It would be difficult to refer to John Mozeliak’s tenure at the head of the St. Louis Cardinals’ front office as anything but a resounding success. His teams have made the postseason in seven of twelve seasons and won a World Series, appearing in another. The Cardinals have never had a losing season during his tenure. But while his tenure has been successful, it hasn’t been perfect. I want to help him get there.
Let’s say John Mozeliak has perfect knowledge of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Like, he knows who the best players are going to be and he knows where they are otherwise going to be drafted. He still has to deal with limitations in the draft–he couldn’t, for instance, draft Buster Posey, because Posey was drafted before the Cardinals had a selection. He does not have perfect knowledge of other factors of the sport, such as international free agency and which free agents are going to age well. But he is now a perfect draft savant with mere Mozeliak-like competence at the other factors of running a front office.
Here’s how the drafts shake out.
Instead of: Brett Wallace at #13, Cardinals select Jake Odorizzi
Cardinals still draft Lance Lynn at #39
Instead of: Shane Peterson at #59, Cardinals select Charlie Blackmon
Instead of: Niko Vasquez at #91, Cardinals select Craig Kimbrel
Instead of Scott Gorgen at #125, Cardinals select Jason Kipnis
Instead of Jermaine Curtis at #155, Cardinals select Alex Avila
Instead of Eric Fornataro at #185, Cardinals select Josh Harrison
Instead of Anthony Ferrara at #215, Cardinals select Will Smith
Instead of Ryan Kulik at #245, Cardinals select Dan Jennings
Instead of Aaron Luna at #275, Cardinals select Tommy Milone
Instead of Alex Castellanos at #305, Cardinals select Alex Wilson
Instead of Devin Shepherd at #335, Cardinals select Nathan Eovaldi
Instead of Michael Swinson at #365, Cardinals select Juan Perez
Instead of Mitch Harris at #395, Cardinals select David Phelps
Instead of Charlie Cutler at #425, Cardinals select Collin McHugh
Instead of Scott McGregor at #455, Cardinals select Nick Vincent
Instead of Miguel Flores at #485, Cardinals select Tanner Roark
Instead of Joshua Hester at #515, Cardinals select Roberto Perez
Instead of Jared Bradford at #545, Cardinals select Brad Brach
Here, the Cardinals draft eighteen future big-leaguers–some superstars, some Just A Guy, but nevertheless, using late picks on viable MLB players is tough to critique. For the rest of the draft, they will pick some more big league talent, but none really worth mentioning here. It is worth noting that Mozeliak is still constrained by real-life budgets, and thus, for instance, couldn’t select Gerrit Cole instead of Brett Wallace–if the Yankees (in 2008) couldn’t afford to lure Cole away from UCLA, the Cardinals wouldn’t have. In 2008, these players don’t really make any dent–some became acclaimed prospects, but none are big-league ready. The 2008 season goes exactly as it did in 2008–with 86 wins but no postseason appearance to show for it.
Instead of Shelby Miller at #19, Cardinals select Mike Trout
Instead of Robert Stock at #67, Cardinals select Kyle Seager
Instead of Joe Kelly at #98, Cardinals select Brandon Belt
Instead of Scott Bittle at #129, Cardinals select Enrique Hernandez
Instead of Ryan Jackson at #159, Cardinals select Dallas Keuchel
Instead of Virgil Hill at #189, Cardinals select Khris Davis
Instead of Kyle Conley at #219, Cardinals select Paul Goldschmidt
Instead of Jason Stidham at #249, Cardinals select Brian Dozier
Instead of Nick McCully at #279, Cardinals select Tucker Barnhart
Instead of Hector Hernandez at #309, Cardinals select Yan Gomes
Instead of Alan Ahmady at #339, Cardinals select Nate Karns
Other notable picks: Matt Carpenter, Scooter Gennett, J.D. Martinez, A.J. Ramos, Trevor Rosenthal, Mike Fiers, Matt Adams, Dan Straily
The real-life 2009 draft is generally considered Mozeliak’s strongest, but it’s amazing how improved it is with perfect hindsight. And while selecting the best player in baseball in the first round is the obvious headline, the Cardinals now get the benefit of future Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, a future MVP candidate in the late rounds in J.D. Martinez, a young Paul Goldschmidt, and too many players worth describing in detail for now.
As for the 2009 season, the only Mozeliak draftee ready for the Majors is catcher Alex Avila, but with Yadier Molina entrenched at the position in the Majors, the Cardinals decline to promote the recent amateur to be a sparsely-used backup. But an interesting paradox does emerge for this season–since the Cardinals no longer drafted Brett Wallace in 2008, they no longer have him to deal for Matt Holliday at the 2009 trade deadline. So they don’t. And as great as Matt Holliday was down the stretch in 2009, the Cardinals won the NL Central by 7 1/2 games–this time, they win by fewer games, but they still handily win it. They still play the Dodgers. They still lose in three games, albeit without a fly ball smashing Matt Holliday in the nether regions. And then he bcomes a free agent, and the outfield-starved Cardinals, after seeing Holliday remain on the free agent market until January, still sign him.
Instead of Zack Cox at #25, Cardinals select Noah Syndergaard
Instead of Seth Blair at #46, Cardinals select Andrelton Simmons
Instead of Tyrell Jenkins at #50, Cardinals select Drew Smyly
Instead of Jordan Swagerty at #75, Cardinals select J.T. Realmuto
Instead of Sam Tuivailala at #106, Cardinals select James Paxton
Instead of Cody Stanley at #139, Cardinals select Mark Canha
Instead of Nick Longmire at #169, Cardinals select Corey Dickerson
Instead of John Gast at #199, Cardinals select Kole Calhoun
Instead of Greg Garcia at #229, Cardinals select Whit Merrifield
Instead of Daniel Bibona at #259, Cardinals select Jacob deGrom
Other notable picks: Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Robbie Ray, Adam Eaton, Evan Gattis, Alex Claudio, Kevin Kiermaier
With Jason LaRue a free agent following the 2009 season, quick rising catcher Alex Avila inherits the backup catching role, as he is the lower cost option. Avila isn’t enough of an upgrade over LaRue in 2010 to make a difference in the postseason race. Most importantly, LaRue is able to get out to the NL Central and away from Johnny Cueto’s reckless feet. Craig Kimbrel finds his way onto the big league roster for a successful cup of coffee during the season, but again, this is a relatively small win for the Cardinals, who are quite content with Ryan Franklin as its closer. While the Cardinals are moderately better with the new draftees, it doesn’t make a difference in the division or Wild Card races. But Mozeliak’s time to shine will begin soon. After all, draft pick Mike Trout is leading a pack of super-prospects on a race to the big leagues.
Cardinals still draft Kolten Wong at #22
Instead of Charlie Tilson at #79, Cardinals select Nick Ahmed
Instead of C.J. McElroy at #109, Cardinals select Mike Clevinger
Instead of Kenny Peoples-Walls at #140, Cardinals select Mookie Betts
Instead of Sam Gaviglio at #170, Cardinals select Marcus Semien
Instead of Adam Ehrlich at #200, Cardinals select Blake Treinen
Instead of Nick Martini at #230, Cardinals select Ken Giles
Instead of Danny Miranda at #260, Cardinals select Kyle Hendricks
Instead of Tyler Mills at #290, Cardinals select Travis Shaw
Other notable picks: Mallex Smith, Jerad Eickhoff, Cody Allen, Zach Davies, Kevin Pillar, Seth Lugo
Much of the strength of the 2011 class came before the Cardinals ever picked–Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Francisco Lindor, and Javier Baez are among the early picks of the draft. Kolten Wong worked out well as a pick–one could quibble and argue Trevor Story belongs here, but since the Cardinals are fresh off taking Andrelton Simmons, I think Wong makes more sense positionally. And, of course, they stumble into Mookie Betts in the fourth round.
As for the MLB team, this is where Mozeliak’s perfect picks start ascending to the Majors. Most of them aren’t immediate stars, but on a team that competed until the final day of the season to make the postseason, these players are very helpful. Craig Kimbrel, for instance, became a superstar reliever in 2011 en route to a NL Rookie of the Year crown. Alex Avila had a breakout second year in lieu of signing Gerald Laird and allowed the Cardinals to give more off-days to Yadier Molina, who did not yet have the sway to force his way into the lineup at will. When Albert Pujols went to the Disabled List, Brandon Belt was promoted and performed serviceably. And after Colby Rasmus was traded (in this alternate universe, Tony LaRussa still manages the Cardinals and he still hates basically all of his players), a young and ascending Mike Trout is promoted in August, though because his level of performance isn’t Mike Trout, per se, he is still stuck in a time-share situation with Jon Jay.
Considering the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, it’s hard to argue they wouldn’t in 2011 if you also gave them a few positional upgrades. They wouldn’t quite be able to catch the Brewers for an NL Central crown, so they would still be the Wild Card and face all of the same teams (because they wouldn’t have Paul Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks would be even more likely to fall to the Brewers in the NLDS). And yet, much of the drama of 2011 is lost. As Skip Schumaker and Jon Jay struggled in the postseason, perhaps Mike Trout breaks out in a 1996 Andruw Jones-esque fashion and the Cardinals win Game 6 of the World Series in a rout. We do risk losing this. I don’t think we risking losing the 2011 World Series on behalf of the Cardinals by any reasonable estimation.
The off-season becomes more relevant than ever. Tony LaRussa still retires, and because John Mozeliak doesn’t inherit foresight about hiring a manager with basic pattern recognition, he still hires Mike Matheny–it’s not great, but if the team is loaded enough, it shouldn’t matter. Very famously, Albert Pujols becomes a free agent, and if you thought the Cardinals didn’t try hard to re-sign him in real life, imagine them in a world in which they have Paul Goldschmidt waiting in the wings. And while the concurrent moves to the freed Pujols money no longer seem as necessary–re-signing Yadier Molina and signing Carlos Beltran, the superstars are a long way away from free agency, so John Mozeliak decides to still make these moves.
Instead of Michael Wacha at #19, Cardinals select Marcus Stroman
Instead of James Ramsey at #23, Cardinals select Mitch Haniger
Instead of Stephen Piscotty at #36, Cardinals select Matt Olson
Instead of Patrick Wisdom at #52, Cardinals select Alex Wood
Instead of Steve Bean at #59, Cardinals select Edwin Diaz
Instead of Carson Kelly at #86, Cardinals select Chris Taylor
Instead of Tim Cooney at #117, Cardinals select Mallex Smith
Instead of Alex Mejia at #150, Cardinals select Max Muncy
Instead of Cory Jones at #180, Cardinals select Joey Wendle
Instead of Kurt Heyer at #210, Cardinals select Jake Lamb
Cardinals still draft Kyle Barraclough at #240
Other notable picks: Taylor Rogers, Keone Kela, Devon Travis, Scott Oberg, Matt Duffy, Josh Hader, Brent Suter
Admittedly, this class looks a little underwhelming compared to some of the others. Also, this would be one of the most incredibly productive draft classes in the history of Major League Baseball, so maybe stop having such absurd expectations, you greedy lunatics. Also, because Mozeliak has foresight, he tells Josh Hader to delete his Twitter account. What a value!
This is the year where the SuperDraft Cardinals really take off. Mike Trout is an MVP-worthy center fielder–the Cardinals get a three-win center fielder in Jon Jay as bench depth. Jason Kipnis produces a 3.4 fWAR season at second base. Because David Freese was breaking out at third base as well, the Cardinals keep Kyle Seager in the minors, but this will be a nice piece to have. Paul Goldschmidt is able to emerge along with Allen Craig in 2012 once Lance Berkman, expected first baseman, is injured. We are deprived of Kozmania, as the Cardinals instead go with Andrelton Simmons as a shortstop replacement for the injured Rafael Furcal, but in his limited 2012, Simmons was an above-average hitter and was Andrelton Simmons with the glove. Not exactly bad.
Craig Kimbrel is even more of a monster in the bullpen, with an ERA barely above one and a FIP and xFIP below it. And since the Cardinals no longer have Joe Kelly, who was a decent injury replacement starter in 2012, they can fill in the superior Mike Fiers (3.74 ERA, 3.09 FIP).
But the headline, of course, is Trout. He represents a 7.3 fWAR improvement over the actual center fielder, who himself was nearly an All-Star. The Cardinals were never serious division contenders in 2012, finishing nine games behind Cincinnati, but they suddenly become division contenders. Anything can happen in a short series, but this team probably beats the San Francisco Giants (who don’t have their starting first baseman, mind you) and probably beats the Detroit Tigers. As such, for next season, the Cardinals will have their pick numbers adjusted. This is a little tricky, so here’s what I’m going to do–the Cardinals can retain, for example, their #19 picked player, but cannot pick anyone who actually went between 20 and 24 (the Giants picked 25th). The Cardinals will remain acutely aware of the value of additional draft picks and will once again not retain Kyle Lohse. They also probably won’t sign Ty Wigginton because they won’t need him (let me rephrase that to reflect the reality of the Ty Wigginton era–they won’t think they need him). Sound fair? Maybe not, but nothing about this exercise is.
Instead of Marco Gonzales at #19, Cardinals select Aaron Judge
Instead of Rob Kaminsky at #28, Cardinals select Sean Manaea
Cardinals still select Oscar Mercado at #57
Instead of Mike Mayers at #93, Cardinals select Cody Bellinger
Instead of Mason Katz at #125, Cardinals select Matthew Boyd
Instead of Ian McKinney at #155, Cardinals select Adam Frazier
Other notable picks: Kendall Graveman, Brad Keller, Trey Mancini, Mitch Garver, Chad Green, Jeff McNeil
Rather than describing the team and how it would contrast with the real 2013 squad, let me just post a side-by-side of the 2013 squad, which won 97 games and the NL pennant, and a team adhering to the rules of this hypothetical.
|C||Yadier Molina||Yadier Molina|
|1B||Allen Craig||Paul Goldschmidt|
|2B||Matt Carpenter||Matt Carpenter|
|3B||David Freese||Kyle Seager|
|SS||Pete Kozma||Andrelton Simmons|
|LF||Matt Holliday||Matt Holliday|
|CF||Jon Jay||Mike Trout|
|RF||Carlos Beltran||Allen Craig|
|C||Tony Cruz||Yan Gomes|
|IF||Daniel Descalso||Jason Kipnis|
|IF||Matt Adams||Scooter Gennett|
|OF||Shane Robinson||Carlos Beltran|
|BENCH||Ty Wigginton||Evan Gattis|
|SP||Adam Wainwright||Adam Wainwright|
|SP||Lance Lynn||Lance Lynn|
|SP||Shelby Miller||Alex Wood|
|SP||Jake Westbrook||Jaime Garcia|
|SP||Jaime Garcia||Dan Straily|
|RP||Edward Mujica||Craig Kimbrel|
|RP||Trevor Rosenthal||Trevor Rosenthal|
|RP||Seth Maness||Edward Mujica|
|RP||Kevin Siegrist||Kevin Siegrist|
|RP||Randy Choate||Drew Smyly|
|RP||Michael Wacha||Tanner Roark|
|RP||Joe Kelly||Nick Vincent|
Interestingly, this team might be worse on the mound than the real-life 2013 team, having sacrificed drafting Michael Wacha for a longer-term pitching prospect and sacrificing drafting Shelby Miller for the best player of his generation. But this is a stacked bullpen and the lineup…oh my, this lineup. Four of the twelve best position players in the sport (Trout, Molina, Carpenter, Goldschmidt) are in the lineup and a 5.1 fWAR player in Jason Kipnis is essentially a super-sub. This lineup is positively unfair. Maybe they don’t win the World Series. But they probably do.
Instead of Luke Weaver at #27, Cardinals select Alex Verdugo
Cardinals still select Jack Flaherty at #34
Instead of Ronnie Williams at #68, Cardinals select Brian Anderson
Instead of Trevor Megill at #104, Cardinals select Jordan Montgomery
Instead of Austin Gomber at #135, Cardinals select Rhys Hoskins
Other notable picks: Brandon Woodruff, John Means, Ramon Laureano
On one hand, the draft starts to thin a little bit from our perspective in 2020, because a high school draftee is, at this point, only 24 or so and may not even have made the big leagues and not everybody has made a serious dent in the big leagues. On the other hand, this team is so loaded at this point that who possibly cares?
In 2014, the Cardinals had Adam Wainwright, who was a Cy Young finalist. But here is where I offer a theory that is going to dull this experiment a bit–I don’t think they’d re-sign him. The depth is secured and under club control. Maybe Mozeliak is able to keep this information from Bill DeWitt Jr. and he is able to continue to secure his normal payroll budgets (some people, a group I like to refer to as “idiots”, seem to believe that Mozeliak is responsible for the team’s non-infinite payroll). Maybe he doesn’t. But as in most science fiction worth reading, there has to be a dark turn. And here it is.
I believe that baseball teams spend because they want to win but that, across the board, they’d rather not. I believe teams do value winning more than some woke fans believe, but that since they cannot assure victory, this causes pause. If you could assure that signing Gerrit Cole would have assured the Cardinals a World Series victory in every season of the contract, they would spend an unthinkably high amount for Gerrit Cole, but if you told them (the truth) that Cole would improve their odds but guarantee nothing, their fiscal conservatism kicks in.
I believe the Cardinals would have, and should have, drafted Mike Trout, and I believe this would be fruitful in extremely obvious ways. But I don’t know that they would have extended him, even with his seeming willingness to sign for below market value. I don’t think the Cardinals would go so far as to offer nobody salary arbitration, but I bet they’d be pretty hesitant on even very good players who don’t have distinct roles on the team.
Here is my approximation of the 2019 Cardinals, considering re-drafts and when players would become free agents. And not that it makes a considerable difference, but John Mozeliak still hires Chris Correa, so the 2017 draft is a bit of a dead zone.
Catcher: J.T. Realmuto
First Baseman: Peter Alonso
Second Baseman: Kolten Wong
Third Baseman: David Fletcher
Shortstop: Marcus Semien
Left Field: Aaron Judge
Center Field: Cody Bellinger
Right Field: Mookie Betts
Catcher: Mitch Garver
Infielders: Max Muncy, Paul DeJong
Outfielders: Jeff McNeil, Ramon Laureano
Starting Pitchers: Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, Jack Flaherty, Mike Clevinger, Noah Syndergaard
Relief Pitchers: Seth Lugo, Ken Giles, Josh Hader, Taylor Rogers, Will Smith, Scott Oberg, Kyle Hendricks
Detailed above is an undramatic existence as a baseball fan. Your team will be dominant with the best young players in the sport. Your team will win record numbers of games and championships. But you won’t have legacy players. You won’t get lifelong players, or even players in their thirties, for the most part. Players will come and go and be commodities to be consumed for the sake of your sporting interests in as literal of a sense as you have ever seen.
John Mozeliak is the greatest general manager in the history of baseball in this universe. The St. Louis Cardinals are essentially a perfect team. But is it worth it?