Interview with Cards VP Jeff Luhnow – Part 2

A new, exclusive three-part interview series with St. Louis Cardinals Vice President of Baseball Development Jeff Luhnow. Year Three - Part Two

For the third consecutive year, Cardinals Vice President of Baseball Development Jeff Luhnow has granted an exclusive interview to This time, responses to two dozen questions were completed on Friday morning, just prior to the Juan Encarnacion and Junior Spivey signings.


In this new three-part series, yesterday Luhnow discussed the 2005-2006 off-season to date. Here in Part Two, he explains the investments in the international program and introduces us to several top prospects no one has yet heard of. Part Three includes a review of the 2005 Amateur and Rule 5 drafts, a player valuation update and much, much more.


Look for Part Three tomorrow right here.



How much money is being invested in the international program?


For a long time now, we have ranked in the bottom quartile in terms of investment in the international program.  Many years we have been dead last or next to last.  That has now changed.  You know I can't give you exact numbers, but I can share with you that in terms of bonus dollars spent in 2005 on Latin American players, we ranked in the top half.  That is a big step for us.  Of course, we have some catching up to do, but at least we've moved up to the level where we should be... the top half instead of the bottom few.


We previously discussed your studies of other organizations' presence in the Caribbean. How long will it take for the Cardinals' program to reach parity with other organizations that never left?


I think we are in very good shape now.  Other clubs have players that have advanced further in the organization and who will reach the big leagues before our guys start to get there.  But, with respect to scouting and developing the best young talent in Latin America, I'd put our program up against any other club.


Talk to me about Venezuela. I know about the Parallel League, but isn't that a much riskier place to invest? What makes you feel safe about your potential return from there?


The risk for the organization is that we make a big capital investment in Venezuela and some political turmoil forces us to abandon scouting down there and we lose our investment.  The likelihood of that happening is remote, in my opinion. 


First of all, we won't be foolish about making a big capital investment.  We are committed to having a team down there from now on, including the Venezuela Summer League (VSL) starting this summer.  We already have the scouting infrastructure set up and are in process trying to find a permanent facility to call home. 


Right now we play in a field we rent from Polar brewery (the largest brewery in Venezuela) and it's sufficient for our needs today and could probably suffice for our first summer in the VSL.  We are systematically exploring and evaluating options as we recently did in the DR.  We have a few options that look interesting but so far nothing that would be ready by this summer, so we are probably talking about opening something up next winter or the summer of 2007.


The other risk is security - for the players, staff, myself and others who travel and spend time in Venezuela.  Kidnappings and random petty crime do happen down there more than what we are used to, but that risk can be reduced by being safe and smart, and so far we have not had any problems.


We recently (last week) had a five-day meeting in Venezuela with all the scouts and player development people from Latin America, as well as all of our Spanish speaking US scouts.  Jim Riggleman and Mark Riggins were also there.  We used this as an opportunity to conduct training, discuss and develop our strategy for Latin America, and watch and evaluate our own players and some exciting amateur players in the parallel league.  One consistent theme that emerged from the week was the importance of Venezuela as part of our future.  There is a tremendous supply of good players in Venezuela.


The recent series in the Post-Dispatch was very informative, but I want to know more about the players and their progression into and upwards within the organization. Are the players in the Academy under contract?


All the players that participate in the Dominican Summer League or the Venezuela Summer League are under contract.  The DSL and the VSL are considered part of the minor leagues, and are part of the National Association.  During the winter instructional league in the DR and the parallel league in Venezuela, we have some players who are not under contract on the team.  This allows us to better evaluate these players prior to signing them.  That is how we evaluated Jose Martinez and Donovan Solano last year and were very comfortable signing them after watching them play for a few weeks.


In the past few weeks, we've had members of our US player development staff come to both the DR and Venezuela to assess the "readiness" of our young Latin players to come to the US and play in Johnson City or beyond.  Last year we sent Martinez, Solano and De La Rosa to extended Spring Training and they went on to start the year in Johnson City.  This year, we will have many more first year players come over.  More than likely it will include about half a dozen position players and half a dozen pitchers.  Some of these are legitimate prospects and some are chance players.


Who are some of the most promising youngsters you've seen at any level recently and why, whether in summer or in winter ball?


I've been following the 40 Days and 40 Players piece on this site.  It's very well done.  It certainly helps build awareness among our fans about our younger players, and that is great.  I'll use this opportunity to talk about some of the younger Latin players that may not be mentioned in that feature.  These are players that should certainly make the list in the future...


Wilmer Alvarado.  Alvarado is a right-handed third base/catcher from Venezuela.  What will carry him is his bat.  He led our team in home runs and RBI in the Parallel League, after leading our team in RBI this summer in the DSL.  He projects to be an everyday third baseman, middle of the lineup type of guy.  At this point, the sky is the limit for him.


Senger Peralta.  Peralta is a left-handed pitcher from Venezuela.  He has an average fastball now and the makings of an above average curve ball.  He has excellent mechanics and makeup.  He projects as a starter and if he has success in the US this year he should move fast.


Ciro Caldera.  Ciro is a right-handed hitting catcher from Venezuela.  He is short (ala Pudge) and seems to model himself after Pudge in various areas.  He has a plus arm and great catching skills.  He can shut down the running game with his quick release and arm strength.  He is very patient at the plate and gets his hits.


Simon Brito.  Brito is a right-handed hitting outfielder from the DR.  He runs well, covers a lot of ground in center field, and has an average major league arm.  He has a great swing.  He is maturing quickly and could be an exciting five tool type player if he continues to progress as he has since we signed him earlier this year.


Melvin Puello.  Puello is a natural shortstop from the DR who we signed as an outfielder and immediately converted.  Credit goes to our manager, Wilmer Becerra for making that move.  He's smooth in the field, runs well, and so far looks like he's going to hit.  Probably a doubles type hitter who will hit the long ball enough to keep everyone on their toes.


How has your job evolved between years one and two?


The biggest change was when I got more involved in the amateur scouting for the draft.  That is a critical area and a huge responsibility.


How have your analytic methods of player evaluation continued to evolve this past year?


This is an area in which we continue to invest and I feel it is already a competitive advantage.  We have a few in house resources, including Sig Mejdal who spearheads our internal development.  We also have several very smart and capable baseball analysts who we utilize on a consulting basis.  At this point, I'd match up our analytical capabilities with anyone in the industry.


The Holy Grail is player projections, so we work on that part tirelessly.  It's part art and part science, due to the nature of what we are trying to predict... how well is a player likely to do for the next year, two years, and beyond? 


Offensive player projections tend to be somewhat consistent across analysts, with some interesting exceptions, and ours are probably not too different than most out there, even those that are publicly available. 


Pitching projections are much more difficult and there is a wider variability between analysts.  I feel we have the best in class, and it can be extremely useful for starting pitchers and also useful for role players. 


Evaluating defense is trickier, and we have spent a lot of effort in this area.  The success of our middle infield in 2005 both offensively and defensively was no surprise to us... rather it was expected. 


Finally, injury probability is the final big piece of the puzzle and one that is the most difficult of all.  As many of you know from the Bill James annual book with Baseball Info Solutions, Sig has some experience in this area and we are beginning to incorporate this into player evaluation decisions and player recommendations.


Those of you that read the New Yorker piece on Mike Witte also know that we are developing a deeper understanding of pitching mechanics with the goal of signing and developing dominant and durable pitchers who tend not to break down.  This is a very exciting part of our ongoing analytical efforts.


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