(BaseballStL) — In the past decade the Cardinals have evolved into the embodiment of new-school thinking, drawing praise from pundits and imitation from competing franchises.
An intense focus on player evaluation, acquisition and development coupled with the business acumen to keep the organization financially stable has produced a club that not only has youth at the major league level, but an impressive depth of talent throughout the farm system.
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The Cardinals Saturday rewarded the man largely credited with that evolution, General Manager John Mozeliak, with a two-year extension. The deal will keep the 45-year-old GM in his seat through 2018, and lengthen his tenure to at least 12 total years.
Mozeliak has been with the organization for nearly two decades. Arriving from Colorado with Walt Jocketty, he spent time in the scouting department before being promoted to assistant GM. With the departure of Jocketty in 2007, Mozeliak assumed general manager duties, becoming one of the early members of a new wave of executives; a class of GMs that looked at the game clinically and without nostalgia or reliance on playing experience.
“I value talent over experience,” Bill DeWitt, chairman of the board of directors said. “It’s worked well for me over the years. I think in the end if you go for talent, you have good reason to think you’re going to have success.”
Mozeliak, despite having no playing career with which to form connections, impressed early and rose fast. It was an ascension that surprised even him, knowing he began as somewhat of an outsider to the game.
“You think back to 20 years ago, not having a playing background was somewhat of a deterrent to really rise up,” he said. “Fortunately for me the industry has changed. It has become somewhat of a business that is run by those who see the world through those set of lenses.”
Armed with a business degree and an openness to advanced analytics, Mozeliak was a perfect fit for what was quickly becoming a new era of baseball.
“It’s a game that has changed a lot over the last 20 years,” DeWitt said. “Not the game itself so much but just the talent acquisition, free agency, arbitration, player evaluation, scouting - all those sorts of things.” Mozeliak began establishing a track record for cerebral decisions immediately, trading Jim Edmonds for David Freese, signing Matt Holliday to a seven-year deal and closing a one-year deal with Lance Berkman.
The moves drew criticism early, but Mozeliak would prove prescient, as all three players became instrumental in 2011’s title run.
This year’s club is a much different animal. Berkman is gone and Freese was traded for a defensive center fielder and minor leaguer. Carlos Beltran has come and gone, and the roster - most notably the pitching staff - is populated by some of the youngest players in the league.
It’s a product of St. Louis’ intense focus on player development and the ongoing pursuit of evolutionary thinking, something Mozeliak embraces.
“He burns the midnight oil. He’s up early and stays late. It’s a very challenging job,” sayd DeWitt. “You think of the major league club and people think of signing players and making deals, but it’s way more than that. It’s managing the whole operation like the minor league system and the scouting. Mo is in that same mode. Always pushing, always searching for answers to improving.”
He will now have time to search, as the extension gives him five seasons to work with. Beyond the business view, it was an exciting deal for the young GM. While the game has become bottom-line based, familiarity and loyalty still play a part in professional sports.
“I’ve been with the Cardinals now going on 19 years and this is really what I know,” he said. “St. Louis is the longest place I’ve ever lived in. Both my children were born here. We definitely call it our home and in terms of what other opportunities may have been out there I have no idea. Frankly I love working with Bill and his family, and I feel very comfortable being here.”
It will be only the second GM under Bill DeWitt, and manager Mike Matheny is only the second skipper to work under Mozeliak. With the GM's contract extending one year beyond his young manager's, the duo will be one of the longest-contracted combos in the league.
“I do believe in continuity. You see clubs that may have a bad year or two and they either get rid of the GM or the manager, and it may not be their fault,” DeWitt said. “I think you can’t really look at short term success in this business. Things happen, it’s competitive.”
Despite vastly different backgrounds, Matheny and Mozeliak have worked well together since 2012, something the Cardinal manager attributes to open communication.
“It’s impressive to watch how he’s got his hands on a lot of different things and he’s still available. He has a good idea on the baseball side as well, as far as what we do and what we need,” Matheny said. “For a young manager coming in, with the lack of experience I had, to have somebody like Mo- that we’ve been able to just work our way through different things and to have those open lines of communication has been invaluable to me.”
Mozeliak’s decision making has been invaluable to St. Louis, leading to a World Series, and two NL Pennants in seven seasons. Looking to the future, the Cardinal GM’s goal is less about evolving and more about caring for the well-oiled machine that’s been built.
“It’s really just maintaining it,” he said. “Seven, 10 years ago, we were the ones looking for best business practices. Now I think people are looking at us.”