When they finally emerged from the room, after 10 days of debating and grumbling and overflowing a recycling bin with the emptied bottles of water and Diet Coke that had fueled them, they had no way to know what they had just done. The Cardinals' 2009 draft hadn't felt particularly different from any other to the 30 or so men whose minds and experiences had shaped it. Jeff Luhnow, the former McKinsey consultant who had been the club's scouting director since 2005, had spent a week and a half—the last three days for the draft itself—on his feet in a mid-sized conference room on the third floor of Busch Stadium, shuffling around some 1,200 magnets, each of which bore the name of a draftable prospect. "Every time you move one," recalls the 47-year-old Luhnow, now the general manager of the Astros, who hired him away from St. Louis in 2011, "half the room is cringing, and half is clapping."
This is an article from the Oct. 28, 2013 issue
Facing Luhnow's magnet board, seated at desks arranged in a U shape, were St. Louis's scouts, two dozen men who over the past year had gotten to know virtually every one of those 1,200 prospects. Behind the scouts, tapping away at their computers, were the members of the Cardinals' analytics department, which sought to impart quantitative analysis on what remains a mostly qualitative exercise. In the back of the room were chairs for owner Bill DeWitt, GM John Mozeliak and other leaders of the front office.
On June 11, 2009, after the 1,521th and final player of the draft had been selected, the Cardinals' talent evaluators looked at the 50 prospects whose rights were now theirs. "We always talk about how it's sort of Christmas morning, in that you have no idea what you're going to unwrap—and it takes a while to find out," says Mozeliak, who preceded Luhnow as the Cardinals' scouting director. Luhnow uses a similar analogy. "It just so happens that my birthday is on June 8, so every year the draft's right around it," he says. "Always felt like I got 50 presents."
The vast majority of those gifts turn out to be itchy sweaters: Fewer than 10% of drafted players spend even a single inning in the big leagues. The scouting department of one of the Cardinals' rivals recently analyzed every draft since 1990 and found that if a club landed nine future major leaguers in a single year, that draft would rank in the 95th percentile. The 95th percentile for future everyday players—that is, those who make 1,500 big league plate appearances or face 1,500 batters—is four. The 95th percentile for above-average players—those who produce at least six Wins Above Replacement over their six pre-free-agency seasons—is three.
After factoring in the club's proprietary projections for player production, the study ranked the Cardinals' 2009 haul in the 99th percentile of all drafts over the last two decades. Of course, you don't need advanced studies to recognize just how well Mozeliak, Luhnow and company nailed things in June 2009—a quick scan of the Cardinals roster for their World Series showdown with the Red Sox will do. Five of St. Louis's 25 active players were acquired in that draft, none of them callow pinch runners or mop-up men: second baseman Matt Carpenter, their leadoff hitter and WAR leader; first baseman Matt Adams; righthander Joe Kelly, who is likely to start Game 3 against Boston; closer Trevor Rosenthal; and righthander Shelby Miller, a 15-game winner who ranked 10th in the NL in ERA (3.06) during the regular season and will most likely prove the best of them all in the long term.
"It's really quite remarkable," says Mozeliak. Remarkable, but not fluky. The story of the Cardinals' 2009 draft provides a window into how baseball's model franchise stays that way—and why the sight of World Series games in St. Louis is something the rest of baseball should get used to.
SURROUNDED BY friends and family, Miller was at home in Brownwood, Texas, when his name was read on the MLB Network and he learned that he was the property of the Cardinals. Kelly was at a party at Oggi's Pizza, in his hometown of Corona, Calif., a gathering intended to celebrate both his drafting and his 21st birthday. Carpenter was sitting by himself in the three-bedroom house he rented with TCU teammates in Fort Worth, constantly refreshing the draft-results page on his computer. He received a congratulatory text message from his aunt, refreshed once more and saw where he was headed.
Rosenthal was in the parking lot of a Price Chopper in Lee's Summit, Mo., spreading mulch with the landscaping crew he worked for that summer. His phone rang. "I was drafted by the Cardinals!" he announced to his fellow mulch-spreaders. "That's great," they said. "Get back to work." In Philipsburg, Pa., Adams and his family had long since turned off their computer when he got the call he thought would come many hours earlier. He was, mostly, relieved.
Everybody in baseball knew that Miller, an 18-year-old senior at Brownwood High, was a top 10 talent. Luhnow had long shied away from taking high school pitchers, with their heightened risk of injury and failure, in the first round. But Miller, a 6'3" power pitcher who threw in the mid-90s, was different. "He exemplified everything I was looking for, bodywise, stuffwise, everything about his makeup and his athleticism," Luhnow says. Miller had fallen through the first round all the way down to the Cardinals, who had the 19th pick, because his agent, Peter Vescovo, had let it be known that he was seeking Porcello money—a deal commensurate with the record-setting four years and $7.285 million that high school pitcher Rick Porcello had received from the Tigers two years earlier. It was also believed that Miller wanted to play for the Astros, who were picking at No. 21.
Joe Almaraz, the Cardinals' cross-checker who scouted Miller, thought Vescovo would cave, and convinced the draft room of that. Miller was shocked when his name was announced. "I didn't really want to go to this organization, to be honest," he admits. A little over a month later, however, he agreed to a $2.875 million signing bonus. As a rookie this year, he had 169 strikeouts in 173 1/3 innings for the team that won the NL Central. The rebuilding Astros, meanwhile, lost 111 games and are at least two years away from contending. "I'm glad I'm not with Houston," Miller says.
Kelly also had first-round stuff—his fastball reached the upper 90s—but he was a far riskier proposition. He was barely six feet tall, and his junior year at UC Riverside had not gone well: He was the team's closer but had a 5.65 ERA over 28 2/3 innings. Luhnow, though, had been in the stands for one of those innings, against Cal. "Gave up a home run, but I saw the stuff and couldn't get it out of my mind," Luhnow says. When the Cardinals' third-round pick rolled around, Luhnow's analytics team—"the rational thinkers in the room," as he calls them—urged him to take Angelo Songco, a power-hitting outfielder from Loyola Marymount. "He had a track record of performance, had done well in our workout, raw power, safe bet to make the big leagues," Luhnow says. Still, he plucked Kelly's magnet off the board. This year, in his second big league season, Kelly had a 2.69 ERA in 37 appearances, including 15 starts. Songco, who was taken in the fourth round by the Dodgers, has yet to advance past Double A.
St. Louis's stats guys—led by Sig Mejdal, a former NASA engineer who now works under Luhnow with the Astros—would score their first major victory on the second day of the draft, which begins with the fourth round. By that point, says Luhnow, "it's rare to get guys who both scouting and analytics like." It's particularly rare in the 13th round, which is where Carpenter's name was up for debate. A fifth-year senior third baseman at TCU, Carpenter's college career had included a temporary weight gain to 240 pounds and Tommy John surgery. At 23 he was among the oldest players in the draft, too old for scouts to take much of an interest in him. Mejdal's team, though, looked at his statistics as a senior—a .333 batting average, 11 home runs, an OPS of 1.132—and argued he was well worth the small signing bonus he would likely command. This year, while playing second base for the first time, he ranked in the NL's top 10 in batting (.318), runs (126), walks (72) and OPS (.873). In a lineup that includes rightfielder Carlos Beltran, leftfielder Matt Holliday and catcher Yadier Molina, Carpenter was, according to WAR, the Cardinals' most valuable player.
Rosenthal, who remained available in the 21st round, did not have enough of a track record for Mejdal to parse—as a converted shortstop, he barely had any pitching track record at all. In his one season at Cowley County Community College, in Kansas, he had thrown all of 4 2/3 innings. Former big league pitcher Aaron Looper, a Cardinals area scout, happened to be in the crowd for 1 1/3 of those innings, and he liked Rosenthal's arm. Most big league clubs don't invite their area scouts into the draft room, but Luhnow, following Mozeliak's precedent, did. "Having the person there who knows the player best, at a time you need to make a decision, is really important to me," he says. A day before the draft began, Looper stood up and made an impassioned speech in the draft room about Rosenthal's talent, and affixed a gold star—each scout got five—to the pitcher's magnet to indicate he had a feeling in his gut about him. Looper sat down next to Mike Elias, then a Cardinals area scout and now the Astros' scouting director, and whispered, "All I saw was one f------ inning."
That gut feeling, and the freedom Looper was given to express it, gave the Cardinals a dominant closer, a job the 23-year-old Rosenthal took over in September—and one of the power arms that are now essential for October success. Including his work as a setup man last year, Rosenthal has allowed no runs and just five hits in 15 2/3 innings in the postseason, with 24 strikeouts.
Adams's problem was not experience: He had set his college's record for career batting average, at .473. But he did have knocks against him. The first was that his college was Slippery Rock in Pennsylvania, a Division II school that had never produced a major leaguer. The second was, well, his beer-league body—the 6'3", 230-pound catcher flunked scouts' eyeball tests when he squatted behind home plate. But as the draft progressed, Brian Hopkins, the area scout who covered Pennsylvania, stayed in Luhnow's ear, urging him to look past Adams's physique to the impressive workout he'd held at Busch and to his numbers. Soon the stats guys in the back of the room were nodding over their laptops.
Adams, 25, is listed at 260 pounds. In half a season's worth of plate appearances this year—319—the only 2009 23rd-rounder to make the majors so far batted .284 with 17 home runs, 51 RBIs and an OPS of .839. During the first two rounds of the postseason he ably filled in at first base for Allen Craig, St. Louis's regular-season RBI leader, who suffered a foot injury in early September. Adams is also the rather large capstone to a draft class that already ranks among the deepest, and most profitable, of any in history.
AS WELL as the Cardinals' 2009 draft has turned out, it could have been better. It might have been much better, in one specific way. When they picked Miller at No. 19 there was one other magnet next to his on St. Louis's big board—the one that bore the name of Mike Trout. "There has to be some regret there," says Luhnow. "Thank goodness we got Miller. Makes it a lot less painful."
The pain of failing to pick a player who, at 22, is already the game's best all-around talent has been dulled in several ways. The central one is the type of roster the '09 draft allowed the Cardinals to build this season. St. Louis has five veteran stars who this year earned more than $10 million—Holliday, Molina, Beltran, ace Adam Wainwright and injured righthander Chris Carpenter—but still maintained a reasonable payroll of $117 million, the league's 11th highest, in part because of the outsized contributions of so many players who are still earning around the minimum of $490,000. Of the 25 Cardinals on the World Series roster, 14 have been in the majors for three years or less.
Plus, even after losing front-office stars like Luhnow, Elias and Mejdal to the Astros, the Cardinals' amateur scouting department is still churning out quality drafts. "When you have the kind of impact we produced in '09 ... it's not necessarily something that you can just replicate," says Mozeliak. "We had a lot of success in that '09 draft, but I don't think you can say that '10, '11, '12 are necessarily going to be producing the same." But they have, to a degree. The 2010 and '11 drafts have already produced multiple big leaguers, and the class of '12 delivered one who has already exceeded the minimum standard. That would be righthander Michael Wacha, whom the Cardinals took out of Texas A&M with the 19th pick. He made his big league debut on May 30, had a 2.78 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 64 2/3 regular-season innings, and in three postseason starts is 3--0 with an 0.43 ERA—one run allowed in 21 innings. He was named the NLCS MVP after shutting out the Dodgers over two starts and 13 2/3 innings and is the likely Game 2 starter against the Red Sox.
The Cardinals' task only begins when they draft amateur players. No organization has proven more adept at developing the talent it procures. Part of that stems from well-honed player-development principles that can turn a player like Rosenthal from, essentially, a hard-throwing shortstop into a shutdown closer by the time he is 23. "Rosenthal, I saw him his first year as a professional," Luhnow says. "Would I guess he'd be closing out the NLCS at 100 miles per hour? No. A lot of work went into it."
Another reason for the Cardinals' success is that unlike some other clubs, they do not form biases for or against players based on where they were drafted. When Matt Carpenter proved he could hit, he was promoted at least once every year. Rosenthal, all of a sudden, started blowing batters away in Class A in 2011. He was in the majors by July 2012. "We're not afraid to give these guys opportunities," says Mozeliak.
There is, finally, something in the fact that a great draft class tends to climb the minor league ladder together. "There's an organic chemistry that seems to be important in baseball, and I don't think anyone can explain it," says Elias. "Drafted the same year, same instructional league program, played in the minors on the way up, pull for each other, pick each other up, learn the game the same way from the same coaches. It matters."
"I think you just get really familiar with guys that you play with in the minors, you make the journey together," says Adams. "It's kind of like a brotherhood with those guys."
That brotherhood will play a central role in the World Series. It would not exist if not for a scouting department constructed to perform as perfectly off the field as the Cardinals' class of '09 has on it. "Looks like they're just superprepared, or something," says Miller. Looks that way.
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