(KMOV.com) -- The unpleasant state of the St. Louis Cardinals upper minor league system is well documented. So poor was the Memphis Class AAA roster that the Cards were forced to fill it with minor league free agents whose sole role is occupy space until (and if) players in the lower minors develop.
Meanwhile, save Alex Reyes, every legitimate prospect in the organization who is ready for a close up has already had one. Stephen Piscotty was the last bona fide major leaguer and so, at least in Memphis, the cupboard is bare. To their credit, the Redbirds purged the system of players like Xavier Scruggs, Pete Kozma, Adron Chambers, Jermaine Curtis and others who were excellent Class AAA players who could not make that final leap to the Show. But there weren’t many quality players to replace them.
How did this happen? At least some of it can be traced to one factor – the departure of Jeffrey Luhnow, whose draft brilliance earned him the job of general manager of the Houston Astros. To prove what he accomplished with the Cardinals was no fluke, consider this: The Astros were a national punch line, losing 100+ games three years in a row (51-111 in 2013) but made the playoffs last year, just three years after he took over.
Luhnow joined the Cards’ front office in 2003, reportedly because Cardinals owner William DeWitt Jr. saw what the Oakland A's had done with Sabremetrics and wanted to run his team in a more analytical, data-driven manner. Luhnow had just about zero baseball experience and was hired largely because DeWitt's son-in-law was a business acquaintance. The hiring was not warmly received.
But his strategy was immediately effective. He established a baseball academy in the Dominican Republics and extended scouting into Venezuela. In 2006, he was named vice president of scouting and player development. He established his own proprietary model of scouting which weighed several factors that aided in the projection of how a player would develop. His drafts were hugely successful and he put together a minor league system so well stocked with talent that the Cards won five minor league championships under his watch, and had the best system-wide minor league record in baseball in 2010. Incredibly, the first three drafts overseen by Luhnow (2005-2007) produced 24 future major leaguers, the most of any team during that period. Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig, Lance Lynn and Jon Jay were a few, but over the years, his later round picks as well as his early picks also thrived. Kolten Wong, Seth Maness, Daniel Descalso, Sam Tuivailala, Greg Garcia, Tyler Lyons, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Matt Adams were all drafted under Luhnow’s watch, many in the middle rounds and some, like Siegrist (41st round) in rounds that are not even part of the current draft.
As impressive as that list is, there are, of course, many more players who advanced to the limit of their potential at some stage in the minors and were swept away, like so many before them. But the current Cards’ roster is testament to Luhnow’s skills.
Drafting players based on a projection of what they could be in 3-5 years is very difficult. Scouts look for players with at least three of the five tools (hitting for average, hitting for power, running, throwing, fielding) and the organization tries to project how those tools will improve as the prospect ages. Drafting has become a slightly more refined; about one in six draftees get the majors. Players drafted in the first few rounds fare better, at about one in four.
Still, since Luhnow left for Houston, the Cardinals drafts have been relatively poor. They did land Stephen Piscotty and Michael Wacha as compensation for losing Albert Pujols. Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales have seen limited major league action and most of the other picks are flattening out as they move to Class AA and the few who are at Memphis.
It is still too early to judge the last two drafts as players are slowly moving toward high Class A. But a quick look at Springfield (Class AA) and Memphis shows the Luhnow effect lingers to this day. Luhnow drafted two of the top five hitters in Springfield and three of the top five in Memphis.
Oh, and the Cardinal minor leaguer most likely to be the next late-round pick to shock the world and make the big league roster is 40th round pick Arturo Reyes, part of the same Gonzaga rotation as Marco Gonzales. He was, of course, drafted by Luhnow.