BRADENTON, Fla. — Standing on the mound during Game 4 of the 2013 National League Division Series, Michael Wacha personified the evolving economic realities of Major League Baseball.
Rather than pay star first baseman Albert Pujols, a free agent after the 2011 season, north of $200 million, the St. Louis Cardinals let him walk. All they got was a draft pick in return. They turned that pick, the 19th overall in 2012, into Wacha, a right-hander out of Texas A&M. In 302?3 innings in the 2013 postseason, Wacha went 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA. During one of those starts, in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Pirates at PNC Park, he took a no-hitter into the eighth.
PG graphic: Right from the farm (Click image for larger version)
Wacha is 22, will make near the major league minimum salary for the next three years and is under team control through 2019. This is what teams now try to do: find, draft, sign and develop home-grown players, and the Cardinals are one of the best at it.
"That was always what drove the engine, was player development," Cardinals director of player development Gary LaRocque said. "[Cardinals chairman and CEO Bill] De-Witt's vision here, [general manager John Mozeliak's] direction, and how we do it every day clearly defines that that's what our model is and we're very proud of it."
Trying to find an edge in a market of financial disadvantage is nothing new. The concept has been publicized for at least a decade, thanks to Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball," and made its debut in the consciousness of the general public in 2011 when Brad Pitt turned the book into a movie. The Cardinals, Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox are among the best, but the Cardinals roster, which features several internally developed regulars and returns almost everyone from the team that reached the World Series last year, serves as a reminder for 19 games each season for the Pirates as to what can happen when it all comes together.
"I've seen [Oakland A's general manager] Billy Beane quoted that it's harder to have a competitive advantage because more and more teams are trying to do the same things that have been successful, and now our challenge is to do better," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "Not sounding arrogant, but working to do it better than others and yet at the same time trying to stay ahead of the curve and trying to stay ahead of what the next untapped market inefficiency is."
PG graphic: The payrolls (Click image for larger version)
Why build internally? Money. If you can develop a good starter, like Wacha or the Pirates' Gerrit Cole, you don't have to empty your wallet on the free agent market. Cole signed for $8 million, Wacha for $1.9 million (under different rules governing draft spending). Increased revenue across the board has inflated the price of free agents. The best of the best have signed contracts approaching, or exceeding, $200 million, and even an above-average starter could cost $50 million.
"Having young talent come up obviously helps you from a financial standpoint in dealing with the costs of doing business at the big league level," Mozeliak said. "We're a mid-market team, too, so trying to remain balanced in how we think about things, I think, is important to our success."
The Cardinals' projected starting lineup includes five players they drafted or signed: catcher Yadier Molina, first baseman Matt Adams, second baseman Kolten Wong, third baseman Matt Carpenter and right fielder/first baseman Allen Craig. Several young pitchers, including Wacha, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez, also are organizational products.
"The big thing too here is that our major league staff clearly embraces the young players that have come up," LaRocque said. "They've shown that. They have great patience."
Five presumptive starters for the Pirates - Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen - began their pro careers in the organization, along with Cole and relievers Tony Watson and Justin Wilson.
Strong player development systems also manifest themselves elsewhere. In 2009, the Cardinals turned Clayton Mortensen, Shane Peterson and Brett Wallace, each a first- or second-round draft pick, into a trade package that brought them Matt Holliday. They sent J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero, first- and third-round picks, to the Atlanta Braves in 2003 in exchange for Adam Wainwright.
The Pirates did the same thing with Rudy Owens, Robbie Grossman and Colton Cain, three of their own draft picks, to acquire Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros in 2012. They flipped light-hitting, defensive-minded outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and a competitive balance draft pick to the Miami Marlins for Gaby Sanchez that same year.
No organization can fill every position internally, and the Pirates and Cardinals have each plugged holes via free agency. St. Louis shored up its shortstop situation this winter by signing Jhonny Peralta, and a year ago, the Pirates signed Russell Martin as an anchor behind the plate. Smart contract extensions, to mitigate rising arbitration salaries of talented players, are also employed. The Cardinals locked up Carpenter this spring to a six-year, $52 million extension, close to the six-year, $51.5 million deal Andrew McCutchen signed before the 2012 season.
There is no escaping, however, the financial disparity between the two teams. The Cardinals have finished with a payroll of more than $110 million for each of the past three years and spent money to extend the contracts of Holliday, Molina, Wainwright and Craig to multiyear deals. The Pirates topped out their payroll in 2013 at $74.6 million.
Beating the rest of the league to the punch will become harder, not just for the Pirates and Cardinals but for every team. Limits on draft signing bonuses removed one exploitable area. More and more teams use advanced analytics to inform their decisions, leveling that playing field as well.
Huntington said the Pirates look around baseball as well as to other major sports for ideas to apply to their own player development.
"What can we learn from them on developing their athletes, developing their young men?" he said. "We look outside the organization."
The race to stay ahead of the curve is such that, as LaRocque put it, the Cardinals can't look back.
"We can't stop long enough to think about it," he said, "to be honest with you."
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.
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