Going Young: Cardinals vs. 2007 Playoff Teams

Comparing the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals World Series roster with the four 2007 playoff finalists leads to some interesting conclusions.

A number of sources in the traditional media have been assigning much of the credit for the surprising successes of the fresh-faced clubs in the 2007 League Championship Series to their focus on youth, led by their young and innovative general managers.

The prevailing logic continues that these clubs have been built from the bottom up via homegrown, home-drafted talent, nurtured through the farm system. Whether reality seems to support that perception is the focus of this piece.

The context will not only be in comparing the four 2007 League Championship Series finalists to each other, but also to the last year's world champion St. Louis Cardinals. With the current Cardinals being considered by most observers as a franchise in transition, many are making noise about the Cardinals' need to remodel themselves after these "new-breed" organizations.

First, let's look at the most basic of information – average age of playoff rosters. As in all the tables and discussion below, the 2006 Cardinals are compared to the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies as each entered the playoffs.

STL

ARI

BOS

CLE

COL

Average age

29.4

27.4

30.2

28.8

28.1

As might have been expected, the Red Sox are the oldest club, averaging slightly over 30 years of age, with the Diamondbacks almost three years younger per man, followed by the Rockies as next youthful.

Next, let's look at the stability of these rosters, as measured in terms of years in the organization. Again, this is not the time spent as major leaguers; but instead the years the players have been with their current organization.

Average years

STL

ARI

BOS

CLE

COL

in organization

4.8

4.6

3.8

4.6

5.1

The first blush here might provide a bit of a surprise. The Rockies actually show the most stable group of players, having been in the organization over five years on the average. The Cardinals are next, with the oldest team, Boston, having the shortest-tenured roster.

Looking at the next table gets to the essence of the matter. It summarizes the make-up of each club's playoff roster in terms of from where the players came.

# players acquired via

STL

ARI

BOS

CLE

COL

Trade 7 6 10 10 6
Draft 6 10 6 4 11
Non-drafted free agent 1 4 0 4 4
Free agent 8 2 8 5 3
Minor league free agent 3 1 1 1 1
Waivers 0 2 0 1 0
25 25 25 25 25

Seeing the Rockies with the most drafted players, 11, helps to explain the tenure observation above. In a weird circumstance, all six outfielders on the playoff roster have been career-long Rockies, including MVP candidate Matt Holliday. Ten of their 13 position players were drafted, led by Rookie of the Year contender Troy Tulowitzki.

You may have noted that I highlighted the row designated "Draft" as well as the one entitled "non-drafted free agents". That is because the latter is where Latin American signees are accounted for.

Taking those two columns together accounts for 15 of the Rockies' 25 players, followed closely by the Diamondbacks at 14.

In direct opposition to their position players sourcing, the Rockies' pitching roster is dominated by players acquired as free agents or via trade. In reality, three of their emerging front line pitchers came from Latin America as free agents, including closer Manny Corpas and starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales.

However, the Indians, despite being lumped by many in with the other two clubs, Colorado and Arizona, really align better with the Cardinals and Red Sox.

Yet, one area where the Indians have excelled is in the Caribbean. It is worth noting that their four non-drafted free agents all came from Latin America, including stars Victor Martinez and Fausto Carmona and starting shortstop Jhonny Peralta.

Of their only four players originally drafted by the Indians, two are in the bullpen, Aaron Laffey and Jensen Lewis. The four is the lowest number of draftees of any of the five teams analyzed here, including the Cardinals. Not what the prevailing wisdom would have led one to expect.

The core of the Cleveland team seems to have been built via the Latin Americans noted above and especially trades, many designed to acquire then-young prospects. This group includes their top position players, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore. As noted, the Indians tied the Red Sox for most players in this study that had been acquired in that manner.

This is in contrast to the Cardinals who made what would have been an ideal trade partner for Cleveland, picking up the veterans for which they are known in return for the youngsters the Indians craved.

One huge difference here is timing. Another is approach. When the current Tribe general manager, Mark Shapiro, took over in 2001, the Indians, like the Cardinals of today, were coming off a long period of success.

Instead of attempting a Cardinals-like plan of trying to change the tires while barreling down the freeway – Shapiro pulled over, jacked up the car and rebuilt it. It took seven years, but his club seems well-poised to again be a force in the American League Central for some time.

Let's look at team payroll now. The rankings of player experience and payroll among these five teams correspond perfectly. The oldest teams spend the most while the youngest spend the least. Seems intuitive enough.

Team payroll $M STL ARI BOS CLE COL
At season-start

$89

$52

$143

$54

$63

Rank 11th 26th 2nd 25th 23rd

There is clearly a correlation between the Red Sox having the second-highest payroll in the game and their top hitters, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz plus their most visible pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, having been lavish free agent acquisitions.

Yet, several of their promising youngsters like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonathan Papelbon are homegrown, as is veteran Kevin Youkilis.

That is the primary story for the Diamondbacks with six draftees in prominent roles, including ace and former Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb and four starters, Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson and Mark Reynolds.

To try to pull this all together, I have taken the top two player sourcing counts by team from the third table in this report to characterize each team's primary approach in having built their roster.

Primary team building via
Free agency and trade St. Louis
Draft, trade and free agency Arizona
Trade and free agency Boston
Trade and draft Cleveland
Draft and free agency Colorado

Other than the Cardinals and Boston, who lead with the same combination of trade and free agency, the other three clubs each have their own winning, but different, recipe for roster construction.

Of all five clubs, the National League Champion Rockies, having led with drafting and free agency, seem closest to the media ideal at this point.

Time will tell what path the Cardinals take in building their rosters moving forward. But, until their player development pipeline, including their Latin American program, is freely flowing, the Cards will probably have to continue to restock via free agency augmented by its ugly step-sister, the minor league free agent.

I specifically omit the trade route as the environment seems to have tightened up in recent years. St. Louis' most recent trade acquisition of a player who later became a major contributor, Adam Wainwright, joined the team four years ago now. That was a Cleveland-esque move of changing veteran J.D. Drew into younger, emerging players. The current roster seems to be generally lacking in Drew-like trading chips, however.

It is potentially more expensive and arguably more risky, but especially given the continued desire to win now and the dearth of commodities at optimal tradeable value, a continuing dependence on the flavors of free agency looks to be the most likely scenario for the Cardinals to follow for the next year or two.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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