While other teams tank, St. Louis Cardinals reload with player development juggernaut

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Baltimore catcher Adley Rutschman is the consensus top prospect in all of baseball.

When the Orioles announced Saturday that he’d been called up to the big leagues, a fever pitch of excitement surged out of Chesapeake Bay and attendance at Camden Yards jumped — all before the team announced next week’s synergistic T-shirt giveaway.

All Orioles fans had to deal with to reach this moment of hope was four consecutive seasons of their team winning no more than 42% of its games, including two seasons where they lost at least 110 times. Not since the once-Browns franchise shared real estate with the St. Louis Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park has it been less relevant or more hopeless, even as their interminable rebuild bears its most anticipated fruit.

The Cardinals don’t do tear-it-down rebuilds. They rarely even pause to reset. After three straight years in the postseason and 15 straight without a losing record, one stretch of 10 lockers in their clubhouse featured six spots for players who have appeared for Triple-A Memphis this season and a seventh for rookie Andre Pallante, who so impressed in spring and the early going that he’s scarcely been considered for a demotion.

“It’s certainly a compliment to our player development,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. “Without a doubt, whenever you have people come up and they don’t miss a beat, it’s encouraging.”

Nolan Gorman, the team’s most advanced hitting prospect, has arrived at second base and slotted in comfortably in the middle — and sometimes top — of the lineup. Matt Liberatore, their top pitching prospect, posted a strong first start in Pittsburgh before being undone by his defense. The Cardinals were so encouraged by what they saw that they bent around roster moves to align him to re-join the rotation rather than turning to previous fill-ins Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo.

Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez, each in the big leagues less than a month, are practically seasoned veterans. Indeed, it was Yepez (on his own first trip to PNC Park) who helped guide Gorman around through his pregame duties.

“I think there was a little bit of a gap last year but we’re back to having some guys that can contribute,” manager Oliver Marmol said of the franchise’s ability to backfill from Triple-A.

After not needing to use the injured list for non-COVID reasons in the season’s first month, two thirds of the opening day starting outfield (Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill) and one member of the opening day rotation (Steven Matz) are currently sidelined for stretches that will cover, at a minimum, multiple weeks.

“A challenge,” Marmol conceded, “but not in any way close to devastating.”

The St. Louis Cardinals have built a player development machine that turns out reliable players — if not top end talent. That includes Nolan Gorman, the team’s most advanced hitting prospect who has arrived at second base for the big club and slotted in comfortably in the middle — and sometimes top — of the lineup.
The St. Louis Cardinals have built a player development machine that turns out reliable players — if not top end talent. That includes Nolan Gorman, the team’s most advanced hitting prospect who has arrived at second base for the big club and slotted in comfortably in the middle — and sometimes top — of the lineup.

A look at recent picks

Those organizational gaps develop when there’s not quite enough talent at lower levels to back fill for those who earn promotions. The canceled 2020 minor league season was a contributor to some of 2021’s struggles, but 2022 has allowed players at multiple levels to shine.

Michael McGreevy, the club’s top pick in the 2021 draft, and Gordon Graceffo, a fifth round selection in the same class, were promoted to Double-A Springfield on Tuesday. They combined to allow 18 earned runs in 91 innings for High-A Peoria in the season’s first month. They also combined for 97 strikeouts.

Graceffo just turned 22. McGreevy turns 22 later this summer. Liberatore will be 22 through this season. For all that has arrived, more is coming.

Frequent criticism has been levied at the Cardinals from the frustrated perspective of those who believe the team has been insufficiently committed to an “all-in” posture, in contrast to Baltimore’s all-out.

Player development machine

By building a player development machine that turns out reliable players — if not top end talent — and trending toward the middle of the free agent market, the appearance is created a win total in the low 90s and an attendance figure cresting three million are the desired path rather than the road to a championship.

That frustration is fair, but ask fans in the Charm City about their team’s total lack of charm. Shopping for low hanging fruit may be less appealing than a trip to a trendy farmer’s market, but it also is a lot more palatable than the choice not to go to the store at all.

“You take a lot of pride in your development,” Mozeliak admitted. “You think about the investment baseball teams make in player development and the draft, and then ... when you think about our own model, it is defined by making sure that that pipeline is flowing.”

‘That’s our strategy’

Next door to the stretch of new players in the clubhouse sit Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, themselves products of that same system, even with all the ways it’s changed over the last two decades. And still as they contribute to another winning team, that system is providing dividends.

“That’s our strategy,” Mozeliak said with a sly smile when asked about being consistently competitive.

Occasionally it frustrates. The appeal is hard to deny.

Jeff Jones
Jeff Jones