By Jack Stephens, from Cardsblog.com
The Cardinals pride themselves on their holistic approach. Put simply, the organization values every level of competition, constantly striving to develop their players at all levels. Using this philosophy, the Cardinals have found an elite level of consistency, finding success despite personnel changes, injuries, and other factors that affect all MLB teams.
We can all see that the Cardinals run an efficient and productive farm system; this notion is nearly objective at this point. A better question, then, is how do they do it? What practices and strategies lead to such consistency across all levels of the organization?
As an outsider, this a difficult question to answer with accuracy. It is nearly impossible to offer support for claims regarding individual and team instruction at the Minor League level. Due to a significant disparity in media coverage (obviously), we simply do not have access to the inner workings of lower level teams. With that being said, the Cardinals have one tendency that is both visible and well-documented: position switches.
Position switches are a risky proposition. Usually used as a "last resort" with under-performing prospects, the Cardinals have found an effective way to use such transitions to optimize individual talent, doing so in the early stages of a prospect's career. Using such methods, the Cardinals benefit their organization at-large, while also increasing a player's likelihood to contribute in a meaningful fashion. Due to the Cardinals adeptness with such position changes, it is something very easily taken for granted. In reality, however, such transitions are very complex, with several different motivations and implications. As such, this article will cover the nature of position switches, using current examples to demonstrate the different situations in which they arise.
Before diving into possible 2017 additions, we must consider some general information regarding Major League promotions. Specifically, it is important to recognize that promotions happen for a multitude of reasons, as well as at different times throughout the season. In a plain sense, a promotion can occur when a player is simply ready to take the next step.
First of all, it is worth noting that position switches vary heavily in terms of severity. For example, a player moving from third-base to second-base is not quite as challenging as switching from third-base to pitcher. Most of the time, more subtle position changes happen due to injury or poor performance. In 2016, for example, Matt Carpenter has spent several games at first base due to injuries to Matt Adams, Matt Holliday, and Brandon Moss.
Furthermore, subtle position changes can also be used to clear room for a top prospect ready to make his MLB debut. Because coaches want to optimize comfort and familiarity for the new faces, it is common for versatile players to make small changes to accommodate the new talent. For example, in 2014, for example, Matt Carpenter moved from second base to third base to make room for the debut of Kolten Wong.
In a different sense, the Cardinals also find success in make large-scale position switches, utilizing certain prospects' best talents to the fullest. With these changes, though, much more time is required as a player finds comfort and polishes his craft. For this reason, it is necessary that the front-office make these decisions early in their developmental process, ensuring they get the repetitions necessary to work out the kinks. Currently, the Cards farm system has two prime examples of such cases.
Enter Carson Kelly. Although he is now recognized as the probable heir to the legendary Yadier Molina, it wasn't always this way. In fact, Carson Kelly's career started in a relatively discouraging fashion. Selected in the 2nd round back in 2012, Kelly was heralded as the power hitting third baseman of the future. After two tough years at third, though, the Cardinals decided to make a change. The organization decided that Kelly should make the move to catcher. After a stint in an instructional league, Kelly played his first full season behind the plate in 2014. Since that year, Kelly has continued to impress, constantly improving his skills as a catcher. After spending 2014-15 focusing nearly all his effort on gaining comfort in his new position, Kelly blossomed as a hitter this past season. After hitting .248 and .219, Kelly finally exploded, posting a .289 average across AA and AAA.
This just in: there is no rule that says you need to have five starting pitchers. There is also no rule that says you must have your starting pitcher throw until he reaches 90 pitches. Mike Matheny took advantage of that second statement when he yanked Jaime Garcia before the second inning was over.
In Kelly's development, the organization showed great skill and patience. Understanding that learning a new (difficult) position may affect Kelly's offensive production, the Cardinals showed no panic, trusting Kelly would eventually break through. In this way, the skill of the front office revived Kelly's career, giving him new motivation and hope during his Minor League development.
The Cardinals took a similar route with Rowan Wick, a pitcher who played the 2016 season for the Palm Beach Cardinals. After a serious slump at the start of the 2015 season, the organization decided that Wick's powerful arm would offer more impact from the mound instead of the outfield. Just like that, Wick became a relief pitcher. In 2015, however, elbow soreness cut his season significantly short. As a result, Wick entered the 2016 season with little to no expectations. Specifically, fans and coaches both expected that Wick would experience serious growing pains as he gained comfort on the mound. In reality, though, Wick blew away all preconceptions, pitching like an expert all throughout the season. In fact, Wick posted a 1.09 ERA in 23 appearances.
After evaluating the prime examples of Kelly and Wick, it is worth evaluating the more general, widespread effects of constant position changes. In my opinion, this overall tendency of the Cardinals reflects the effort and precise nature in which the front office conducts their business. They are always evaluating players in order to maximize their potential, in turn creating a more consistent product at the MLB level.
Furthermore, such a tendency to switch positions fosters a true "team culture," in which players are willing to sacrifice time and effort for the better of the organization. Due to constant success with such switches, players have confidence in the decisions of their superiors, and are more likely to fully buy into their new role. Finally, this trend makes drafting much easier on the Cardinals; they are able to disregard the confines of position when selecting, finding confidence in their ability to find the best position down the road.
In other words, the Cardinals can draft players that truly fit their culture, instead of selecting a player due to position.
As the end of the regular season draws closer, the Cardinals are, as usual, playoff contenders. Though this year, many people might not refer to them as that. A remarkably mediocre year from a team fresh off of a 100-win season has, in large part, been caused by the dramatic drop in the quality of the team's starting pitching.