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Here’s why if I was a Milwaukee Brewer, I’d have an uneasy feeling hearing those familiar footsteps always behind me.
Enjoying an unexpectedly heady season, the Brewers nevertheless know their top pursuer is far more experienced at handling itself in a pennant race. The St. Louis Cardinals are stocked with home-grown players who spent little, if any, time stumbling around once they were promoted to the majors. They’re smart, perceptive and fully steeped in a winning tradition they have only enhanced.
As a prime example of what the Brewers are up against, the case of an inquisitive Matt Adams is offered up as the kind of player the disciplined Cardinals organization finds and develops. The anecdotes come from Joe Kruzel, manager of the Class A Peoria Chiefs, the Cardinals’ Midwest League affiliate.
To hear Kruzel, you’d think .331-hitter Adams was an East Coast beat writer with his queries during his minor-league days. Kruzel tutored Adams as hitting coach in 2010 at Class A Quad Cities.
“Matt had a craft,” he said. “He’s really worked at it. He asked a lot of great questions.
“He would have sometimes the question figured out. He picked brains of all the guys that would come into town, the hitting coordinator, the infield coordinator, even to the aspect of talking to the pitching coach to find out what the pitcher was doing. I’m sure he’s got a pretty good relationship with all the staff members up there, (hitting coach John) Mabry and David Bell, the assistant hitting coach.”
Legitimate media know there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Well, player development folks realize that mantra, too. They’d prefer to be asked too many questions than not enough.
“Absolutely,” said Kruzel. “When they buy into it and accept it and understand it, it’s a lot easier for their growth as a professional baseball player. If it’s always one-sided, sometimes you’re not sure it’s getting through (Adams’) aptitude to be able to process the information given to him was very, very good.”
That’s the rub for the Cardinals’ Central Division opponents, including the torn-down-to-be-rebuilt Cubs, drowning in hype for their Baseball America-touted prospects, but in reality still light years behind the Cardinals in scouting and farm-system power. The Cardinals are stocked top to bottom with developed players who are good, if not great – and are motivated like Adams to get better. That’s what the term “character” means in the scouting game.
I used to hold up the Atlanta Braves as the gold standard of player development. The Braves were known for grooming pitching, but they also spewed forth some nine players who achieved 30-homer, 100-RBI status either in Atlanta or elsewhere in a two-decade period starting with Ron Gant at the dawn of the Nineties.
Then I believed the Minnesota Twins reached Braves-development levels in the late 2000s. But the full effect of quality Twins player development was never experienced in Minneapolis. Reveling in small-market status, the Twins almost continually let their home-grown stars escaped when they reached a significant salary level. Torii Hunter should have a statue outside Target Field, but he’s on his second post-Twins team already.
Now the Cardinals may have surpassed both organizations. You don’t hear of them in the same breath, because the franchise takes after business-like GM John Mozeliak. But the boss’ scouting-director background with the Cardinals gives him a leg up on many of his counterparts. He carried on a very good player development tradition, and has only improved it.
To be sure, the Cardinals have good fortune in defying actuarial tables on No. 1 draft picks’ success. After the Braves-developed Adam Wainwright, the rotation mainstays are Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller, all recent first-rounders. The traditional baseball law of averages dictated at least one would be teetering on failure, while another would still be finding his way, hit-and-miss style, in the majors. Yet all hit the mound running and won soon after being promoted.
The Mozeliak organization really gets kudos when the backgrounds of the lineup are considered — Adams was a 23rd-round pick. Matt Carpenter came in the 13th round well past his 23rd birthday. Allen Craig breathed the relatively rarefied air in the eighth round.
Meanwhile, Trevor Rosenthal was a 21st-rounder. So from down in the draft, the Cardinals got two middle-of-the-lineup run producers, including a left-handed-hitting power bat in Adams, along with a crack leadoff man and a closer.
The Braves’ longtime style reportedly was to take the prospect strong on character, but maybe lacking talent compared to the “toolsy” guy. They’d take their chance on sharpening the character fellow’s baseball acumen. No bad apples were welcomed over the decades in Bobby Cox’s clubhouse.
“Makeup is such a big issue these days,” said Mark Johnson, a former White Sox catcher who now manages the Cubs’ Midwest League affiliate at Kane County, 40 miles west of Chicago. “Before everything was tools, tools, tools, but he can’t play the game and he can’t listen to instruction and apply it. You have him five or six years and he can’t do it.”
Now the Cardinals’ scouts work hand-in-hand with instructors and managers like Kruzel to produce talent from every direction, from every level of the draft. Emphasizing character has paid off as the Cardinals draft behind most other teams, having won two World Series since 2006 and contending consistently in other years.
Again, Matt Adams is the poster boy for the system.
“It comes down to Matt,” Kruzel said. “A lot of that credit needs to go to Matt himself. Matt had a lot of aptitude. He’s really turned himself into a decent, solid defender, which maybe in his younger days he wasn’t. But he’s really worked at it.”
Interestingly, the patron saint of Cardinals development may not be Mozeliak, but a ghost still casting his beloved presence on the organization.
George Kissell spent 69 seasons with the team after being signed by Branch Rickey in 1940. In his dotage, Kissell was a wise and respected field coordinator. He died at 88 in 2008 after sustaining injuries in a car accident in Florida. Kruzel was fortunate enough to get to know Kissell near the end. More importantly, Kissell’s career intersected that of Mozeliak’s and many field staff for many years.
“He’s still a legend,” said Kruzel. “The great thing about it is there’s still a good chunk of our instructors who had the honor of working with or underneath George, passing along the things George started 60 or 70 years ago.
“From everything I understand, George didn’t let any rock go unturned. One of his favorite expressions is to try to find the key that unlocks that player. We’re not allowed to tell the kid one time if he doesn’t get it, no, we’re not going to do it anymore with that kid. We’ll find a different way to approach him. We’ll find a different way to make that kid click … until that kid unlocks.
“One of George’s greatest traits was finding that key to get the potential out of that player. He had a tremendous way of connecting with a player.
“Anyone who had the privilege to know George Kissell was blessed.”
Seems that the Cardinals players follow the path of the organization itself. Factoring in some dry spells, St. Louis frequently produced their own players since Rickey’s days. But as time marches on, the system just keeps getting better. Without hype and pageantry, they have become brutally efficient. The Brewers, Reds and Pirates simply can’t match them just yet.
It’s an organization that the wannabe Cubs ought to try to imitate even more than supposed baseball shaman Theo Epstein’s former home base in Boston.
“’Mo’ has a very good plan in place,” Kruzel said of his GM. “He doesn’t derail that and does a tremendous job communicating that with his staff. They follow the path they set out for these players.”
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