The St. Louis Cardinals had just wrapped up one playoff series and were headed to the National League Championship Series with a roster mainly comprised of homegrown players.
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
There was rookie pitcher Michael Wacha, who had flirted with no-hitters in the regular season and in the NL Division Series. There was first baseman Matt “Big City” Adams, who stepped into the void created by Allen Craig’s foot injury. And there was 23-year-old Trevor Rosenthal, who was thrust into that all-important closer’s role late in the season.
All former Memphis Redbirds, they were now front and center on MLB’s postseason stage.
Meanwhile, at Third and Union, the Redbirds already were holding their “preseason marketing meeting.” And Adams, Rosenthal, Wacha and others were providing inspiration.
“Big-time,” Redbirds general manager Ben Weiss said. “We just had a brainstorming session – everyone from the grounds crew guys to admin assistants. We didn’t nail anything down, but with all these guys going up, we can do something with giveaways and promotions. We’ll have an opportunity to do a pretty neat bobblehead collection next year. That’s what’s so exciting about our being affiliated with the Cardinals.”
Everybody likes bobbleheads. But when St. Louis scouts file their reports and the organization’s brain trust drafts amateur players they do not have bobbleheads for their Triple-A farm club in Memphis in mind. Rather, they have an organizational plan with a history of achievement and, recently, outsized success.
“They have the ‘Cardinal Way’ and it’s unwavering,” a big-league scout told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “They have a system that works for them. They’ve done an outstanding job of signing and developing talent and keeping it. Three-quarters of that team is from the system. One reason is that they can take some of those players and drop them into the system where, in a different environment, they wouldn’t play as well.”
Eighteen players on the postseason roster were homegrown. Those picks go back as far as 2000 when a catcher named Yadier Molina was taken in the fourth round. Now, Molina is a legitimate NL Most Valuable Player candidate.
But more amazing within the context of this year’s team is how fast players have zoomed through the system. Eight of those 18 homegrown players were drafted in 2009 or later and another, rookie pitcher Carlos Martinez, 22, was an international signee in 2011. Not yet mentioned and also notable among this group: second baseman Matt Carpenter, who made his big-league debut in 2011 and will get his share of MVP votes, and starting pitchers Joe Kelly, 25, and Shelby Miller, 23.
Wacha, 22, drafted in the first round last year out of Texas A&M, is the poster boy for the “Cardinal Way.” John Vuch, the Cardinals’ director of minor league operations, said before the Cardinals spent that top pick on Wacha they scouted and researched Wacha at depth. The result: time and again Wacha drew comparisons to Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright on the mound and off.
“A lot of times guys fail, not because of talent, but makeup or something else,” Vuch said. “Michael Wacha had a lot of talent, but he was an outstanding teammate and mature beyond his years. And we did get a great job of identifying that.”
Even so, that doesn’t mean the original plan was to push Wacha to St. Louis as soon as possible. His early opportunity came, as it did for several other young pitchers, because of injuries to veteran pitchers such as Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook.
“We don’t set out to intentionally fast-track guys,” Vuch said. “On the other hand, we don’t artificially hold guys back because they’re young. If they’re ready and the best pitchers on the club, there’s no reason to hold them back.”
Under different circumstances, Redbirds manager Pop Warner might have had several of these players for a longer period of time. But winning in St. Louis is the primary goal, not winning in Memphis. So for Warner, sometimes the satisfaction must come later – when players he managed here are succeeding there.
“I’m just proud of them,” Warner said. “They’re competing like we’re trying to teach them in the minor leagues.”
Wacha gave up one run on one hit with nine strikeouts and two walks over 7.1 innings in winning the clinching game in the Division Series against Pittsburgh. As Vuch said, “You can never truly simulate Game 4 of a major-league playoff series at the minor-league level, but you do the best you can.
“(Relief pitcher) Kevin Siegrist was drafted in the 41st round, Trevor Rosenthal in the 21st round, Matt Adams in the 23rd round,” Vuch added. “A lot of guys are playing big roles who weren’t high draft picks. But we tell all the players, once you’re in the organization, if you can play, you’re going to get an opportunity.”
And maybe, just maybe, a bobblehead in Memphis.