What the Blue Jays can learn from the Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha throws during the first inning of Game 2.

Pardon me for being a St. Louis Cardinals fan, but there is just something compelling about watching an organization develop a plan and stick to it.

I confess I have a personal bias: I like teams with smaller payrolls that use eagle-eye scouting and superb player development to build a franchise as opposed to dropping millions in the free-agency market. I like the Rays and A’s, and see potential in the future Astros. I could even be persuaded to like the future Marlins if they could just find a way to sedate Jeffrey Loria.

I realize the “develop from within” method is not for everyone. It does require a substantial investment in coaching, training and scouting-most of which the fan never sees-and it’s hard to sell a fan base on the promise of greatness from names they’ve never heard of. But, you have to admit, there are few things sweeter than watching an organization develop winners for years on end and do it on the cheap.

This is why I’m pulling for the Cardinals to win in the World Series. In my eyes, it puts yet another stamp of approval on their excellent player-development process-a process I wish more teams around the league would emulate.

Toronto Blue Jays, I’m looking at you here.

Last off-season, the Blue Jays had both the means and prospects to make a big off-season trade splash, and, boy, did they ever. They went from the worst team in the American League East to the frontrunner in one 12-person swap, then put a cherry on top with the addition of R.A. Dickey. All told, it sparked a spontaneously choreographed musical number about the genius of Alex Anthopoulos as sung by every baseball analyst around the game.

It was gutsy, it was bold, it was the equivalent of screaming, “cannonball!” But any team can jump in feet first (actually, the 2011 Red Sox and the 2012 Marlins did just that). It’s not how much water you splash that matters — it’s whether you sink or swim, and the Blue Jays sank to the bottom of the pool like a stone.

What went wrong? Injuries, sure. But other teams had those and still found a way to compete. Down seasons from stars? The Yankees didn’t have Jeter or A-Rod for most of the season, and endured a lacklustre Sabathia and still managed more wins.

During my post-season coverage on TBS, I had the pleasure of working with some of the game’s best minds: Tom Verducci, Keith Olbermann, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield, and current Jay, Mark DeRosa. In talking about the drowning of the 2013 Blue Jays, we kept arriving at the same question: What was plan B?

What were the Blue Jays prepared to do if the super team they’d assembled wasn’t so super?

The consensus: Nothing.

The Blue Jays’ off-season wheeling and dealing wasn’t just the start of a big effort to win-it was also the end of it. There wasn’t going to be any more money spent on available talent (and, in fairness, there wasn’t a lot available), and there weren’t any future stars waiting in the wings.

Toronto’s plan for success was that the stars at the top would stay healthy and play well. When that didn’t happen, the plan was a bust, all eyes to 2014.

Contrast this scenario with that of the Cardinals, a team that always seems to have a plan B. In 2011 they lost arguably the best player in the game at that time, Albert Pujols. You would have thought the world was going to explode-let alone the Cardinals organization-the way St. Louis fans went nuts over his departure.

The 2011 season was also the last time ace, all-star and Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter would toe the rubber as a fixture in their starting rotation before succumbing to injury. He’d eaten up just shy of 475 innings from 2010-11, accounting for 27 wins.

Despite losing all that, when 2012 rolled around the Cardinals were right back in the post-season hunt, never missing a beat.

This past off-season, the Cards lost hitting coach Mark McGwire to the L.A. Dodgers, shuffled a few guys around and made no major free-agent acquisitions. In fact, they worked to add depth behind their future middle-infield star, Kolten Wong. That’s right-they got a backup for their backup. And now they’re playing the Dodgers for a shot at the World Series.

It’s this constant future-minded approach that allowed them to replace Pujols without skipping a beat. It’s what allowed them to pass on Kyle Lohse in favour of homegrown talent Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller (19 wins, 181.1 innings combined). The Cardinals draft well, develop well and scout well.
Need more proof? Let’s focus on young pitching, the staple of any good team and a large question mark for the Blue Jays. Presently the Cardinals are the best in the majors. This season the Cardinals have used the most pitchers under the age of 25 with 12. All told, those 12 pitchers have 31 wins and are responsible for 489 and 2/3 innings pitched, 468 strikeouts, and a 3.31 ERA.

The Tampa Bay Rays showcased five pitchers under the age of 25, with Chris Archer and Matt Moore accounting for 279 innings and 23 wins. That total goes up to 422.1 and 34 if you add in Alex Cobb, who turned 25 this year.

In 2013 the Blue Jays used only one pitcher below the age of 25, Sean Nolin. He pitched 1.1 innings and had an ERA of 40.50.

This glaring lack of a talent pipeline can’t happen. Because the Blue Jays are the sole out-of-country team in the majors, they almost always have to make trades to acquire top-level talent, meaning it behoves them to develop strong prospects from within-if not for their own big-league operation, then for trade chips when shopping for talent from others. And young talent doesn’t have the financial leverage (see Mike Trout and his league-minimum salary) that older talent does.

Anthopoulos has said that he wants to create a sustainable winner in the AL East, and I believe the Cards, and teams like them, represent the best way he can do that. As Paul Beeston stated earlier this year, the Blue Jays may indeed have a window for 2014 and slightly beyond, but the Cardinals have an indefinite window, largely due to the way they grow talent. Other teams have taken notice. It’s time for the Blue Jays to follow.

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