Under former general manager Walt Jocketty, now with Cincinnati, the St. Louis Cardinals farm system seemed to exist for the sole purpose of providing trade chips to be used to acquire proven major leaguers. That process worked to perfection in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s before Major League Baseball’s changing economics left the Cardinals’ approach lacking.
The organization made new investments in developing lower-cost, homegrown talent that could compete at the major league level, but the changes took time. In several recent years, the Cardinals farm system was ranked among the lowest of the 30 major league clubs.
While those kinds of trades are still needed on occasion, stronger drafts and solid player development across the system has led to a growing pipeline of major-league ready players that the Cardinals have kept home.
A number of youngsters have been called up from the minors to fill in throughout an injury-marked 2011 season in St. Louis, with several having moved into prominent roles for manager Tony La Russa’s World Series team.
Two reserves, outfielder Allen Craig and infielder Daniel Descalso, made their first opening day roster in 2011 after brief introductions in 2010 and remained with St. Louis to contribute all season long. Craig went on to bat .375 in the NLCS while Descalso went 1-for-3.
Craig would certainly have been a contender for Rookie of the Year had he not just missed qualification due to time spent with St. Louis last season and several disabling in-season injuries. Though primarily an outfielder, Craig also saw time this season at first, second and third base, while hitting 11 home runs in 200 at-bats and batting .315. The California native joined the Cardinals via the eighth round of the 2006 draft and was the organization’s minor league Player of the Year in 2009.
When third baseman David Freese (acquired by St. Louis from San Diego as a minor leaguer) was out of action with a broken hand, it was Descalso who stepped up to help fill the void. The rookie appeared in 148 games, a surprising second-most on the 2011 Cardinals, often delivering in key late-game at-bats while batting .264 on the season. Taken in the third round of the 2007 draft, the 24-year-old was the Triple-A all-star second baseman in 2010 while with Triple-A Memphis.
Even before the July trade of another homegrown player, Colby Rasmus, versatile outfielder Jon Jay was leading the club in games played. The starting centerfielder both played stellar defense and got on base ahead of the Cardinals’ big bats. Jay scored seven times in the six-game CS, tied for the team lead.
First having made his name as a valuable reserve able to play all three outfield positions, Jay became the full-time starter in centerfield in July and led the team with 159 regular-season games played out of 162. The 26-year-old, the Cardinals’ second-round selection in the 2006 draft from the University of Miami (FL), just missed his second consecutive .300 season at .297 and added ten home runs.
Among the September call ups, outfielder Adron Chambers impressed enough in just his first 18 MLB games to make the DS and CS rosters. His defense, speed on the bases and general enthusiasm has provided a welcome energy to the Cardinals bench. Chambers was the team’s 38th round selection in the 2007 draft.
Just two weeks into the season, a rash of pitching injuries led to the call up of relievers Eduardo Sanchez and Fernando Salas from Triple-A Memphis. Though Sanchez is coming off injury and not active in the post-season, Salas may be the team’s unsung October hero. Twice in the CS, the right-hander relieved a struggling starter, pitching multiple solid innings while giving his offense the room to rebound. Salas yielded just one earned run in six innings of work against the Brewers.
Salas had earlier played a significant role in stabilizing the evolving Cardinals bullpen in 2011. Discovered in the Mexican League in 2007, Salas was shuffled up and down between St. Louis and Memphis what may be a record six times in 2010. That changed for the 26-year-old right-hander this year, as he led the Cardinals with 24 saves in 30 opportunities (also a team-high 80 percent success rate) while striking out one batter per inning (75 in 75).
Salas eventually passed the closer’s job to another home-grown Cardinal, Jason Motte. The former catcher with the 100 mph fastball made his MLB debut in September 2008. Since becoming the unofficial closer late this season, the 29-year-old has been lights out. In the CS, Motte pitched 4 2/3 hitless, walkless and of course, scoreless innings while striking out four and logging two saves.
After his June MLB debut, rookie Lance Lynn also pitched very well out of the bullpen until sustaining what was thought to be a season-ending injury. Instead, in a major surprise, the Cardinals activated the right-hander from the 60-day disabled list prior to the NLCS and placed him in the all-important set up role to Motte. Against Milwaukee, Lynn pitched like he was never away, throwing 5 1/3 shutout innings on just three hits.
Starting pitcher Jaime Garcia, one year removed from a third-place showing in the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year vote, won 13 games for the second consecutive year while proving there is no such thing as a sophomore jinx.
Taken in the 22nd round of the 2005 draft, Garcia rose quickly, appearing in the MLB Futures Game in 2006. He missed most of 2008 after Tommy John surgery, but made St. Louis’ rotation in 2010 and never looked back. In his second season as a major leaguer, the left-hander helped fill the void created by Adam Wainwright’s season-ending injury (another key player acquired via trade as a minor leaguer). Still just 24 years of age, Garcia signed a new four-year contract with two option years this summer, so he should be in St. Louis’ rotation for years to come.
The common thread among all these players is that they learned the ropes while coming up through the Cardinals organization.
Of course, this list of recent minor-to-majors success stories does not even include the two most prominent graduates of the Cardinals farm system, first baseman Albert Pujols (13th round, 1999) and catcher Yadier Molina (fourth round, 2000).
With homegrown talent like this, melded with the savvy acquisitions of veteran contributors, it is easy to see how the Cardinals have reached the 18th World Series in organization history.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his weekly minor league column on Thursdays at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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