Until Dick Vermeil came to town to run the Rams in 1997, I had never heard of a pro sports franchise referred to as a program. Throughout my time as a fan of St. Louis sports, teams were built for the next year. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into long range planning.
Even the 80’s Cardinals, with all their youth during the Whitey Herzog years, didn’t really plan for it. To be honest, they were surprised with the greatness of Willie McGee, Danny Cox, Terry Pendleton and Vince Coleman. McGee was behind David Green at the start of the ’82 season and arrived on the scene because of injury. He should have been rookie of the year in 1982, but the Cardinals didn’t expect it.
Same with Cox, who impressed the Cardinals in the 1983 Hall of Fame game in Cooperstown, his first real impression on them, Pendleton…who wasn’t regarded as a star when he came up in ’84, and Coleman, who was called up early in ’85 because of an injury to Tito Landrum. The club fully expected Coleman to be here for two weeks and then go back to the minors.
The reason I bring this up is that it appears that all three franchises in town have a long range plan in place right now. The Blues are loaded with young stars, and have solid prospects in place throughout the organization.
The Rams under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead are nurturing their youth. They drafted a player like Brian Quick with the idea that, after being developed this season, he could make a major impact in 2013. Trumaine Johnson was picked with the idea of replacing free agent-to-be Bradley Fletcher. Rokevious Watkins was taken in the fifth round last year to develop and start this year. Isaiah Pead was selected in the second round as the heir apparent to Steven Jackson. There’s a clear cut plan in place at Rams Park, and if you’re paying attention it’s pretty obvious.
Nowhere is there a more evident program in place than at Busch Stadium, where General Manager John Mozeliak received a contract extension on Thursday that takes him through the 2016 season. Part of his program includes manager Mike Matheny, whose 2014 option was picked up at the same time.
When the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, they had an outfield of Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Lance Berkman. Their infield was David Freese, Rafael Furcal, Skip Shumaker and Nick Punto at second and Albert Pujols at first, with Yadier Molina behind the plate. The starting pitchers for that team were Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook. Jackson had been acquired at mid-season with the knowledge that he’d depart and Adam Wainwright would return in 2012.
The Cardinals knew Pujols could leave, but also knew outfielder Oscar Tavares was on his way. When Pujols signed with the Angels, the Cardinals simply moved Berkman to first base and signed Carlos Beltran to play right for two years, until Tavares is completely ready. With Berkman set to become a free agent after 2012, Mozeliak knew his long range first baseman, Allen Craig, would be ready. And he was…in 2012 when Berkman got hurt.
Punto walked as a free agent and the Cardinals signed Shumaker for two years, knowing first rounder Kolten Wong would be ready to start in 2014. When Shumaker asked for a trade, the Cardinals complied because they knew system product Daniel Descalso could handle the job until Wong is ready.
It goes on and on. Ryan Ludwick and Colby Rasmus for dealt for immediate pitching help because the club figured it could count on Jay, who’s been a playoff quality center fielder. With no great catcher on the horizon, Molina was signed long term.
This is all the result of a rebuilt farm system that is now regarded as the best in baseball. When Mozeliak took over for Walt Jocketty after the 2007 season, the Cardinals were annually a bottom five system, but those rankings quickly have skyrocketed.
Now we’re seeing the effect of the program on the pitching staff. Late last season, Westbrook was signed for another year, plus an option, while the Cardinals get Miller ready for big time duty in the rotation. Lohse was allowed to walk away in part because Lance Lynn won eighteen games, in part because the Cardinals thought Chris Carpenter would return, and in part because they knew they had to hold funds to re-sign Wainwright.
But if Carpenter got hurt again, the Cardinals needed starters. And the reason they didn’t deal any during the off-season is that they wanted that youthful competition in case he wasn’t available.
The Cardinals are loaded in the bullpen, but need an extra year for Sam Freeman to get ready. So they signed Randy Choate to a three year contract, and Marc Rzepczynski for one.
The Cardinals don’t have a shortstop in their system that they think will be the number one guy next season. But they’ll have plenty of young pitching to deal during this season or in the off-season.
We can almost predict the 2014 setup right now. An outfield of Holliday, Jay and Tavares, an infield of Freese, unknown at shortstop, Wong at second and Craig at first with Molina behind the plate.
The starters will be Wainwright, Lynn, Miller, hopefully Garcia and probably 2012 first rounder Michael Wacha. If Garcia can’t go, Carlos Martinez and perhaps Joe Kelly will fill in. Westbrook will be gone.
In the bullpen, Jason Motte is the closer, signed to a two year contract. The Cardinals have Mitchell Boggs, Trevor Rosenthal, Choate, Rzepczynski, Eduardo Sanchez and Fernando Salas under control. When Edward Mujica becomes a free agent, there will be young arms on hand to replace him.
Mozeliak has a long term plan in place for the Cardinals, and that bodes well for fans of the club. This should be a sustained run of success for the Birds because they’ve got a program in place.