A look at the Cardinals minor league system

The debate has raged for awhile. Can the Cardinals build from within? Is Jeff Luhnow doing a good job? Overall opinion of the Cardinals minor league system has been down for some time. Part of that is because it was standard operating procedure for the Cardinals to usually trade valuable minor leaguers for veteran talent to fill out the major league roster.

While there is no way to quantitatively measure the production of our minor league system, one can look at who was produced, how long it took them to produce, and how old they were when they got to the major leagues.

So that’s what I did. For reference purposes, I began my look in 1995 with the first draft that was supervised by the new Cardinals’ GM Walt Jocketty. At that point I had two eras for my draft picks: Pre-Luhnow and Luhnow. (I can’t find any dates, I do know that Luhnow joined the Cardinals in 2003, but the earliest I can find of him being in charge of scouting and development was 2006 so this study might now be completely accurate in that regard.)

What I was looking at were players that have stuck in the major leagues. Played a regular part of a few years worth of major league teams or, in the case of some of the newer era study, have recently stuck and are expected to continue. What I used for the date they were “established” at the major league level was the first season that they were a regular contributor to a major league team.

Keep reading and let’s take a look.

There are the list of players that I determined were major league productions from the drafts of the last 15 seasons thus far. Pretty unimpressive when you consider that more than 40 players are drafted by each organization every season. That’s well over 600 players that were drafted and there are this few major league contributors is amazing. It goes to show you just how difficult it is to get to the major leagues in baseball (and why televising the MLB draft is a pointless idea). I wonder how productive other systems are in comparison, but I really have no desire to research them the same way.

Anyway, as you can see, the Pre-Luhnow era generated 13 major league players in 8 drafts. The players were an average of 22.8 years old when they reached the major leagues and took 3.4 years in the minor leagues to get there. On average, Pre-Luhnow drafts generated 1.6 major league players per draft.

What I did was then took those 3.4 years and subtracted them from 2010. Using that as a baseline, it’s unrealistic to expect any talent from the 2007 draft and beyond to have made the major league ballclub yet, though players like Daniel Descalso and Brett Wallace may begin their major league careers in the 2011 season.

In the Luhnow era, the draft has generated 8 major league players in 4 drafts. The players were an average of 23.9 years old when they reached the major leagues and took 4.1 years in the minor leagues to get there. On average, Luhnow era drafts generated 2 major league players per draft.

The extra year in age it is taking our minor leaguers to stick on the major league rosters concerns me. Granted there were no “can’t stop me” players like J.D. Drew, Albert Pujols, and Dan Haren. The Luhnow era numbers are also thrown off by players who were slowed by injury like Jaime Garcia or who changed positions like Jason Motte.

You can also see that the players we did end up keeping (rather than trading away) are slower to the major leagues in the Luhnow era than they were in the Pre-Luhnow era.

I also think that managerial philosophy has something to do with it, and Tony LaRussa certainly, I feel, has more pull and say in this under John Mozeliak than he did under Walt Jocketty. Tony prefers veteran ballclubs and the Berkman acquisition, blocking Jon Jay and Allen Craig front an every day position, is one that has his name written all over it. (So did Randy Winn and Jeff Suppan last year too)

We’ve been far more successful in the Luhnow era in producing pitchers, though they are mainly relievers except for Jaime Garcia. Meanwhile Pre-Luhnow we drafted a handful of solid major league position players. Unfortunately now we need those solid major league position players to be developed.

We seem to be producing more solid major league players, but fewer top level players. We might have a couple in Colby Rasmus and Jaime Garcia, but those would be the first two of the Luhnow era.

Considering that the Cardinals have only in the last three seasons really discussed changing from the mentality that “minor leaguers are used to trade for veteran talent” to a “build from within” philosophy, I don’t think you can quite declare it a failure just yet.

There is definitely talent down there that has potential. Guys like Shelby Miller and Zack Cox just to name a few. We brought in a handful of good players in this year’s draft alone. This was the first year that the Cardinals went and drafted straight talent, regardless of the cost involved in signing them. Previously, they were a little more careful with that.

Like it or not, it’s going to take a few more years to really be able to judge the failure or success of the Cardinals swap to a “build from within” philosophy, but I do know that the acquisition of Lance Berkman slows that down.

My complaint has always been that they sign veteran players who block the young talent they do retain, more so in recent years. We will probably have to wait one more year to find out if Jon Jay or Allen Craig are viable major leaguers. That is, unless we go sign another veteran to a one-year deal for 2012.