How long can Cardinals continue to successfully develop talent from within?
It was only two years ago that the St. Louis Cardinals came into Spring Training with the target of Baseball America’s highest ranked farm system. However, times have changed quickly for the Redbirds, as their farm system fell all the way to No. 6 in Baseball Prospectus’s pool last year before promoting many of these minor leaguers in the regular season.
Within this brief span, several coveted homegrown prospects have broke rookie status for the Cardinals. As Michael Wacha, Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez and more young athletes have been promoted to the big leagues, St. Louis has lost many valuable assets from a once highly-touted minor league core.
Other farmhands such as Stephen Piscotty and Marco Gonzales have showed the Cardinals’ ability to develop talent more on an individual pace, rather than stringing together a strong team-based farm system. St. Louis has been able to cope with such changes to their minor league structure recently, yet there’s reason to question how much longer the Cardinals can sustain a winning environment if the team continues to grow talent from within.
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One reason this situation could become a long-term dilemma for the Cardinals is because of the concept of trade. St. Louis has earned a bid in the MLB postseason for five of the past six years, largely in part to their recent success with dealing prospects. For instance, when the team acquired John Lackey before last year’s trading deadline, the Cardinals only dealt Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to the Boston Red Sox, neither who composed the highly-touted minor league core from 2013.
However, the Cardinals could face negative consequences of a trade if they try to force an acquisition by solely giving up prospects in return. Philadelphia ace Cole Hamels has been linked to recent trade talks with the Cardinals, but the opportunity cost might not be worth it if St. Louis expected to give up Carlos Martinez, in addition to a few other major-league ready prospects. Trading prospects could also backfire later on, as the Cardinals learned well enough through the Mark Mulder sweepstakes from 2004 when they dealt future 3-time All-Star Dan Haren to Oakland in return.
Positional depth may also challenge the Cardinals’ current theory towards building talent from within. This factor considerably affected the performance of Oscar Taveras, as last year’s highly-praised prospect fought for limited opportunities against a crowded Cardinals’ outfield before passing away in October.
St. Louis has been able to cope with changes to their minor league structure recently, yet there’s reason to question how much longer the Cardinals can sustain a winning environment if the team continues to grow talent from within.
Stephen Piscotty falls into a similar hole for the upcoming season, as the 24 year-old is currently not on the 40-man roster despite hitting .288 for Triple-A Memphis in 2014. Piscotty has a larger upside than most Cardinal prospects for 2015, but suffers from this current log jam because the other outfielders in front of him provide similar or better production. As a result, Piscotty may not earn a Major League promotion unless a significant injury occurs.
Additionally, the Cardinals will need to consider their future salary outlook if homegrown prospects continue to thrive at the Major League level. While Cardinal draftees Wacha, Wong and Martinez are all playing on bargain entry-level contracts right now, they will all be arbitration eligible by 2017 and could considerably affect the team’s payroll.
These aren’t the only future expenses that the Cardinals will have to allocate. Yadier Molina still has three years remaining on his $75 million contract, while Adam Wainwright‘s current deal stretches until 2018. Additionally, if the Cardinals hope to sign newcomer Jason Heyward to a long-term contract, it’s possible that St. Louis could try to move some prized prospects to prepare for large future finances.
More than half of the current players on the Cardinals 40-man roster were originally drafted by St. Louis, proving that growing talent from within has been a successful formula for the Cardinals in recent years. Even if the Cardinals’ minor league system gradually looses valuable pieces, there’s a strong possibility that this approach won’t change anytime soon.