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A closer look at the Cardinals and Rangers

The biggest performances at this time of year don't always come from the biggest names

No matter what happens as this 2011 World Series shifts back to St. Louis for its remainder, this year’s Fall Classic will go down in history.  Tight, edge-of-your-seat games which is what fans expect at this time of year… in four of the first five anyway.  And the one game that wasn’t of that mold will be maybe the most memorable of all in this World Series, thanks to Albert Pujols’ three homeruns in Game 3. A feat that will be remembered among the greatest individual single-game performances in baseball history no matter what happens the rest of the way, but certainly moreso if the Cardinals were to win it all.

One of the things that I am endlessly fascinated by as a baseball fan is how teams are constructed, the work of a GM.  I love watching how successful teams do it, which typically requires a unique blend of old and young, and making all of the pieces mesh just right.  It’s always fascinated me in the Atlantic League, as it has in the Major League level for any sport.

Watching these two teams play has been very entertaining for me with those thoughts in mind.  But as I watch this World Series, so much credit and camera time is focused on Tony LaRussa and Ron Washington, and very deservedly so.  LaRussa is about as good as it gets when it comes to pushing the right buttons either on the lineup card or in-game… at least until last night anyway.  And same goes for Washington, a guy who his players clearly love to play for.

But what is a little surprising to me is how little credit the GMs have gotten for either team.  In fact, can you name them?  When is the last time you’ve heard the name of St. Louis’ general manager mentioned?

For the record, Cards GM is John Mozeliak. Texas GM is Jon Daniels.  But name-that-GM for many fans might be as tough of a trivia question as there could be for this series.

You have to give those guys a ton of credit.  For Texas, it’s also admirable what Nolan Ryan has done since taking over as CEO & President.  As a fan, you want your team’s owner to have as much passion for winning as you do, and Ryan clearly has that.  A couple of years ago, the Rangers were bankrupt, they had trouble drawing fans, their pitching was wretched, and it was just miserable at times in that summer heat.  But now look at them, and look at the energy in that place.  How can you not root for them to at least win one?  Since they were there last year and came up short, I have to root for them this season.  Even if many of their fans also root for the Cowboys.  It is nice to see organizations that are in this position for the first time have a chance to give their fans a taste of this.

Having grown up a Phillies fan, I’m not allowed to root for the Cardinals, but I am a fan of how they’ve gotten to this point.  They have a little bit of everything, and great role players which, having followed this postseason closely, I think is the way to go.

Comparing them to the Phils for instance, Philadelphia put a lot of eggs in just a couple of baskets.  Obviously the Four Aces (now minus Oswalt whose option for 2012 was declined by the team yesterday).  The Phillies had so much money invested in that starting rotation, and it’s hard to argue with that approach.  One of the best in the game in Halladay, one of the more clutch performers in the postseason in recent years as well as a Cy Young winner and the best pitcher on the market last offseason in Cliff Lee, one of the most accomplished young aces in the game in Hamels, and Oswalt.  Any team would want a rotation like that.  But the offense was so inconsistent and at times very silent, surprisingly so for the names up and down the order.  They had a lot of money tied up at a lot of aging positions, and aside from John Mayberry Jr. didn’t really have starting options on the bench that Charlie Manuel could just plug in at any time based on matchups or whatever the case might be.  And middle relief was at times shaky.  They were seemingly stacked, but their flaws were exposed and they proved to be pretty thin in some areas.

The Cardinals took a much different approach, and let’s face it, most teams have to because few have the payroll capabilities that the Phillies have.  But while St. Louis has a couple of high-priced stars in Pujols and Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman was a low-risk, extremely high-reward signing this winter that worked out like a charm for them.  Thought to perhaps be washed up after last season, he had an All-Star season for them and helped give them the best offense in the NL.

You have to have guys like that though, that aren’t max-contract players but fill their role.  Berkman will be compensated handsomely after his comeback season, but the way the Cardinals were built allowed them some flexibility to fill in here and there where needed.  They don’t have aging All-Stars at every position like the Phillies have, but a mix of guys who get on-base and set the table… some speed, some power, a little of everything.  And you have team guys who don’t mind moving the runner over or whatever the case.

You also have to have some exciting young talent like David Freese.  Guys that haven’t been there before, but are hungry for it and can perform on the big stage.  If he can stay healthy, what a player he could be.  And on his first contract, in the grand scheme of things, that costs them very little.

As for the rotation, the Cardinals have an ace in Carpenter, a very good pitcher in Garcia, and then two veterans who aren’t big names or top-dollar guys but are more than capable and have helped get them to this point in Jackson and Lohse.

A real strength is their bench.  LaRussa does have the flexibility to match up, and those guys have come up huge, like Allen Craig in this World Series.  Someone many fans may not have heard of prior to this October.  Similar to Cody Ross last fall who became a household name even for casual fans.

Their bullpen was a sore spot for much of the season, and appeared poised to become their undoing.  But that flexibility allowed Mozeliak to add Jackson to the rotation, and key relievers like Rhodes, Dotel, and Rzepczynski.  Not big names necessarily, but guys who filled a role that they needed, and allowed the incumbents to move into their roles, and have the whole system work.  At least until this series anyway.

Furcal was a trade deadline deal this year.  He goes on to become their leadoff hitter and table setter this postseason, and really solidified their defense, moving Theriot away from shortstop.  Not many teams were as active in terms of tweaking the big league roster during this season as the Cardinals.

You have to have some balance and depth and flexibility.  Drafting well is a vital part of that, that’s really where it all starts and where organizations can either set themselves up for success or failure.  Nobody is more valuable than those young players who are either becoming stars or very serviceable major league players, that don’t yet command the big bucks.  But if you’re funds are maxed at every position, your team might be very good and have a ton of talent in a lot of areas, but may lack that last ingredient, which is the flexiblity to add depth at a position of need.

It’s not always a matter of loading up with the biggest big-name stars at every position.  The Yankees did that a lot the last decade and if any team has seemingly unlimited cash it’d be the Yankees, but they’ve only won one World Series in the last 11 years.  It’s not as simple as just throwing more money some free agent’s way.  Not even close.

And that’s what I love about watching the Cardinals, who may end up being a forgotten team by the time these next one or two games are played if they don’t find a way to get two wins.  But I have a real appreciation and fascination for how their team was built.  Not the biggest moves, but the right moves.

Among the 30 MLB teams, the teams with the top nine payrolls this season (NYY, PHI, BOS, LAA, CHW, CHC, NYM, SF, MIN in that order) were all eliminated before the League Championship Series, and 7 of those 9 teams failed to make the playoffs.  St. Louis’ payroll ranked 11th, and Texas’ ranked 13th.  All this talk about the Cardinals, but the Rangers have a lot of young talent and are one win away from winning it all with a payroll well under $100 million.

Two of the teams that made the postseason had among the lowest payrolls – Tampa Bay was second lowest ahead of only Kansas City at $41 million, while Arizona had the sixth lowest payroll at $53 million.  And again, a lot of great drafting from those two clubs to make it work with their young nuclei.

Looking at how Texas has done it, they didn’t attach themselves to Cliff Lee and his hefty asking price last off-season, and who thought they’d be back here when they didn’t?  I confess, not me.  They wanted him back, but drew a line in the sand and weren’t willing to go beyond that.  But let’s look at how they did acquire some of their top contributors. 

Ian Kinsler, C.J. Wilson, and Derek Holland among others were drafted by the organization.  Another 1/4 of their playoff starting rotation was plucked off the scrap heap in journeyman Colby Lewis who has found it in Arlington.  The only big-money free agent contract they issued to someone outside the organization was to Adrian Beltre (5 yrs, $80 million).  And then a list of unbelievable trades… veteran Michael Young from Toronto when he was still a prospect in 2000 for Esteban Loaiza.  The rest are all Daniels… They got half their team for Mark Teixeira before he cashed in as a free agent by trading him to Atlanta, and received Elvis Andrus, starter Matt Harrison, and closer Neftali Feliz at the deadline in 2007.  That could end up being one of the all-time great trades, and certainly the deal of Daniels’ career.  They did give up something in Edinson Volquez to get something in return (that being Josh Hamilton from the Reds), but how about this next one… Nelson Cruz from the Brewers for Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix, and Francisco Cordero at the deadline in 2006.  Three serviceable players at one point or another, but receiving a difference-maker in Cruz, and getting him before he commands that top-dollar.  They also got Carlos Lee in that deal – he did not live up to expectations but they let him walk after the season, and Cruz, a minor leaguer at the time, has emerged as one of the top power-hitting threats in the game.  This isn’t all Daniels… their scouting department has to receive a ton of credit here too, but that’s his staff.

How about acquiring possible World Series MVP Mike Napoli from Toronto for reliever Frank Francisco?  Didn’t get hardly any attention at the time, but one of the biggest moves they’ve made for this season anyway (Napoli never played for Toronto… he was traded by the Angels to the Blue Jays four days before being shipped to Texas this January).

And then mid-season this year, and Orioles fans are about to cringe… wheeling and dealing for Mike Gonzalez and Koji Uehara.  Bet you never thought you’d see them in the postseason, and here they are contributing.  Maybe better roles for them in Texas though, and the Rangers recognized that and gave them the chance.  And of course acquiring Mike Adams from San Diego who was one of the most coveted relievers available at the deadline this year in exchange for prospects.

I researched how these guys were acquired while writing this post which I never intended to be this long, but having now read over all of these moves made by Daniels, I’m even more impressed.  Talk about some blockbuster moves.  Just about every move he’s made has been a great one, and has had a direct effect on their success this season.  And most importantly, these guys are big game guys and have risen to the occasion (just like the Revs).

On the East Coast you don’t hear Daniels’ name mentioned too often, but his resume speaks for itself, he’s one of the best in the game.  He’s also the youngest GM in the big leagues.

Most said it would be Philly and Boston this season.  Boston had a lot of moves backfire while the Phillies made a lot of good moves, but also are just about maxed out from a payroll standpoint which may have hindered them to some extent.  But here it is St. Louis and Texas.  The Rangers, whose biggest news last offseason was what they lost (Lee), and the Cardinals who with three weeks to go in the season were supposed to be dead in the water.  They made the moves at the right time though, got hot at the right time, and while they may not have been the best team early in the season, they’re one of the best two now, and that’s the only part that counts.  The foundation may be set, but championships aren’t won in December and January, and these two teams, with the moves they’ve made during this whole journey are evidence of that. 

Watching the success of their respective strategies is one of my favorite things about the game.

-DH

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