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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

What is behind the Cardinals’ minor league issues?

Questioning reasons assigned to focus areas for the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Cardinals beat writer Joe Strauss’ weekly Q&A sessions cover a wide variety of team-related topics and are a must-read for the team’s fans.

When the subject of the minor leagues come up, however, sometimes I feel that cause and effect relationships are being drawn in what appears to be an absolute manner about subjects that are more complex than can be neatly summarized in a few sentences.

Here is one such example.

“…Rather than remaining transfixed on minor-league records (the Cardinals led the industry in minor-league win percentage last season), greater emphasis will be placed on development…”

Is this supposed problem statement accurate and is its proposed resolution an appropriate pairing?

Is the fundamental problem a lack of focus on development or a lack of coordination between the preferred teaching approaches of the major and minor league staffs? The latter definitely seemed the case in the pitching area as the ongoing disconnect between Dave Duncan and the minor league instructors received continued heavy public scrutiny.

It seems an unwarranted attack on the professionals across the minor league system to imply they were single-mindedly focused on winning at the expense of developing their players. I spent time with most of the Cardinals minor league affiliates this summer and did not see evidence of this alleged fixation.

In fact, I don’t think I could define the set of actions in the real world that would illustrate this concept. Would it mean stacking rosters? Starting the best players every day? Not messing with the approach of players who are doing well? Signing large quantities of minor league veterans? Exactly what would an all-out focus on winning actually mean? If someone sent out a memo to that effect, I would love to read what it says.

It is rumored there will be a return of two important positions that have been open in the Minor League Field Coordinator, last filled by Jim Riggleman three years ago and Hitting Coordinator, previously held by Dan Radison in 2009. That is a positive, but should one leap to the conclusion that it will be done to reverse a supposed past over-emphasis on winning?

From the outside looking in, it indicates the organization can be damned either way. In the recent past, they were viewed as rushing players, promoting them before they are viewed to be ready for the next level. In 2010, they seemed to slow down the process, leaving players in place longer and in some cases, reversing promotions that proved to be too aggressive. An increased level of roster stability may have been a factor in improved won-loss records.

A later question in the same session allowed Strauss to zero in on what I believe is a more likely explanation than a supposed fixation on won-loss attainment. But even that was not presented without further drawing of unsupported conclusions as to why.

“Critics of recent Cardinal drafts note a lack of size (power) and athleticism (speed) due to a stats-based approach. My sense is there is an approaching adjustment away from “safe” picks who may reach the majors as complementary types toward higher-risk, higher-impact guys. At some point, the organization’s enhanced commitment within Latin America should reap dividends.”

The lack of size and athleticism seems a fair observation, but how do we know the reason is because of the use of stats?

Precisely who are these alleged critics and where did they say this?

Don’t the higher-risk, higher-impact guys have good stats, too?

Such comments as the above seem to reinforce the tired, old “one way or the other” arguments of scouts versus stats of five or six years ago rather than an acknowledgment of today’s reliance on a blend of the two – an approach that is commonplace across all of baseball, not just in St. Louis.

The second sentence in the above quote is what I believe may be a key factor behind the earlier comment regarding the minor league records.

A system heavy with “safe” picks may very well be a reason the minor league results have improved. The downside, of course, is fewer of these players are viewed to be future impact major leaguers. This is a quantity versus quality question that I think may have merit.

Just this week, I spoke with a minor league manager on this very subject. When I complimented him on a fine season, he reminded me of the overriding importance of player development. He then recalled a team he once managed that posted a terrible won-loss record, but ended up producing five future major leaguers.

It seems unlikely there is a single reason behind this quantity versus quality question, however. It is easy to point an accusatory finger at the “stat geeks” but the issue could have just as likely been a reluctance to invest the necessary over slot signing bonuses demanded by the top players in the draft. Critics of the system usually trot out the 2007 first-round draft selection of relatively-inexpensive Pete Kozma over big-bucks, big talent Rick Porcello to drive home this point.

As was also touched on ever-so-briefly in the excerpted answer above, the increased investment in Latin America must be considered in the overall picture. With a finite amount of financial resource, tradeoffs have to be made. If more money is spent in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, it only stands to reason there will be less to allocate on the US amateur draft.

To that end, I am currently working on writing up The Cardinal Nation’s annual awards across the Cardinals minor league system. Among them are three awards for the rookie Starting Pitcher, Reliever and Position Player of the Year. Two of the three winners are graduates of the overseas academies, playing their first seasons in the USA, while only one is a member of the 2010 draft class.

In conclusion, I don’t disagree with much of what Strauss was getting at, but I do question where, why and how firmly the blame is being attached. I believe there is combination of many factors that must be adjusted and fine-tuned together to enable system-wide improvement across the board.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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