Thursday, June 6, 2013

John Mozeliak, Take a Bow

By Joshua Duffy

Being a Major League General Manager is an ever-delicate walk between trying to win now while at the same time setting up for the long term. Unless you're the Red Sox or Yankees or their West Coast equivalents, the Dodgers and Angels, a GM can't go out and reinvent a team every year, adding this piece or that one to overcome this deficiency or another.

Every move is a butterfly effect, having known and unknown consequences for years to come. Lose sight of that, and you can end up with an awfully expensive mess on your hands — and probably a new GM trying to clean it up.

Perhaps nobody has perfected this delicate weave of planning for the future and a commitment to the on-field success in the present than St. Louis Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak, who took over for Walt Jocketty in 2007.

Still just 44-years-old, Mozeliak has built the ultimate franchise — one that entered into the week with the best record in baseball and arguably the brightest future. Consider:

* While Cardinals rookies Tyler Lyons and Michael Wacha have gotten a taste of what real big league hitters can do in their latest starts, the rotation is still dominated at the top by Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn, with an absurd combined 232-49 strikeout-to-walk total.

You want your favorite team to go against this in a playoff series?

Wainwright: 12 GS, 8-3, 89 IP, 2.33 ERA, 1.011 WHIP, 84 K, 6 BB
Miller: 11 GS, 6-3, 69.1 IP, 1.82 ERA, 0.981 WHIP, 72 K, 17 BB
Lynn: 12 GS, 8-1, 68 IP, 2.76 ERA, 1.093 WHIP, 76 K, 26 BB

Of course we should expect some normalization on the numbers from Miller. He has an extraordinarily high ceiling as a starter, but he isn't reprising Bob Gibson's 1968 campaign as a rookie. Still, add in Jake Westbrook (1.62 ERA in six starts) when he comes off the DL as early as next week, and the Cardinals are well stocked with starting pitching, making them a season-long favorite to play some meaningful games come October.

As impressive as the pitching stats above are, perhaps even more important to the organization is the long-term sustainability of the rotation. While Wainwright is signed for (relative) big money at $12 million for this season, then $19.5 million per year through 2018, Miller, Lynn and 2012 first-round pick Michael Wacha are under team control for (relative) pennies for years to come. And then there's Carlos Martinez, whose electric arm will undoubtedly find a regular place somewhere in St. Louis before June 2014.

* As promising as the rotation is looking, the offense is in good shape as well. They don't hit for as much power as you would like (19th in slugging percentage, 26th in homers), and they don't steal bases at all (just 18 all season), but they are top-10 in baseball in runs scored (seventh), batting average (fifth), and on-base percentage (fifth). They've only been shut out three times, and the last time it happened was late April.

And just as the Cardinals batters grind down opposing pitchers in 2013, the offense looks primed to be able to sustain its success. While Matt Holliday's contract could rightly be pointed out as the one you might want to have back (hitting .245 so far this season, on the books for $17 million through 2017 with a team option for 2018), the rest of the offense is filled with value:

Yadier Molina, the team (and arguably NL) MVP, signed an extension through 2018, with the deal topping out at $15 million.

Allen Craig, with his 41 RBI (sixth in the NL), signed an extension through 2018, with the max payout just $11 million in 2017.

Regular contributors John Jay, David Freese (14-game hitting streak), Matt Carpenter (13-game hitting streak) and Pete Kozma are all cheap and under team control for years. None of them are what you would call "franchise guys," but teams can't just be made of up of "franchise guys" (looking at you, Arte Moreno). You need the grinders, the middle class blue-collar guys who are part of every winning organization.

And the Cards have several impact bats in the minors who will likely become part of the St. Louis equation in the next year or two: the system's top overall prospect, outfielder Oscar Taveras, could serve as a natural replacement for Carlos Beltran (or push Jay in center). Second baseman Kolten Wong, who is hitting .327 at AAA Memphis, could push Carpenter to third or outfield. And shortstop Ryan Jackson, hitting .323 for Memphis, could either push Kozma or serve as a trade chip if Mozeliak needs in-season replacements for a pennant run.

And none of that takes into consideration the two picks Mozeliak and his brain trust have to spend in the first round of Thursday's MLB draft.

When Cardinals fans woke up Wednesday morning and took a look at the standings, they say their team in first place, 18 games over .500 despite the 14-inning loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday night. They have the highest run differential in the league, very few discernible weaknesses on their current roster, and more solutions in the minors than they have problems in the Majors.

And they have all the pieces in place to say the same thing next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.

Take a bow, John Mozeliak. You've built the ideal organization in a town that loves its baseball. You've won a World Series, transitioned from the Tony La Russa era to the Mike Matheny era seamlessly, and even managed to come through looking good while the second-best hitter in franchise history spurned you in free agency.

I don't know if you'll win Executive of the Year (because who knows who will win what in baseball), but you should probably clear off a spot on the mantle just in case. You may look like David, but you've built a Goliath.

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