Are the Cardinals Really the Best Organization in Baseball?

There were many exciting, interesting, and occasionally depressing, baseball stories in 2013. One of the second tier stories was the growing consensus that the St. Louis Cardinals are the best run organization in baseball. The quality of the Cardinals' prospects, the wisdom of their front office and the depth of their organization was celebrated throughout the punditry, most notably among some of the more astute and analytically oriented quarters of the blogosphere. Since winning the World Series in 2011, the Cardinals are coming off a two-year run where they have won a total of 185 regular season games, one pennant and one NLCS defeat.

The Cardinals are also coming off a two year run where they played deep into the playoffs only to have their weaknesses badly exposed by teams that were, at least on paper, not obviously better. In 2012, they lost the NLCS after being ahead 3-1 and followed that up by losing the World Series 4-1 to the Red Sox in 2013.

The Cardinals are obviously a very good team, but some of the mistakes they make as an organization would draw much more attention if not for the best organization frame. One of the most memorable moments of the last World Series occurred in game four when Kolten Wong got picked off first base for the last out of the game with the tying run, in the person of Carlos Beltran, at the plate. It is not fair to blame that defeat on Wong as the Cardinals were in a very tough position, but if the top prospect for another organization had made such a mistake in a similar situation, it would likely have been viewed as a reflection on that organization. Similarly, failing to address the shortstop situation after 2012 was an organizational mistake.

Some of the responsibility for the Cardinals being unable to convert top organization status into a World Championship in the last two seasons has to be attributed to Mike Matheny. The Cardinals are, of course, only two years removed from a dramatic World Series victory in which St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa clearly out-managed his opponent. Mike Matheny has not enjoyed similar success or displayed comparable skill during the past two post-seasons.

This is partially because with thirty teams and three tiers of playoffs there are more opportunities for bad luck or bad breaks to derail a bad team. It might, however, also have occurred because doing the things that pundits, bloggers and journalists like is not the same thing as doing the things necessary to win a World Series. Developing young talent and making good player personnel moves are necessary to win the World Series, but they are not sufficient. There is also a needed element of ruthlessness and risk taking. These are things that can make an organization look very bad at times, but also be instrumental in success.

For example, the San Francisco Giants during mid-season of 2011 and 2012 made three major transactions giving up prospects Seth Rosen, Tommy Joseph, Charlie Culberson and Zach Wheeler for half a year of Carlos Beltran and Marco Scutaro and a year and a half of Hunter Pence. Scutaro and Pence later resigned with the Giants for longer term contracts. On balance, those were not good trades for the Giants as Wheeler will likely be worth more than all the players they got in return. At the time the Pence trade was made, it may have looked worse as Joseph was a well regarded prospect. The Giants, however, were willing to take chances, of the kind allegedly smarter organizations don't always make. The Beltran risk did not pay off, but the other two did. The Cardinals, on the other hand, twice held on top prospects while going into the playoffs as their starting shortstop. This is a reflection of different organizational strategies in St. Louis and San Francisco.

The Boston Red Sox, the other team to knock the Cardinals out of the post-season took a similar set of risks in keeping several players, notably John Lackey and even David Ortiz who, at various points in the last few years were viewed as washed up or overpaid. It is impossible to disaggregate luck from wisdom in these matters, but it is clear that the Cardinal approach to building a strong organization is different from that of the Giants and Red Sox.

Or maybe it isn't. Perhaps the extraordinary core of homegrown talent that has helped the Giants to win two World Championships in the last four years is simply a story that has been overlooked because general manager Brian Sabean too frequently speaks in cliches and the the team has traded away some prospects for veterans recently. The Cardinals are a very good team in the midst of a very strong run, but it is possible that the best organization story is beginning to damage them by curtailing their risk taking in order to keep their constant core of young talent that is so essential to the narrative and great press to which they have now become accustomed.