Peter Gammons: Cardinals set standard for pitcher development

wacha cardinals

St. Louis—On the afternoon of the 2012 draft, Red Sox scouting director Amiel Sawdaye and his staff had gone through all the possibilities and contingencies for what might get to them with the 24th pick. They had their top 10 and their top 20 on down, just in case someone they didn’t see sliding did, in fact, slide.

One on whom they dreamed, Florida high school shortstop Addison Russell, was grabbed at 11 by the Oakland Athletics. Ok. But as some of the names ticked away with the 14th, 15th and 16th picks went off the board, Sawdaye and the staff realized there were two of their ten top players left, and might slide. One was Texas A&M righthanded pitcher Michael Wacha. The other was Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero. Then at 17, the Blue Jays took a high school outfielder from Mississippi. At 18, the Dodgers selected a high school shortstop out of North Carolina.

“We started thinking, ‘maybe Wacha’s going to make it to us’,” says Sawdaye. But it didn’t happen. The 19th pick belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals, who took the 6’7” righthander with the projectable arm, big-time fastball command and changeup, angle that’s like dropping a ball out of a hotel room and a clean delivery. So Boston got Marrero at 24, and after a season in Portland is not far from being a major league shortstop. “Credit the Cardinals,” says Sawdaye. “It was a great draft.”

And after watching Wacha’s storybook ascent into Cardinal history and throw six two run innings in Game Two Thursday night, the American League champions were reminded of the hopes that rose and fell. The fact that Wacha was followed by Carlos Martinez, who was originally signed by Boston as Carlos Matias because he took his adoptive uncle’s name and had the deal voided by Major League Baseball; he eventually signed with the Cardinals for $1.5M.

Now, did the Cardinals think that after 26 minor league starts, 106 innings and five innings that Wacha would be chasing no-hitters and beating Clayton Kershaw? No. “Of course not,” John Mozeliak has repeatedly said. But they did believe he had a chance to be really good, and, like the Red Sox, started to get excited at the names that flew off the board after the Marlins took Oklahoma State lefthanded pitcher Andrew Heaney—who may also be very good—with the 11th pick.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of the 1983 draft and another righthanded pitcher from the Great State of Texas who slid all the way to the 19th pick. That time it was the Red Sox who had that 19th selection, and the names of pitchers kept being called and drafted. Tim Belcher. Stan Hilton. Jackie Davidson. Darrel Akerfelds. Ray Hayward. Joel Davis. Rich Stoll.

Now, truth be told, when Stoll, a righthander from the University of Michigan, was taken by the Expos at 16, papers flew around the Boston draft room. He was their guy.

So they went back to work. A pitcher named Wayne Dotson went. So did Brian Holman. At 18, the Dodgers took Erik Sonberg.

And, 19, the Red Sox were left with a guy named Roger Clemens. Stoll reappeared as a replacement player with the Expos during the 1995 strike spring training.

The Cardinals have done well by the draft, and Jeff Luhnow rode it to the Houston Astros. It was different in St. Louis, because of the base of scouts that have been in the organization for years and years and years. Some of the Luhnow number picks were named Tyler Greene and Zack Cox and Brett Wallace, but that’s ok.

Scouting is not a department off on an island. It’s scouting and development. “Everyone in baseball looks at that organization and asks, ‘how do so many of their young pitchers add velocity, learn to command their fastballs and get so much better?” one Red Sox executive asked Thursday. “They do a great job. That’s what we all want to do, and they do it better than anyone.”

Home run for Jeff Luhnow and the Astros organization: recently they hired Cardinals minor league pitching coordinator Brent Strom away from St. Louis, made him major league pitching coach and the overseer of the pitching development program. Hello, Mark Appel. Hello, Carlos Rondon. Mike Foltynewicz.

A couple of the Cardinals development folks, pitching coach Ace Adams and Roger LaFrancois, were at Fenway Tuesday, home again. Adams has been coaching for years, at Michigan (his Alma mater, where he struck out Dave Winfield four times in a game and recruited and coached Mike Matheny), in the Cape League, in the Boston and Montreal organizations (ask Cliff Lee). He’s had almost every one of these young pitchers, but declines any credit. “It’s all about organizational philosophy and people being on the same page,” says Adams. It’s about George Kissell and now Gary LaRocque—who could be a GM somewhere—running the development. The pitchers work on the fundamentals of their deliveries, locating their fastballs and changing speeds. The position players are worked to the bone on defense, on approach, and so much of the current core makes it to the big leagues with success after they turn 25, like Matt Carpenter, David Freese, Allen Craig and Pete Kozma. They took Matt Adams, the pride of Slippery Rock who was unimpressive as a college catcher, couldn’t get into the Cape League and played for Dan Duquette’s Pittsfield Dukes in the New England College League, because he could hit; one Yankee scout took him to The Stadium, begging to sign him, but was told they couldn’t sign anyone with that body, ironic considering what Adams might do as the Yankee first baseman in that park.

But it’s the scouting and development of the pitching that awes the rest of the baseball world. When Kevin Siegrist signed as a 41st round pick, he had no breaking ball, he had no fastball command. When David Ortiz went bridge on him Thursday, lefthanded batters were at .128 against him in 2013. Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Seth Maness and, of course, Rosenthal get better and better. “We have so much pitching we could trade two guys for whatever we need and we’d still be in it going into October,” says one player. “It’s unbelievable. But never lose sight of this—when these kids get to the big league, who do they have as role models? Chris Carpenter. Adam Wainwright. Find better than that.”

Watching Martinez and Rosenthal Thursday throw 38 pitches, 35 for strikes, most of them at 95 to 98 MPH and good for six strikeouts was something to behold. Miller and Kelly and Lance Lynn are due up, all throwing 90-something.

“We want to be like the Cardinals,” says one Red Sox official. “Contend and develop simultaneously. It’s not easy.”

With Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo and Brian Johnson, there is a wave coming with the Red Sox, a wave that Brandon Workman began when he jumped from the minors to Fenway and has been up to 97 out of the bullpen. “The Cardinals develop and use their arms,” says one scout who had advanced the Cardinals. “They get them to the big leagues, use them, then figure out how to use them down the road. Wainwright closed the (2006) World Series and could have won two Cy Youngs. Rosenthal could be a dominant starter. Little Pedro (Martinez) can be anything he wants to be; he has the quickest arm in baseball.”

So often these October runs are random or cyclical, but we are looking at the Cardinals, who have a chance to win their third World Series in eight seasons, and the Red Sox, for whom it would be three world championships in a decade. They are organizations who look to the larger picture and strive not to be the orchid for the short term season but the perennial, which is why in the last decade the Cardinals and Red Sox have each been here in the World Series thrice.

In the last ten World Series, either the St. Louis Cardinals or Boston Red Sox have been playing five times. Actually, in two of those ten World Series, they have played one another twice.

It’s about trusting in Dustin Pedroia, it’s about the advance work that knows how Kozma likes to come across the bag so Pedroia can take him out and ruin a double play. It’s about trusting in Rosenthal, and knowing what Craig Breslow does coming out of the stretch with runners on base.

It’s not simply about the safe, easy crunching of numbers, it’s about people and how they get to where they need to be.

  • Brett Grant

    Texas A&M, not Texas Tech.

  • Andy Stewart

    says Texas A&M