St. Louis Cardinals: Rebuilding without the “Tank-Top” strategy
By Larry Levin
The St. Louis Cardinals have been and always will be a mid-market team, but their practically religious fan base and civic support have separated the Redbirds from other similarly situated teams. Can these special circumstances allow the Cards to remain consistently competitive in an era of dismantling and rebuilding?
It will be a major challenge, but I’m going to give a qualified yes. A combination of history and knowledge about the St. Louis Cardinals franchise provides a guide to my view.
The last few years in Major League Baseball have seen a refinement of the approach I call the “Tank-Top.” Owners and executives allow their team to sink to the bottom, grab a few years’ worth of premium draft picks, sustain major losses on the field, and with shrewd trades and free-agent signings, punch their way back to competition.
The strategy has worked to a tee, and in different ways, with several teams. The Kansas City Royals rode a wave of their top prospects, plus shrewd additions mostly by trade, to two World Series and a championship in 2015. Prior to their ascension, they finished fourth or fifth in the American League Central from 2004-2011.
The Chicago Cubs followed the Royals’ success with a ring of their own. While the North Siders had far more financial flexibility to augment their picks with more high-powered outsiders, the club suffered five straight years in last or second-to-last place in the National League Central from 2010-2014.
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How did the drafts from tanking benefit the Cubs? Well, consider from 2011-2015, the Cubs’s front office scored, among others, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ.
And, with their financial resources, the team was able to add a potent pitching force, with Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Wade Davis (among others) coming from outside.
Finally, the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros provided yet another variant of the same formula. And unlike the Royals, who relied so enormously on pitching, defense, speed and timely hitting, the Astros’ prospects had it all, including the pocket-sized MVP, Jose Altuve.
But still, Houston, led now for five-year by former Cards exec Jeff Luhnow, suffered six seasons from 2009-2014 of two fourth, two fifth, and two sixth-place finishes. This allowed the team to have a string of superlative draft picks, and again, the addition of key parts, led finally by the superb Justin Verlander, propelled them to a title.
This “Tank-Top” practice, cited so often by pundits given its success, might be the only way to elevate a team’s standing. But the St. Louis Cardinals have several ingredients essential to fending off the Race to the Bottom. Let’s consider a few of them:
Front-Office Consistency: Several of the top franchises in baseball recognize organizational philosophy is not a one-hit wonder. It takes time, patience and perspective. Cardinals ownership, led by Bill DeWitt, Jr., has offered consistency in a variety of ways, not always, but usually, to positive results.
On the heels of the Walt Jocketty/Luhnow rift, John Mozeliak took over as General Manager in 2007. He won three MLB Executive of the Year awards, and remained as GM until promoted to President of Baseball Operations after a decade. At that point, his subordinate Mike Girsch took over in the GM role.
While not even Mo would say all his moves are outstanding, there have been many more good ones than bad. Most importantly, the team, from front office down, aligns with a committed and dedicated implementation.
Even when they get off course, the team’s leaders makes moves to correct. We’ve seen this the past year in the retooling of their entire coaching other than manager Mike Matheny (alas), bringing back Jose Oquendo and Willie McGee for education and discipline, and filling key positions by promoting from within.
Front Office Consistency, Part Deux: The ability of this team to rebuild their prospect pool while remaining in contention is nothing short of amazing. When you consider that they are now also suffering from the punishment imposed in the “Hackgate” scandal, it’s even much more impressive they can be among the most desirable teams to talk to this off-season.
The team has been particularly noteworthy in their focus on building a strong cache of pitching prospects. This is in large part different from their dread rivals the Cubs, who focused on hitters and had to go buy or trade for the pitching to match up with their bats.
One can argue the better road in the long-term, but the list of teams coveting the Cardinal pitching prospects is long indeed. Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Sandy Alcantara, Jordan Hicks and others have all slotted in behind Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes, both of whom have graduated to the major-league club.
There’s method to this focus, and while we don’t have access to the Cards’ proprietary evaluation system, we can speculate. Spending big free agent money on pitching is far riskier than on hitting. Arms can fail, elbows can bust, Tommy Johns can arise, and arise again. A tens of millions investment can go south fast.
Moreover, there is rarely an offseason in which pitching isn’t in high demand, especially young, cheap pitching under control for six years of major-league service. With their focus on the pitching side, the Cards have not only maximized their own depth, but have built assets that can serve as trade bait for needed bats.
*Strong Fan Commitment: The attendance and dedication of Cardinal Nation is one of the main things that propels this franchise above others in its success. Being able to count on three million rabid fans, not to mention the huge local TV audience that led to a major new Fox Sports Midwest contract, is a major plus for the Redbirds.
Some say this cuts two ways, as the team may be afraid of allowing the on-field performance to tank the way that the Royals, Cubs and Astros did in their rebuilds. Perhaps that’s so, but the Cards haven’t had below three million attendance since the late 1990s, and for eight years during the streak they didn’t make the playoffs. Pretty solid predictability there.
The fan commitment, as reflected in attendance, TV revenue, concessions, memorabilia and other revenue streams, helps the club commit to consistent positive play, and to keep the prospect of a contender intact year after year.
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With the above attributes — steady management, strong prospect evaluation and selection, and team financial stability supported by its fan base — the Cardinals have an advantage over many other franchises. This advantage can lead to a reasonable and realistic approach to compete year in and year out.