals or acquired as prospects, trained and drilled and schooled in the way that the Cardinals do things (both on the field and off, in the clubhouse–everywhere), completely poised and confident…and relentlessly consistent in their approaches at the plate, on the basepaths and in the field. Consistency, smart baseball, open-minded shifts and approaches combined with high level talent that was eyed by an incredible scouting team.
It’s insane, really.
Here’s what’s so insane about it. That 2011 team–you know, the won that came out of nowhere to just go ahead and win the whole god damn thing–is pretty much a completely different team from the 2013 club.
1) The 2011 starting pitching rotation and closer…Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, Edwin Jackson and Jason Motte…yeah, guess how many of those six pitchers are on the 2013 playoff roster. Yep. ZERO.
2) The Cardinals could afford to let Pujols walk because they had a suitable replacement named Allen Craig, who batted over .440 with runners in scoring position in 2013. OH, BUT WAIT A MINUTE. Craig got injured in late August and had to miss the rest of the season…did the move backfire? Of course not. A gigantic left-handed masher, fundamentally sound in the field, named Matt Adams was ready to step right in and drive in runs and play smart baseball and hit cleanup.
3) Hall-of-Fame manager Tony LaRussa retired after the 2011 season, giving way to former catcher Mike Matheny. All Matheny has done is continue the same deal…getting to two straight NLCS’s and probably his first World Series this year.
4) In the Cardinal bullpen, they bring out a 22-year-old right-hander named Carlos Martinez who throws 100, a 24-year-old lefty named Kevin Siegrist who throws 98-99 and then a 23-year-old right-hander named Trevor Rosenthal who throws 100+. How the F do they find these guys?
Two more things:
Number one, this is all so impressive because, since St. Louis generally finished near or at the top of the standings, it’s not like they’re privy to a bunch of Top-5 draft picks. The scouting has to be off the charts to continue to churn out beasts from low draft picks.
And, number two, most of these guys are so goddamn young…this team is gonna be ridiculous for many years to come, especially with Yadier Molina behind the plate leading the way. And if you’re thinking that Beltran is about done, I hate to break it to you…but St. Louis has an outfielder named Oscar Taveras in the minors ready to step in and take his place.. and Taveras is ranked very, very high by every scouting agency in the world.
How do the Cardinals keep doing this? There’s probably fifty reasons why. And, as the world turns, it appears that the St. Louis Cardinals will continue to do this until the end of time.