The Cardinal Nation blog

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

Balancing top prospects and winning baseball

The recent signing of former Minnesota Twins infielder Nick Punto by the St. Louis Cardinals provided another reminder of the similarities between the two teams. They are both Midwest-located, good fundamental-playing, middle-market, well-run organizations that are typically Central Division contenders in their respective leagues.

I came across a news item that reminded me of one current difference, however. An article about the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings’ annual shareholders meeting held last weekend highlighted a dreadful 2010 season for both the Twins Triple-A and Double-A clubs. The two limped home with 49-95 and 44-98 records, respectively.

I do not profess to be an expert on the Twins organization nor want to pass judgment about their player development processes, but those records seem to indicate a shortage of talent and/or a lack of depth that inhibited them from fielding competitive teams at the upper levels of their system.

Still, coming into 2010, Baseball America had ranked the Twins seventh among the 30 MLB organizations. Apparently, their top talent is lower in the system and/or concentrated in a handful of individuals. In the new 2011 rankings that were recently introduced, Minnesota slipped a bit but still remains in BA’s top half, at number 14.

The Red Wings article points out how the Twins specifically targeted minor league free agents this winter, bringing 17 new players into the top ranks of their system in preparation for the 2011 season. The clear intention is to put a more competitive product on the field in Rochester and Double-A New Britain via an influx of minor league veterans.

St. Louis is a study in contrast.

Despite the Cardinals system having been ranked substantially lower than the Twins – 29th by BA one year ago and 24th this year – St. Louis’ top two minor league clubs not only posted winning records last season, but they also made the playoffs. While Minnesota’s top two clubs posted an aggregate .325 winning mark, Memphis and Springfield finished the 2010 regular season at a combined .549.

The Cardinals did it predominately with players they originally scouted and signed. Over the last five years, the organization has added fewer and fewer minor league free agents. Their current count for 2011 is just eight external signees, many to help shore up a depth exposure in the middle infield. Further, it seems a virtual certainty that at least two of the additions, Jim Edmonds and Miguel Batista, will never don a Memphis uniform.

Of course, it is important to distinguish between Triple-A and Double-A team won-loss records and an assessment of the level of top prospects across an entire minor league system. The former is more of a measure of quantity while the latter focuses on the quality of a relative few.

Still, all things considered, shouldn’t the Cardinals’ often-maligned player development function receive some credit for playing consistently good ball with rosters primarily filled with home-grown players?

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