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Lessons learned from the Cardinals

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Mike Matheny [2]

The Yankees started their organizational meetings this week, conveniently discussing the state of the organization just as the World Series got underway. So what can the Yankees learn from the two teams playing in the Fall Classic? There’s certainly a lot to be said for successful drafting and player development [3] — and both the Cardinals and Red Sox have had more recent success than the Yankees in that department — but we’ve always known that drafting and development are key to long-term success. We’ll try to find some specific lessons to take from each World Series team, starting with the Cardinals.

It’s possible to move on (but only if the system is ready)
Two years ago, the Cardinals let Albert Pujols walk away. It wasn’t necessarily the plan — they tried to re-sign him — but when the bidding got too high, the Cardinals let their best player go and replaced him with an eighth-round draft pick who had fewer than 120 games of Major League experience. Turned out, Allen Craig was absolutely ready to emerge from bench player to All-Star, and the Cardinals have been far better off without Pujols. As the Yankees face a similar situation with their own elite position player, could it make sense to let Robinson Cano walk away? It’s certainly worth noting that every big contract comes with risk, and Cano’s next deal could be trouble down the road, but the Yankees also seem less prepared than the Cardinals were two years ago. Craig had hit .315/.362/.555 the year before he took over for Pujols. David Adams, the Yankees most advance second base prospect, hit .193/.252/.286 this year. The Cardinals have shown it’s entirely possible to move on after a superstar departs, but it requires a level of preparedness that the Yankees might not have right now.

Minor league pitching statistics can be misleading
Talent above all else. That has to be some sort of mantra for the Cardinals young pitching staff. Rookie starter Shelby Miller had a 3.06 ERA this season. Last year, he had a 4.74 ERA in Triple-A. Another rookie, Carlos Martinez, had a 5.08 ERA in the big leagues during the season, and opponents were hitting .296 against him heading into September. But he was awfully good in that final month and now serves as the Cardinals top setup man. Another go-to rookie reliever, Seth Maness, had a 1.48 WHIP in Triple-A this year, but a 1.26 in the Majors. Young starter Lance Lynn was stuck in Triple-A for 42 starts and a 4.43 ERA, but he’s been a solid big leaguer for two-plus years and he made two strong appearances in the NLCS. In some cases, minor league numbers paint a picture of what to expect — Trevor Rosenthal and Michael Wacha were terrific minor leaguers — but sometimes minor league scouting and statistics like strikeout rate may be a better indicator of which pitchers will have legitimate success at the highest level.

Offense doesn’t have to come from every position
The Cardinals starting shortstop was supposed to be Rafael Furcal, but he’s hurt, and so the Cardinals have gone with a combination of defensive standout Pete Kozma — a career .236/.308/.344 hitter in the minors — and utility man Daniel Descalso, who was primarily a second baseman in the minors, and who’s hit just .232/.297/.343 the past two years. As long as the rest of the Cardinals lineup is productive, a non-hitter in the No. 8 spot is relatively easy to overcome. Even with David Freese struggling and Jon Jay having an up-and-down year, the Cardinals still led the league in runs by a big margin. The Yankees tried to do something similar at catcher this season — going with a series of glove-first, low-offense options — and the offensive struggles at the position became harder to overcome when other key hitters struggled to either stay healthy or stay productive. One weak-hitting position isn’t a deal-breaker, but that’s largely dependent on having other hitters to pick up the slack. The Cardinals had that this season; the Yankees did not.

Recognize strengths and weaknesses (and react accordingly)
In 2011, the Cardinals traded away former first-round draft pick Colby Rasmus, who had already emerged as the team’s center fielder of both the present and the future. They gave him up for a bunch of short-term assets — knowing they could plug Jay into center field — and three months later, they won a World Series. In 2012, the Cardinals gave a two-year deal to free agent Carlos Beltran. The team already had one highly paid corner outfielder, but there was a recognition that the team could fill other holes from within, and Beltran has been a potent postseason force. Their biggest acquisition last offeseason was Randy Choate, whose three-year deal was an acknowledgement that the Cardinals system could fill a lot of pitching holes, but lefty specialist might not be one of them. Already this winter, the Yankees have passed on Cuban standout Jose Abreu (who does not fill a position of need) while showing significant interest in Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka (who would fill a position of significant need). During the summer, the Yankees used their top picks on a third baseman (a thin position in the system) and a raw power bat (not a ton of slugging in the system). In looking for trade options, the Yankees could capitalize on their young catching and center field depth, while acknowledging their lack of upper-level infielders. They also might have to trust that at least one or two of their upper-level pitchers will be able to play a legitimate role in 2014.

A thin bench is a significant risk
Perhaps the biggest negative of this Cardinals team is the lack of an impact player off the bench. Some of that should be helped when Craig comes off the disabled list for the World Series, but throughout the NLDS and NLCS, the Cardinals routinely used untested and light-hitting pinch hitter in key spots. They didn’t have many alternatives, which suggests they might have been in a situation similar to the Yankees had they gone through the Yankees injury problems this season. It helped that the Cardinals most significant positional injuries were at shortstop (where they had a defensive standout ready) and at first base (where they had slugger Matt Adams waiting in the wings). Looking at the Cardinals bench this postseason suggests a real gamble, one that wasn’t helped by signing Ty Wigginton in the offseason to be a key bench bat (he performed so badly he was released). Right now, the Cardinals are on a roll heading into the World Series, looking like a team that could be building a dynasty. But given that bench, where would they be had their left fielder broken a couple of bones or their third baseman needed surgery?

Associated Press photo